subscribe: Posts | Comments      Facebook      Email Steve

How a new cult wine can make it in today’s market


“We believe we are at the beginning of a longer-term change in the fine wine market that will generally compress the pricing of wines and separate out high-priced cult brands that deliver consistently good quality from the me-too entrants.”

That’s the startling money quote from this new study on the state of the wine industry by Silicon Valley Bank. (It was reported at Wine Business Online earlier this month.)

So what do you do if you’re a me-too wannabe just introducing your brand into this dismal market?

I had the chance to talk to a guy in precisely this situation the other day. He dropped off his new $130 Napa red blend at my home, which gave me the opportunity to ask him a bunch of questions I’d been wondering about.

The background to this is, not only has the volume of samples I’m being sent greatly increased since the Recession began, but so has the number of expensive new wines. And I’m talking not just from Napa, but all over California. I mean, $50, $75, $100-plus. So what I’ve been wondering is, what’s up with all these pricy bottles coming on in the middle of the Great Recession?

Well, the obvious thing, as the guy explained to me, is that it takes a long period of preparation before a wine is in the bottle, ready to be reviewed by Mr. Critic. “It’s like a three year pregnancy,” he said. So these new brands were conceived well before the Recession hit or was even imagined — say, ‘round about 2006, when we all knew that housing prices would only get higher, and never drop.

Okay, bad timing: 2009 is not an auspicious time to introduce a new brand. I asked the guy what his experience has been, and he said it’s even tougher getting into the distribution system these days than usual, because distributors are dropping little guys (or not taking them to begin with), in order to concentrate on the big “name” wineries that make them money. As a result, the guy and his partner have to focus more on direct sales: wine club, the Internet, and the old-fashioned way of schlepping samples around to gatekeepers, like sommeliers. In fact, he said, he’d just come back from Vegas, where he’d had success getting the wine into restaurants.

That made me wonder, How do sommeliers decide which new wine to add to the list? Or, more to the point, how does a wine salesman talk a sommelier into taking his wine? Obviously, the wine has to taste good; if it doesn’t, no respectable sommelier will buy it. But it also needs a story, because (a) the salesman needs to entice and interest the sommelier, who in turn (b) has to be able to entice the customer, especially when the wine — as in the case of the Napa red — will sell for north of $100 on the list.

Here are some of the things the guy was able to tell those Vegas somms:

1. Starting with the 2007 vintage the wine will be made by [I don’t want to say the name, but it’s another celebrity Napa winemaker].
2. Ten percent of the profits will go to charity, in this case at-risk youth. Gotta love that.
3. It’s an unusual blend: Bordeaux with Syrah. Sommeliers love phrases like “unusual blend,” which let them expound on their knowledge.
4. The grapes are primarily from Pritchard Hill [think: Colgin, Bryant, i.e., greatness by association].
5. Production was under 200 cases [as in rare, coveted]

I’m not being cynical here. These are actually darned good story points. It’s also a really good wine. I gave it 94 points, and if anyone out there can identify it, I’ll put you in a future column, complete with your picture.

Anyhow, I predict this new “me-too” cult wine will make it, because the guys who put it together did their homework and got it right.

  1. “Sommeliers love phrases like “unusual blend,” which let them expound on their knowledge.”

    Gotta admit, that one made me chuckle!

  2. Thom Calabrese says:

    Steve, a question, why do you write about wines or wineries and not name them? How does help the wine world further their enjoyment and understanding?
    To me it comes off as “I’m important and in the know and part of a club”.
    Either be specific, or save it for your buddies.

  3. JD in Napa says:

    Isn’t the whole “cult wine” thing getting a bit tired? Maybe back in the day with a defined group of hard to find wines from name winemakers, but today it seems that anything of small production and high dollar gets tagged as “cult”. I thought cults, by definition, had to have a following; it doesn’t appear that the wine you discuss meets the test. I see “cult wine” and an automatic “So what?” pops up.

  4. It’s sad that he feels the way to promote is through critics. Memo to Mr. Cult Wannbe: if it tastes like $130 a bottle, people will pay. Or you can chase label-mongering douchebags as a target market. Have fun with that. I have some friends in Orange County you should meet.

  5. I thought the tasting that critics like Heimoff, Parker, and Laube are supposed to be blind…? Makes me wonder how much he was influenced by this story too?

  6. When I was a sommelier the parade of cult wine wannabes was longer than the Tournament of Roses parade, and just as tasteless and gaudy. Donating 10% to charity and advertising that to a sommelier in order to sell your product is tasteless and I would have quickly taken points away and probably dismissed it entirely. Or I’d have given him $7 for the bottle he opened for me to taste and asked him to give it to a troubled youth. One with alcholic parents. Give to charity because you’ve been lucky and want to give back, don’t use it to sucker buyers into buying your wine with a sob story. Sheesh. But that kind of faux sentimentality works great in Vegas.

    And I hardly think Syrah in a Bordeaux blend is unusual. It’s fairly common in the world. Maybe Teroldego in a Bordeaux blend would make a sommelier wet his tastevin, but not Syrah.

    It’s plenty easy to purchase new “cult” wines when you’re a sommelier. In this economy the trick is selling them. Even 94 in Wine Enthusiast ain’t going to help. That and $7 will get you a meal at McDonald’s.

  7. T. Vierra says:

    The term “cult wine” has become a lot like using “old vine” in the sense that it really carries no authenticity in so many cases. Maybe Steve can provide his own definition of “cult wine” for the sake of clairvoyance…

  8. Dear T. Vierra, I’m going to try to stop using the term cult wine. If I forget, slap me silly.

  9. Ron

    You are so right.

    I believe it is an age-old practice in Bordeaux and Burgundy called Hermitaging.

    Paso Robles and Australia have been doing this kind of blends or quite some time now – except that they don’t hide it.

    The “me too” approach is kind of transparent. I would prefer to be wowed by an astounding example of a conventional cepage/variety or a surprising one – like a Suisun Valley “test wine” montepulciano that was amazing. The winemaker plans to go commercial with the wine and it will compete well.

  10. Arthur, the French used to “Hermitage” [or Algeria-ize] their red wines because the wines were so pale and thin and needed fattening up. That is certainly not the case in California where Bordeaux varieties always get ripe (unless they’re severely over-cropped). The reasons for adding Syrah to a Cab blend, then, are not the same for Californians as when the French did it.

  11. Of course, Steve, Hermitaging was intended to bolster weak vintages, but my point is that while this may be an uncommon cepage in Napa, it is not novel.

    Given the American consumer’s proclivities towards preferring bolder and weightier foods and beverages, blending or cofermenting with syrah serves to fatten up already bold and densely extracted wines (relative to their French counterparts) that might not do as well commercially.

    That may be why some California pinots are Hermitaged today.

    When you co-ferment cab and syrah (or pinot and syrah) you get a certain synergy that goes beyond beefing up the texture, body and aromatics you get with blending.

    So there may also be a desire to create a different (earthier? spicier? more peppery? or more animale-like?) character in these wines that drives this practice as well.

  12. Thanks for that lesson on Hermitage. I can always count on learning something new for the day from here.

  13. … just read the write up closer and caught that is was more of a GSM with 2% zin….

  14. Wow, tough crowd, but on point. The “sob” story perspective especially got my synapses snapping. Why can’t the focus be on the juice in the bottle? It seems that the accepted definition of a “cult” wine is anything the winery has the guts to put a $100 price tag on. There are plenty of California wines worth the $100-plus price point, think Verite, Continuum, etc. but there are also a number that are lost in the general sea of mediocrity that are priced far more reasonably. Trivum is one that comes to mind. No dollop of syrah here; just 100% Napa cab the way it used to be made.

  15. richard says:

    Syrah was over-planted in California, and the American public hasn’t taken to $40 Syrah, so it has to go somewhere. Plus, Parker loves dark, plush Syrah, so of course it will make it to blends. Add to this the fact that people wrongly associate deep color with flavor, and you have Syrah being dumped into everything. It’s not really “unusual.”

    Steve, you stated that wholesalers are simply sticking with the big “name” wineries, and I have to address that. I manage a small wholesaler that only brings in small, family-owned producers, often struggling against the liquor houses and their grocery store brands. I have had to, sadly, cut some small producers not because I want to, but my small market is not supporting them. If more “small” producers would create wines under $20, they would have a better chance. At the end of the day, it’s the end consumer that isn’t supporting these $130 dollar wines, not the small distributers. I would love to be able to sell $30 Monterey Albarino, and $30 Washington dry Riesling, and there are great examples of these categories, but customers aren’t buying them, and retailers are too lazy to hand sell. (Why should they, when customers keep asking for $5.99.) I often see the middle tier being bashed, and when it comes to houses like Southern and Young’s, deservedly so. But I, for one, would love to bring in more specialized and geeky products, but at the end of the day, the public isn’t buying.

    Steve, why not write an entry that asks people to start appreciating acidity? To stop being afraid of Riesling and Gruner Veltliner? To stop buying the same 5 varieties?

  16. Steve, very disappointing! You have revealed what the general public has suspected for a long time. I thought you and Laube and others are supposed to rate wines blindly without meeting/creating a relationship with those that give you the wine. Where’s the objectivity??? Are you a phony?

  17. If you want Syrah in your Bordeaux blend, go to Washington where it is fairly common place… And the blends will all be <$50. I agree with the many comments, cult has a follow, doesn’t seek it. And using charity to sell a cult wine is about as classy as selling water bottles to fireman at 9-11.

    Now, 100% proceeds–getting everyone involved with donationg grapes, barrels, bottles, margins & sales commisssions etc…in restaurants towards charity—that would be novel.

  18. Tom: Nope, not a phony. I did taste the wine blind, along with a bunch of other Cabs. As for “meeting/creating a relationship with those that give you the wine,” I’ve written extensively about this. Obviously I know a lot of winemakers; it would be impossible (and undesirable) for me to have this job and not know winemakers. As I’ve stated in the past, I don’t allow my feelings for winemakers to influence my scores/reviews. Finally, I — like virtually every other critic I know — have been transparent, that not every wine I review is “blind.” In prior postings I’ve analyzed the pluses and minuses of blind versus open tasting. It’s a never-ending debate.

  19. Richard: I did write something about this last year. See

  20. We seem to have two types of cult wines; our elite cults and our downhome cults – if Two Buck Chuck isn’t a cult wine, I don’t know what is. At over 400 million cases, IT has a story and a following.

  21. Oops, 400 million bottles.

  22. The wine is Boyanci.

    And I agree, adding Syrah to a Bordeaux blend is fun, but not new.

  23. On the “newness” of adding Syrah to Cabernet, I was just saying that this is a talking point for sommeliers. And the more talking points a somm has, the easier it is to sell the bottle.

  24. I love those two points, unusual blend and production under 200 cases. In our case, it’s “unusual appellation” as well as runs between 75 and 375 cases; and unusual blends for the U.S. (Viognier and Roussanne); the unusual appellation being “Ohio River Valley”. Don’t sneer! Two of our wines made the Top 100 Exciting Wine Finds in the World list, Tom Stevenson, British editor of the New Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. Although small, Kinkead Ridge Estate is on the international map.

  25. John Anderson says:

    I think Steve’s article raised some pertinent issues, as did some of the comments. “Cult,” by one of its definitions, means obsessive devotion. I grew up in this business and first noticed the trend in the 80s. I find many of today’s “cult” wines’ best use in guaranteeing a subject over dinner if you’re eating with somebody who’s really boring. But they also have a fun side, when people who don’t trust their own taste wear a wine’s cost as a mantle, as in The Emperor’s New Clothes.

    Regarding the wine’s identity, Steve challenges readers to guess. I’m not going to, but somebody will and might get it right. Steve’s confidence in its future might mean he’s a better taster than marketer. When you get down to it, 2400 bottles of anything at $130 isn’t going to make much of an impact except on people who think that’s what the business is really about.

  26. Scott Miller says:

    Sob stories and charitable donations have never worked in Vegas or anywhere else for that matter. The only “story” that might catch the ear of a sommellier would include terroir, root stalk, dirt compositon, drainage, acerage, canopy size…..etc…..Possibly the fact that a “cult” wine might have grapes grown on 60 year old vines the size of small trees, with a natural aquafor ,and zero modern irragation, that escaped the dreaded philloxera that decimated a wine region in previous generations ,might garner attention from the ever experienced somm……Most cult wine makers today are solely interested in taking on projects that have access to grapes from growers with certain specific properties. The Wannabes, without access to such fruit are exactly that, Wannabes….

  27. “I predict this new “me-too” cult wine will make it, because the guys who put it together did their homework and got it right.”

    Steve, your 94 point score has genuine validity for most of us.

    However, your statement (above) cannot have been meant to be taken seriously? “Darned good” (story points) really means insipid in your vernacular, right?

    What I do glean from this post is that you are probably the most gutsy, transparent, forthcoming and forthright winescribe in the current crop.

    Thanks for bringing the ball and letting the rest of us play.

  28. Ray, I have never analyzed my own words to figure out what “darned good” or anything else means. The communication is a composite of the score and the verbiage.

  29. Stephanie says:

    I was able to taste this wine in particular. These two guys really did do their homework. The blend is fantastic. It is worth every penny of the $130 price tag.

Leave a Reply


Recent Comments

Recent Posts