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Is it possible to create a new cult wine?

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Some years ago (and I quoted her in New Classic Winemakers of California), Heidi Barrett told me that the success of Screaming Eagle surprised even her, the winemaker. It was like a “prairie fire,” she said: lightning struck ready ground, and the winery became a legend.

Recent developments and discussions have led to me inquire about the possibility of creating a new cult wine in California. A “cult wine,” of course, is one that is of relatively low production, that amasses, not jus good, but ecstatic reviews from the most influential critics, that has a “story,” and—bottom line—fetches the highest prices. The sanctum sanctorum of cult wines is a situation where the wine doesn’t even appear in retail contexts. In order to buy it, you must get on a waiting list for a mailing list.

Before analyzing how a cult wine might be created, let’s look at a few that already exist and see how they happened. I spoke of Screaming Eagle: before it became Screaming Eagle, it was just another Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Heidi Barrett was not then the ultra-famous consulting winemaker she has since become. Screaming Eagle’s location, off the Silverado Trail in east Oakville, was not considered the best. There was indeed a “lightning strikes” serendipity to the process that is very hard to explain.

Another cult winery is Saxum, which I also wrote about in New Classic Winemakers. Rhône blends from Paso Robles weren’t exactly cult darlings when young Justin Smith began his West Side project. It took some stellar reviews from top critics to launch him to the top. Ditto for Helen Turley at Marcassin, Williams Selyem and Rochioli, Manfred Krankl at Sine Qua Non, John Alban and, up in Washington State, Charles Smith and Cayuse. They would not be where they are today without the help of famous wine critics.

On the other hand, there are wineries that have spent tens of millions of dollars to produce quite respectable wines that, while very good, have not launched into cult status. They hired the most famous flying winemakers, the hardest-to-get viticulturalists and the most expensive P.R. firms, and still they remain on the almost-cult list. Napa Valley is replete with such examples. Could it be that the era of the cult winery is over—that it’s not possible to make a new one from scratch?

That is a plausible theory. The field is so crowded that it hardly seems to have room for yet another cult wine. A younger generation is not as interested in them as were their parents and grandparents. A meme has swept the country, along the lines of “Just because it’s expensive and gets high scores doesn’t make it better.” In fact, people, especially below the age of 30, understand that to some extent the system is rigged. They may not know the details, but their cynicism has been sharpened by exposure to a U.S. media that seems to advance people and things for its own purposes, rather than for the general well-being. In this sense, it would be very, very difficult if not impossible to make a new cult wine.

On the other hand are a couple of traits of human nature. One is that we seek novelty. Even cult wines gradually lose their appeal; I could name several that have over the last twenty years. Wine people are notoriously fickle. They are also are notoriously insecure, which is why wine critics are so easily able to influence them. Since we still have wine critics—and are likely to into the future—there is the distinct possibility that “the critics” (whoever they are) could anoint a new cult wine anytime they choose to do so. Yes, the Baby Boomer critics are leaving the scene but, as I have long predicted, they’re being replaced by a younger generation (Galloni is the prime example) that’s as influential as ever. Meanwhile, the most important wine magazines and newsletters maintain their critical power; even if their newer writers aren’t as well-known as Parker or Laube, they retain the power of the Score. So we still have the infrastructure in place to create new cult brands.

What varieties are most likely to be the new cult wines? Pinot Noir for sure. In my opinion, its future is unlimited; someone, somewhere, is going to make a single-vineyard Pinot Noir that rockets to the top. Cabernet and red Bordeaux blends are more problematic. There are so many; the market is so saturated. I suppose if a First Growth started a new Napa Valley winery (the way Petrus, or rather Christian Moueix, did at Dominus), the media at least would be waiting with baited breath for the first release, and if they universally praised it, it could soar to the top. But that’s unlikely. Nor is it likely that there will be a cult Chardonnay or Zinfandel. What about Syrah? It’s poised for a comeback. Growers are putting in new plantings in the best coastal locations, especially along the Central Coast. Prices for grapes are up. In selected locales, Syrah and red Rhône blends are doing very well, hand-sold by gatekeepers to audiences who don’t seem to be aware of, or care about, the conventional wisdom that red Rhônes are dead. So, of all the varieties, I think Syrah, or a Syrah-based Rhône blend, is in the best position to give birth to that rarest baby in the wine world, a cult wine.

  1. Ask these folks:

    “The Gray Report: Kenzo Estate: Money Well Squandered”

    Link: http://blog.wblakegray.com/2010/07/kenzo-estate-money-well-squandered.html

  2. ACtuslly, I had Kenzo in mind.

  3. I don’t know if I’m 100% sold that Pinot Noir has the best chance of having a few more cults. Watching the rise of Kosta Browne and the fervor from buyers who “only by Kosta”, show that Pinot has rarified air about it, but a cult like Saxum or Screaming Eagle? I’m not so sure.

    Cults are born in isolation, with few followers and whispered about only in certain circles. Cults don’t want members, they want BELIEVERS, zealots.

    With the widespread proliferation of critics, blogs, and events focused on Pinot and the rating thereof, I think the amount of exposure gained is actually limiting a potential “cult”. So many boutique/micro Pinot’s have a 90+ point rating from some Pinot focused blog, where ratings inflation and propagation is a problem. We can taste a wide variety of boutique Pinot’s at Pinot on the River in Healdsburg every October. It’s seems paradoxical, but the amount of exposure Pinot events and bloggers give boutique, 100-250 case Pinot can be detrimental.

    A related concept to the cult is that of scarcity. Something that I’ve heard from winemakers is the paradox of running out of wine. It sounds like a winemakers dream, running out as soon as he hits “Send” on his email list of DTC buyers. However, plenty of people in the business tell me that the worst thing I can do is run out of wine. I thought that’s what all cult winemakers wanted, running out of wine. “If you run out of wine, they forget about you and move on to the next, best thing they heard of.” Moving 100 cases of “cult” Pinot could be accomplished in a one quarter. Then what? You can’t make a living as a winemaker on 100-250 cases of Pinot. So it seems a “cult” needs some scale.

    Related to scarcity are Flash Sales and Flash websites prove that you can get Opus One and true “near cult” wines a lot cheaper than you can at the winery. Flash sales expose a “market price” versus a “cult price”. So the near cult winery either needed cash flow or had too much inventory or both, again, detrimental to the illusion of cult wines.

    The anti-establishment of bloggers and competitors to Laube and Parker are nearly everywhere on the internet and find cult wine an anathema to their belief system (unless that cult is in their echo chamber). Egalitarian voices are the norm in wine blogging, not the exception. The “drink what you like” mantra and the search for “value” are the herald of the Millennial wine blogger. None of these help a true cult wine.

    A cult wine is successful if it is privately valued and exclusively sold, like a unicorn start-up. The winery has to have enough wine to sell throughout most of the year and a repeatable process of excellence; exclusivity for only those that can afford it and if its believers have the currency, the belief and the whisper ability to create a cult. But like any unicorn start-up, investors/believers generally want it to go public at some point.

  4. The denouement of a “cult” Pinot Noir: William Selyem.

    Burt and Ed sold their venture. Ed retired and Burt moved on to launch Morning Dew Ranch in Anderson Valley:

    http://www.nytimes.com/1999/06/23/dining/a-great-american-wine-swirls-in-turmoil.html?pagewanted=all&pagewanted=print

    http://www.winespectator.com/blogs/show/id/45707

    Bob took over winemaking and grew the brand across more single vineyard bottlings to increase total unit volume. But the brand lost its “cult” following. It was no longer scarce and exclusive. And it didn’t appreciate in value in the aftermarket.

    Ultimately Bob moved on:

    http://www.winebusiness.com/people/?go=getPeopleArticle&dataId=144201

    Part of the consumer appeal of a “cult” wine is flipping it for a profit.

    As Jancis Robinson observed in 2001 on her website regarding Screaming Eagle:

    “The super-cultish Screaming Eagle, for example, is released at about $500 per three-bottle lot, which could immediately be sold for something closer to $4000. ‘It’s as though Jean Phillips [the bemused owner of Screaming Eagle] wrote you a cheque for $3500’, beamed one of her customers at an extraordinary tasting I witnessed recently in England.”

    http://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/california-cult-cabernets-ridge-monte-bello-is-the-steal

  5. Readers of Steve’s blog may not be subscribers to Jancis Robinson’s “Purple Pages.”

    With Steve’s indulgence, let me reproduce below her comments on 1990s era California “cult” Cabernets and Cabernet blends. (I am leaving off her individual tasting notes.)

    From Jancis Robinson, Master of Wine Website
    (April 15, 2001):

    “Is California dreaming? — an extraordinary assessment
    of the cult wines that cost more than Bordeaux’s first growths.”
    [“California Cult Cabs: Ridge “Monte Bello” is a Steal]

    For 200 years Bordeaux was the red wine capital of the world and its wine styles and prices set the standards for the international wine market. But in the last 10 years, quite independently of any European wine consideration, California created its own wine kingdom with a quite different aristocracy and legislature.

    The wines themselves may be made from the same Cabernet and Merlot grapes as red bordeaux but they taste quite different — exuberantly fruity and ready to enjoy at what a European might regard as an almost obscenely young age. Are they child prodigies? Or wine Minipops, those heavily made-up prepubescent girl dancers whose gyrations were so disturbingly distasteful that they were eventually censored from British TV screens?

    Most of these California cult Cabernets carry names which were unknown ten, sometimes five, years ago. But they are made in such small quantities — sometimes just a few hundred cases as opposed to the tens of thousands of cases of some Bordeaux first growths — that prices have overtaken those of Europe’s established classics. These can easily be four- rather than three- or two-digit dollar bottles, and even more in America’s beloved charity auctions.

    Demand is so much greater than supply that the lucky wine collectors whose names are on the all-important mailing lists for these California cult wines can immediately sell their allocation at a profit.

    The super-cultish Screaming Eagle, for example, is released at about $500 per three-bottle lot, which could immediately be sold for something closer to $4000. ‘It’s as though Jean Phillips [the bemused owner of Screaming Eagle] wrote you a cheque for $3500’, beamed one of her customers at an extraordinary tasting I witnessed recently in England.

    Gordon Getty, son of J Paul, is among other things the owner of Plump Jack winery in the Napa Valley and principal backer of the relatively new Russian National Orchestra. To reward a handful of fellow-donors to the RNO he flew them to Europe last December on his 727 for a series of wine, music and art events in England and Spain.

    From Jancis Robinson: California “Cult” Cabernets
    Page Two of Ten

    The main wine-tasting was a fascinating four-hour marathon over a long lunch at Waddesdon Manor, Lord Rothschild’s wine-minded estate near Aylesbury. About 20 of us, mainly the American visitors plus myself, Hugh Johnson and Michael Broadbent from Britain and Hardy Rodenstock and Hans Johannson from Germany gathered round a long table in Waddesdon’s palatial ‘Dairy’.

    We tasted flights of four to six vintages from the nineties of seven of California’s best Cabernets old and new: Araujo “Eisele,” Caymus “Special Select,” Dalla Valle “Maya,” Harlan “Estate,” Ridge “Monte Bello,” Screaming Eagle and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars “Cask 23” whose cerebral owner Warren Winiarski was the only person present who actually knew how to make these essences.

    The wines were served strictly alphabetically, so we started with Araujo whose efforts with the dense fruit of the venerable “Eisele” vineyard near Calistoga had already impressed me. Worryingly, the 1991 seemed to be losing its fruit but the 1994 and 1995 showed a welcome combination of fruit and rigour for both current and future drinking. The more familiar, suppler, Caymus offerings drew considerably more praise from Johnson and Broadbent.

    Dalla Valle “Maya,” a wine much admired in the US, also failed to win friends on this side of the Atlantic. This was the least familiar wine to me for I had tasted only one or two bottles of it before, so it was instructive to see a run of the first five vintages of the last decade. This dark, brooding, heavily extracted wine had a massively intense initial perfume of something like cordite or smouldering fireworks (perhaps something to do with the volcanic soil here) but then tended to turn into a damp squib without enough follow-through of fruit on the middle of the palate and a drying, dumb finish — quite an achievement for a wine so high in Cabernet Franc.

    Harlan came next, a wine made in the Napa Valley with help from the ubiquitous Michel Rolland of Bordeaux. Its sumptuousness had won me over on previous occasions but as in the case of Araujo, the oldest vintage, 1991, was looking a little too old already. The 1992 was literally gorgeous, however, and even if the 1993 like so many wines of this vintage was a bit constrained and awkward, the 1994 and 1995 managed to blend those vintages’ generosity with some serious structure.

    From Jancis Robinson: California “Cult” Cabernets
    Page Three of Ten

    But at this point, to the possible chagrin of the American connoisseurs, many of whom had these wines in their cellars, Hugh Johnson declared, ‘I find no grace in these wines at all. They’re designed for cigar smokers. There’s mass but no aroma.’ Tough talk.

    The next flight brought some respite for California though in the form of six vintages of Ridge “Monte Bello,” from 1990 to 1995, the only wine in the tasting from outside the Napa Valley (and by far the most keenly priced — simply because it is made in reasonable quantities). This lovely and well-proven wine was certainly distinctive, consistently delicious and characterful, well balanced, not too big, and the best wine was, tellingly, the oldest. This is a Californian wine made to a more recognisably European formula, one that requires age of a wine — even if, as Warren Winiarski reminded us, ‘the point is beauty not age’.

    By this stage a certain gloom had descended on the long table at which were expertly served this succession of glasses (34 apiece for the main tasting alone) and dishes. Had all these dollars really been spent on wines incapable of winning friends with some of Europe’s most experienced palates?

    The sea change among the sea of glasses came when the Screaming Eagles were served. European noses twitched appreciatively. Eyebrows were raised and the odd smile played on European lips. I thought they were delicious. In fact the 1993 was the only one I scored less than 19 out of 20 and they all had some way to go despite being utterly and seductively packed with sweet, lively fruit now — fruit which carried on right through the palate, unlike the Dalla Valle wines and the less successful Harlan vintages. Even Messrs Johnson and Broadbent were impressed. Hans Johannson when asked to comment on the Stag’s Leap flight that followed could not stop himself bubbling with enthusiasm for the Screaming Eagles. Honour was most definitively saved.

    Tom Black, wine collecting owner of a bank services software company in Nashville, had donated the great majority of these wines. If it had been me I would have felt distinctly protective towards them but he is obviously made of sterner, more objective stuff. ‘In California this is what they like. We don’t have to like it. We must understand it and recognize the shift in people’s taste. I will never believe any of the cult wines in 20 years can compete with a Latour, Cheval Blanc, Pétrus or Haut Brion.’

    From Jancis Robinson: California “Cult” Cabernets
    Page Four of Ten

    I would agree wholeheartedly with this assessment of the relative potential for ageing of the wines we tasted, but am more tolerant of the California Minipops, some of which I believe may in future vintages, like the much longer-established Ridge “Monte Bello,” offer a more Mozartian experience.

    The market today is impatient for its thrills, and there is a place for wines that deliver something other than the long-term intellectual stimulation of a great claret. Any wine that can deliver as much pleasure as a Screaming Eagle 1992, a Harlan 1995 or an Araujo 1994 deserves to be celebrated not penalised for it. The world of wine is richer for the emergence of these overpriced, precocious beauties – even if their crazy purchasers are not.

    Individual tasting notes reproduced below.

  6. Bill Haydon says:

    That there is an obsession with “creating the next cult wine” out there speaks to everything wrong with the mindset of Napa Valley. I think the image of the Valley would be a lot better if the dominant goal was to build the next Monte Bello over time rather than creating the next Screaming Eagle out of thin air…..and high priced consultants.

  7. More indulgence from Steve . . .

    Jancis Robinson’s tasting notes on Ridge “Monte Bello” and Screaming Eagle:

    RIDGE “MONTE BELLO”

    1990:19 [points out of 20] and not there yet

    Really appetising, layered, interesting mineral-scented nose. Massive dry (as in not sweet) structure with lots still to give. This Santa Cruz Mountains style contrasted markedly with the ultra-ripe Napa Valley ferments from further north.

    1991: 18 and at its peak

    Relatively pale in colour and simple in flavour but still round, full and gentle with many appetising layers. Quite evolved.

    1992: 18 and still climbing

    Very very deep colour, layered fruit. Ultra-ripe and very youthful. On the palate, big and tough and a bit of a bruiser. Massive palate impact. Dry (as opposed to sweet) but not drying in terms of its neat tannic charge.

    1993: 17.5 and extremely youthful

    The least impressive of this array. Very dumb indeed with a nose of essence of tea and the palate completely dominated by tannins. There is even a hint of some slightly unripe fruit. This wine will need considerable ageing.

    1994: 18 and youthful

    A much more restrained wine than the other 1994s. There is obviously lots of ripe fruit and ripe tannin here but both are well hidden and tucked in for future development. Quite stern in Ridge’s typically confident, almost Latourish style.

    1995: 17.5 and climbing

    This wine is so unevolved it is difficult to judge. Savoury but extremely deeply buried notes on top of obvious sweetness from ripe grapes. Tannins at present contributing to a note of dryness on the finish.

    SCREAMING EAGLE

    1992: 19.5 [points out of 20] and still improving

    Very very deep colour, Lively, edgy nose. Round palate but with revitalising edge of acidity. Very slightly drying at the end but markedly long (the longest-lasting wine of the tasting) and elegant. Sweet and appetising (the bullseye) right through to the end.

    1993: 18 and climbing

    Much less obvious bouquet than the 1993. Sweet and full and a great impact on the palate if less lively and subtle than the 1992. Sweet and almost overblown but with an attractive kick on the finish.

    1994: 19 and climbing

    Again, that magic combo of life and sweetness. Richly explosive on the palate. Plumminess gives way to tea flavours and then a soft, neat lively finish. Bravo! Not overwhelmed by sheer mass.

    1995: 19 and climbing

    Dusty nose precedes convincing layers of exciting flavour:although there is some of that dust on the palate too (and this ain’t Rutherford, but way over on the Silverado Trail). Again, though, the fruit carries right through to the end of the palate, much more than say Dalla Valle and some of the Harlan vintages.

  8. Also with Steve’s indulgence . . .

    Jancis Robinson’s elaborates on her 20 point scale:

    Excerpts from Jancis Robinson, Master of Wine
    (published September 16, 2002)

    “How to Score Wine”

    Link: http://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/how-to-score-wine?layout=printer

    . . .

    I would be much happier in my professional life if I were never required to assign a score to a wine. I know so well how subjective the whole business of wine appreciation is and, perhaps more importantly, how much the same wine can change from bottle to bottle and week to week, if not day to day. I frequently find myself re-tasting a wine at the same stage in its life. So far I have rarely marked more than 0.5 points out of 20 differently on the two occasions, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if I did.
    And as for tasting the same wine at different stages in its life, this is even less likely to yield identical scores. Quite apart from bottle variation there are differences in tasters’ moods and vast differences in how wines mature in bottle.

    Even I have to admit, however, that scores have their uses. . . . however much we professionals may feel our beloved liquid is too subtle to be reduced to a single number.

    . . .

    I like the five-star system used by Michael Broadbent and Decanter magazine. Wines that taste wonderful now get five stars. Those that will be great may be given three stars with two in brackets for their potential. But Brits being as polite, or just plain cowardly, as we are, almost all the wines get between three and five stars in Decanter so it’s not an especially nuanced scoring system — although I have been known to use it for wines likely to be very close together in quality such as de luxe Champagnes or mature vintage Ports.

    When even I have to admit that I really need a numerical scoring system is when tasting a wide range of wines of the same sort when readers, or subscribers to jancisrobinson.com, need a shorthand reference to my favourite wines. En primeur Bordeaux, for example; early offerings from the latest Burgundy vintage; almost any horizontal tasting from producers of varying competence.

    I know that Americans are used to points out of 100 from their school system so that now they, and an increasing number of wine drinkers around the world, use points out of 100 to assess wines. Like many Brits, I find this system difficult to cope with, having no cultural reference for it.

    So, I limp along with points and half-points out of 20, which means that the great majority of wines (though by no means all) are scored somewhere between 15 and 18.5, which admittedly gives me only eight possible scores for non-exceptional wines — an improvement on the five star system but not much of one. (I try when tasting young wines to give a likely period when the wine will be drinking best, so I do cover the aspect of its potential for development.)

    But, perhaps strangely for someone who studied mathematics at Oxford, I’m not a great fan of the conjunction of numbers and wine. Once numbers are involved, it is all too easy to reduce wine to a financial commodity rather than keep its precious status as a uniquely stimulating source of sensual pleasure and conviviality.

  9. Read this news article for historical context, and then access W. Blake Gray’s The Gray Report piece titled “Bouncing back from receivership, Cameron Hughes discounts Napa Valley for you.”

    Excerpts from the Los Angeles Times “Food” Section
    (February 4, 2010, Page Unknown):

    “Dark Days for Cult Cabs;
    Makers of high-end Napa Valley Cabernets are feeling the pain
    of the economy as demand for their wine plummets.”

    Link: http://articles.latimes.com/print/2010/feb/04/food/la-fo-cultcab4-2010feb04

    By Patrick Comiskey
    Special to The Times

    Is the Cult Cab dead?

    The current economy has created ominous rumblings in the market for Napa Valley wine. Demand for high-end super-premium Cabs, even so-called cult wines, has weakened considerably with the recession. Sales are stagnant, inventories are high, and direct-mail customers — a vital piece of the high-end model — are abandoning once-coveted positions on mailing lists, while those who have waited years for the opportunity to buy in are overwhelmed with offers.

    . . .

    Even wine critic and Cult Cab kingmaker Robert M. Parker has issued warnings: “Wines priced over $300 have encountered considerable resistance, with their mailing list customers dropping off, or taking much smaller allocations,” he wrote in the December issue of his widely read newsletter, the Wine Advocate.

    “Sadly, far too many proprietors of high-end Napa wines are in denial, and have failed to recognize the dramatically changing parameters in the wine world of the consumer.”

    . . .

    Not all of Napa’s Cult Cabs are dead, of course. Wines still in the good graces of critics like Robert Parker and James Laube of the Wine Spectator are weathering the storm well, including Shrader, Screaming Eagle and Harlan, as well as the more recently anointed, such as Scarecrow, Maybach and Kapcsandy. But many more may be out of luck. “FOR A WINERY WITH NO TRACK RECORD, THIS IS A NIGHTMARE,” Barrett says. “If they came into the market thinking they could start in at a $200 price point, they have no chance.”

    . . .

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