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Is the clock ticking down on cult wines?

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When I was California editor for Wine Enthusiast Magazine, I had the hardest time getting to sample the wines of Bryant Family Vineyard.

I managed to, two or three times. My last tasting, in 2012, was only because Tim Mondavi obtained a bottle for me to include in my tasting of the wines of Pritchard Hill, the region of Napa Valley that is not (yet) an official American Viticultural Area, but that is (as I wrote back then) “the best grape-growing region in Napa Valley you’ve probably never heard of.” (Tim has his own winery, Continuum, up there.)

Bryant’s Cabernets are routinely included among the “cult wines” of Napa Valley. Now, let me say that my nearly thirty-year career as a wine writer taught me a thing or two about cult wines. Today, six years after I retired, when I think of them, I think of exclusivity, of extreme difficulty gaining access (even for me), of super-high prices, and of a certain manipulation of the winery’s image as rare and difficult to obtain—precisely the kind of attributes that appeal to wine aficienados who have more money than common sense.

My most enduring memory of tasting these cult wines is of my visit to Colgin Cellars, a neighbor of Bryant Family’s on Pritchard Hill. After much difficulty obtaining an appointment, I was met, in the foyer of the winery (which reminded me of Le Petit Trianon, at Versailles), by the proprietress, Ann Colgin. It felt like a State Visit; never was I more uncomfortable tasting wine than under her hawk-like gaze, as I tried to shield my written notes from her wandering eye. It was not a welcoming vibe.

Other cult wineries were far more amenable to my visits. I remain indebted to Bill Harlan (who wrote the Forward to my second book) for always welcoming me, and for setting up the most extraordinary tastings. But even there, Bill continued to propagate an aura of mystique by insisting that we taste the Harlan wines in one structure of the estate, and the BOND wines in another, further up the hill.

Bryant has found itself with publicity lately that I’m sure is unwelcome by the owners. The San Francisco Chronicle’s Esther Mobley has been reporting on a lawsuit hagainst the winery by a former employee.

I’m not particularly interested in the details of the lawsuit, nor do I care about the winery’s monetary value (a subject of dispute). What I find interesting is Mobley’s question: “Is that business model [of cult wines] foundering in a changing wine market?”

Cult wines, whether they be in Bordeaux, Burgundy, Tuscany or Napa Valley, always have depended on the desire of wealthy people to own them. They’re not “better” than other wines; this is a notion I’m firmly convinced of, after having reviewed perhaps 150,000 wines over a thirty-year period. The word “better” is, of course, impossible to define; quality is subjective. I’ve done many blind tastings in which a $30 Cabernet beat out a $300 Cabernet. Anyone who thinks that a $300 wine must be ten times better than a $30 wine is fooling herself. So there must be reasons other than objective hedonism to explain why cult wines cost so much. (Mobley writes that the current vintage of Bryant Family, the 2016, is $550. The 2009, by contrast, was a measly $335.)

These other reasons, aside from the market force of supply and demand, are psychological; they include the prestige of being able to afford such wines, the ego-gratification associated with big spending, and a desire to show off to whomever the buyer wishes to impress. These are not completely inauthentic reasons to buy a wine, but they have less to do with the wines themselves than the buyer’s internal needs.

For many years the cult winery owners were riding high. Sure, there were always rumors of financial troubles behind the curtain, but since the owners never revealed their books to anyone, the rumors remained exactly that. Was Bill Harlan raking in a fortune? Screaming Eagle, Araujo, Dalla Valle? Nobody outside the inner circle knew.

Now, Mobley opens the question in a way only a big-circulation newspaper like the Chronicle can. She doesn’t answer it, because there isn’t an easy answer. The question behind the question of whether the cult wine business model remains viable is, Is a new generation of Millennials as covetous of these wines as were their parents and grandparents?

I would be loath to state that consumer tastes in luxury goods, including wine, change dramatically in a short period of time. They don’t. The Western world has had cult wines at least since Roman times (when the Caesars had their favorites). The crowned heads of medieval and Renaissance Europe, including the Popes, similarly desired certain “cult” wines. It was only natural that California—settled as it was mainly by white people of European descent—would adopt a model that resembled that of Old Europe.

Are today’s wine consumers under the age of, say, 40 different in kind? Probably not. They too are likely to want their share of rarity and exclusivity (if they achieve the financial means of acquiring it). But does this automatically mean that Bryant, Colgin, Harlan, Screaming Eagle, et al. will be as desired by Millennials as they have been up to now?

Millennials, many of whom are laden with debt, don’t seem to have as much disposable income as their forebears. And they’re craftier shoppers: if they’re going to spend bigtime on something, they want some flesh on those bones—not just something to show off, but something of inherent worthwhileness. And I have to say in all honesty that cult wines overall are lacking in this inherent quality. Yes, they can be glorious. But so too can their non-cult wine neighbors, at a fraction of the cost. I think Millennials, in this era of Trump, are exquisitely sensitive to false claims and misleading image-making (as well they should be). They don’t want to feel like suckers, and this is why I suspect that cult wines—at least most of those in Napa Valley—may indeed have reached a tipping point. In fact, it may be that their uber-wealthy owners are keeping them alive, not through profits on sales, but by dipping into their personal fortunes.

I don’t foresee a wave of closures. But we have seen cult wineries sold (Araujo, Colgin, Screaming Eagle), and we’ve also seen wineries break into cult status that never used to be there: Chateau Potelle, for instance. (Good for my old friend Jean-Noel!) What I think will eventually prove to be the case is that a handful of today’s cult wines will still be treasured decades from now, while others will have enjoyed their fifteen years of fame and retreated into the background. And there’s this: it was easy for a wine to be defined as “cult” when the critical world was dominated by a few reviewers. It’s far more difficult nowadays. If the wine critics of the future are honest—if they taste blind, that is, and don’t have preconceived notions that cult wines are automatically the best—then Napa’s cult Cabs may already be past the tipping point.

  1. John Buehler says:

    Steve,

    Great read. I had to respond. Thank you for writing about what I’ve always believed for more than four decades.

    Fifteen years of fifteen minutes of fame, it’s unfortunate that

    those “cult wines” are held to different standard, based solely on

    perception and a “fool and his money.” sometimes without regard to real quality. I could go on…………… but enough said. Thanks again
    for “airing it out”.

    Sincerely,

    John

  2. Thanks for your comment, John. Blind tasting is the answer. But I don’t think many reviewers use it…

  3. “ it was easy for a wine to be defined as “cult” when the critical world was dominated by a few reviewers.”

    Steve, I think you hit on a critical dynamic. And perhaps the subject of a more detailed article. Based on my observations, Millennials, by and large, don’t put nearly as much faith in a single critic’s review of a wine as they do in a crowd-reviewed rating for a wine. They’re just not as impressed with what Galoni, Parker, or others have to say. These aren’t household names for a lot of them. Maybe it’s an inherent skepticism that critics are truly independent and unbiased. But twenty years from now, the impact of professional critics may be far less on this demographic than the cult wine vintners believe. Because let’s be honest…a number of cult wineries got that status by intentionally tailoring their flavor profile to please the palates of influential critics.

  4. On a few occasions I have blind tasted Harlan , Bryant and Colgin. In this critical arena we always find flaws like elevated VA, brett and even residual sugar that are even more present in these uber expensive wines than their less expensive cohorts. While it is a privilege to taste these bench mark wines, they are not exceptional, but then again, I don’t care for Amarone either.
    Thanks for the article.

  5. Thomas Woodley says:

    I think “cult” wines for those of my generation (and younger) are those that are exceptional in their unique excellence regardless of price. Not only do we lack the capital to “invest” in wines like those mentioned here, we’re disinclined to do as it completes the circle of the scam; paying exorbitant prices for probably very good but hopelessly overvalued wines makes us as buyers complicit in the charade. We detest this. It’s the same reason we don’t join country clubs. We’re sensitive to ostentation and when we spend money, there’s got to be more to the bargain than having acquired Expensive Thing X.

  6. Jim Kuroski says:

    The “Trump era” reference in your article has no value. Let me get this straight, under previous administrations that demographic was ok spending and cult wines were affordable? I didn’t vote for Trump, but the I guess like so many unhinged people today, you will say when your guy or gal gets in the White House “all will be right again”. They are saddled with high student loan debt and wages for the most part that have not kept up with high housing costs. They are rejecting people telling they “have” to buy something just “because”. Good for them! Coming by the way, from a 62 year old with 39 years in the business.

  7. You actually agree 100% with what I wrote, but you have misconstrued my point about Trump. One thing younger people have learned is that authorities LIE. Young people are understandably suspicious of all authority, including that of wine critics. As if to underscore the point, Trump has told about 10,000 lies (according to the Washington Post). Young people (except for morons like the proud boys) are completely turned off by him. When Democrats replace him as president, much of the damage he has caused will begin to be repaired. “All” will not be right again: but much of what he has broken will be fixed.

  8. Jim Kuroski says:

    Steve, I respect your long career in the business, and I don’t want to to turn this in to a political debate. But we look to be about the same age, the Democratic Party doesn’t lie? Do you recall LBJ and Viet Nam?Don’t write me back and blame it on Nixon.LBJ started and lied about and then Nixon took over for the second part and he lied about too. We can start there in my lifetime and move through each administration if you would like. BOTH parties lie all the time. Members of either party will say and do anything to get power. Again, I respect your long career and I won’t clog up your space with politics, I promise. The best thing for all of us would be more choices, anything thing that makes both of them nervous, I’m all for! Best regards.Jim

  9. JB Butler says:

    @Jim Kuroski:

    “when your guy or gal gets in the White House “all will be right again”.
    No one said this, Jim, let alone Steve. Nor is Steve “unhinged.” It’s simply that Trump has unilaterally created a dynamic in which statements of “fact” coming from supposed leaders or experts are always suspect. Naturally, this dubiousness and apprehension extend to wine. Coming, by the way, from a 47-year old guy with 26 years in the business.

  10. Jim, the 2 parties are NOT the same. Democrats support abortion rights, LGBTQ rights, and civil rights for minorities. Democrats support finding solutions to climate change. Democrats do not support alt.right groups like the proud boys and the KKK. Democrats insist on a clear dividing line between religion and government. Democrats favor raising taxes on the super-rich while Republicans insist on cutting Warren Buffett’s taxes. Democrats believe that brown-skinned people from south of the border add to America’s diversity; they are not “rapists and criminals,” as Republicans say. Democrats believe in science; Republicans believe in bullshit Biblical superstitions they hear from their rapacious “pastors.” I could go on on. It is an insult to my intelligence, and to others like me, to suggest any sort of moral equity between Republicans and Democrats.

  11. Jim Kuroski says:

    Gentlemen, I agree with most of the Democratic agenda that you both outlined. The primary difference between us is that I want more choices and more voice for everyone. I do not give either party any pass on the greed and abuse of power that both exhibit.
    What is wrong about asking both parties to do the following?
    Term limits
    No donation from any person or corporation over $100
    Elimination of all PAC’s and Super PAC’s
    I don’t understand why people who call themselves “progressives” attack people such as myself who is one as you two appear to be because I call out your party along with the Republicans. We want the same things I just want them to stop taking money from just about anyone who will give it to them
    Power to the people.. through a new way of doing things. If that scares or bothers either party I could care less. We most likely want many of the same things, but some of our old ways of doing things have to be changed. I’m still waiting for you to defend LBJ and Viet Nam..I thought you said Democrats don’t lie??

  12. There was no actual reporting on the Bryant Family Vineyards case by Ester Mobley. I broke that story on June 3 and there is a lot more to the case than she reported. This link has the details

    And, as you can see by the screencap in that link, she did not honor her commitment to credit me.

    Stay tuned, there will be a lot more court action soon.

  13. Jae in NY says:

    Steve, stop feeding this troll. As a millennial, I for one can endorse your representation of my cohort.

  14. Politics is the art of compromise. Nobody gets 100% of what he wants. It’s the way the system works. There’s no alternative to it, except fighting. Jim Kuroski, the things you want may be admirable–but you can’t reasonably expect to get everything. The question for you is, Are you realistic enough to accept what you can get, work to get the rest at a later date, and support whomever the Democratic nominee is?

  15. Tom Ferrell says:

    One definition of cult is “a misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular person or thing.” Like wine or people, admiration grows or fades over time. After a couple hundred years however, one can look back at either and make a pretty good assessment of worth…and determine what was, in fact, a cult.

  16. Bob Henry says:

    #Sigh!

    URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UPw-3e_pzqU

    . . . with more blog comments.

    Excerpt from The Wall Street Journal “Opinion” Section
    (June 26, 2019, Page A17):

    “Trump’s Polling Proves Character Counts;
    Americans give him low marks on personal qualities and discount the strong economy.”

    URL: https://www.wsj.com/articles/trumps-poll-numbers-prove-character-counts-11561503463

    By William A. Galston
    “POLITICS & IDEAS” Column

    “The American people have specific complaints about Mr. Trump’s behavior, and about the character traits underlying it. Multiple surveys over the past year have found that most Americans regard the president as dishonest. …”

  17. Bob Henry says:

    — ONE SUCH SURVEY —

    Excerpt from The Hill
    (posted March 5, 2019):

    “[Quinnipiac University] Poll: 65 percent of Americans say Trump is not honest”

    URL: https://thehill.com/homenews/administration/432698-poll-65-percent-americans-say-trump-is-not-honest

    By Justin Wise

    “More than six in 10 American voters polled in a new Quinnipiac University Poll survey say President Trump is not an honest person.

    “The survey, released Tuesday, found that 65 percent of respondents believe Trump is dishonest, a new high. Just 30 percent said that the president is honest.

    “The responses were heavily split along party lines. Ninety-five percent of Democrats surveyed said Trump was dishonest, while 66 percent of Republicans said Trump was truthful. Twenty-six percent of GOP respondents said Trump was dishonest.

    “Sixty-nine percent of the independents polled said Trump was not honest.”

    — A SECOND RELATED SURVEY —

    Excerpt from the Pew Research Center “FACTANK: Numbers in the News”
    (posted January 30, 2019):

    “Partisans agree political leaders should be honest and ethical,
    disagree whether Trump fits the bill”

    URL: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/01/30/partisans-agree-political-leaders-should-be-honest-and-ethical-disagree-whether-trump-fits-the-bill/

    By John Gramlich
    Writer/Editor

    “In a Pew Research Center survey conducted last summer, 91% of Americans said it is essential for someone in high political office to be honest and ethical –- the top attribute out of nine asked about in the survey. There were no partisan differences in this assessment: Nearly identical shares of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents (90%) and Republicans and Republican leaners (91%) said this. There were partisan differences over whether several other qualities –- such as maintaining a tone of civility and respect and working well under pressure –- are essential for political leadership.”

  18. Bob Henry says:

    Okay, getting back to the subject at hand: “cult” wines . . .

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

    “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.”

    URL: http://articles.latimes.com/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.’ ”

    — AND —

    Excerpts from the Los Angeles Times “Food” Section
    (April 14, 2011, Page E1ff):

    “$15 Wine the New Normal”

    URL: http://articles.latimes.com/2011/apr/14/food/la-fo-economical-wines-20110414

    By Patrick Comiskey
    Times Staff Writer

    “There are signs the American economy is improving, at least as far as wine shops are concerned. But if you think that means a return to the glory days of $150 cult Cabernets . . . well, not so fast.

    “Instead, most wine store owners . . . are describing a new normal, one in which the high-margin sales of wines in the $50 to $150 range are difficult — indeed, some would say they’re almost a thing of the past.”

  19. Bob Henry says:

    Steve writes:

    “Cult wines, whether they be in Bordeaux, Burgundy, Tuscany or Napa Valley, always have depended on the desire of wealthy people to own them. They’re not ‘better’ than other wines; this is a notion I’m firmly convinced of, after having reviewed perhaps 150,000 wines over a thirty-year period. The word “better” is, of course, impossible to define; quality is subjective. I’ve done many blind tastings in which a $30 Cabernet beat out a $300 Cabernet. …”

    I concur.

    At my organized single-blind single vintage California Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet-blend comparison tastings, I made it a point to mix pricey “cult” wines with more moderately priced wines.

    It was always satisfying to find tasting participants adopting “Top 3 Preference” wines that cost less than the nearly 10% California state sales tax on mailing list purchased “cult” wines.

    The economic phenomenon of “Veblen goods” [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Veblen_good] and “Giffen goods” [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giffen_good] is very much in evidence when it comes to fine wine pricing.

  20. Bob Henry says:

    To be fair to vintners, input costs do play a large role in pricing.

    Excerpt from The Wall Street Journal “Off-Duty” Section
    (March 19, 2011, Page Unknown):

    “The Most Powerful Grower in Napa”

    URL: http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748704893604576200842057088206

    By Lettie Teague
    “On Wine” Column

    “The Beckstoffer pricing formula calls for the price of a ton of To Kalon Cabernet grapes to equal 100 times the current retail price of a bottle. (This is true of all his heritage vineyards.) For example, if a bottle of Paul Hobbs Beckstoffer To Kalon Cabernet Sauvignon costs $250 (as it did at my local store) then Mr. Hobbs paid $25,000 for a ton of the fruit plus a base amount per acre that may vary. By contrast, the average price per ton of (average) Napa Cabernet is just north of $4,000.”

  21. Bob Henry says:

    On the subject of luxury goods pricing, consider these economic phenomena:

    Veblen goods – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Veblen_good

    [Excerpt: “Some types of luxury goods, such as high-end wines, designer handbags, and luxury cars, are Veblen goods, in that decreasing their prices decreases people’s preference for buying them because they are no longer perceived as exclusive or high-status products.”]

    Giffen goods – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giffen_good

    [Excerpt: “Some types of premium goods (such as expensive French wines, or celebrity-endorsed perfumes) are sometimes claimed to be Giffen goods. It is claimed that lowering the price of these high status goods can decrease demand because they are no longer perceived as exclusive or high status products.”]

  22. Bob Henry says:

    Here’s a Veblen good / Giffen good found “in the wild”:

    From Wine-Searcher
    (posted July 3, 2019):

    “Record Bordeaux Price Eclipses Burgundy”

    Alternate headline: “Liber Pater, currently the highest average priced Bordeaux, told Wine-Searcher the 2015 vintage will go on sale for €30,000 ($34,110) a bottle”

    URL: https://www.wine-searcher.com/m/2019/07/record-bordeaux-price-eclipses-burgundy

    By Remi Marty and Don Kavanagh

    — EARLIER WINERY PRESS COVERAGE —

    From the drinks business
    (posted January 15, 2016):

    “LIBER PATER OWNER GUILTY OF FRAUD;
    The owner of boutique Graves winery, Liber Pater, has been fined and sentenced to a prison term for fraud after falsely claiming EU subsidies.”

    URL: http://www.thedrinksbusiness.com/2016/01/liber-pater-owner-guilty-of-fraud/

    By Rupert Millar

  23. Bob Henry says:

    With Lewis Perdue’s “Wine Industry Insight” making allusions to To-Kalon Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon fruit currently selling for as much as $37,000 a ton, I did a little “Googling.”

    And what did I find? This — from 11 years ago (no, that’s not a typo):

    Excerpts from Wine Spectator Magazine Online
    (posted February 26, 2008):

    “$37,301 Per Ton for Napa Cabernet”

    URL: https://www.winespectator.com/articles/37301-per-ton-for-napa-cabernet-15409

    By James Laube
    “James Laube’s Wine Flights” Column

    “By far the hottest grape in California is Napa Valley Cabernet, which is the reason so many of the wines offered at Premiere Napa Valley (which I wrote a blog about yesterday) are of this variety. It commands big bucks.

    “Last week one thoughtful source of mine sent along some wine grape prices from the California grape crop report, which are a barometer for wine prices, supply and demand, and general trends about which grapes are hot and which are not.

    “This source is so good that he practically wrote this blog for me.

    “The top price for 1 ton of Napa Cabernet in 2007 was $37,301.59. Only 1.5 tons sold at that price, and my spy’s guess was that those grapes came from Beckstoffer’s To-Kalon Vineyard. Per-ton prices are usually a good indicator of price, since the industry uses a bottle price formula that essentially computes that $37,301 figure into a $373 bottle of wine (you just take the first three figures of any per-ton purchase and that’s about what you have to sell your wine for to make the purchase pay off). Another 120 tons of Cabernet sold for more than $15,000.

    “The per-ton price can be misleading, of course, since it’s only 1.5 tons, which might mean 90 cases. Still, that’s the way winemakers compute the per-ton price.

    “That $37,301 figure is about $10,000 more than the previous high-water mark I’d heard of a few years ago, which was $27,500 for Beckstoffer Cabernet, purchased by Paul Hobbs. In turn, he charged $275 a bottle.

    ” ‘Even at $37,301 per ton it is only $18.65 per pound,’ my spy figured, adding, ‘It’s cheaper than a pound of Kobe beef … I think it’s still cheaper than a pound of pot. They don’t publish a crop report for that stuff.’

    “. . . Here are the highest prices for the hottest varieties in Napa and Sonoma, reported in that order.

    “Cabernet: Napa, $37,301; Sonoma, $10,000

    “Cabernet Franc: Napa, $15,000; Sonoma, 10,000

    “Chardonnay: Napa, $7,000; Sonoma, $7,170; Monterey, $4,000; Santa Barbara, $5,923

    “Merlot: Napa, $12,887; Sonoma, $10,000

    “Pinot Noir: Napa, $13,343; Sonoma, $11,464; Monterey, $7,944; Santa Barbara, $11,411

    “Pinot Gris: Sonoma, $7,438

    “Syrah: Napa, $7,918; Sonoma, $6,543.

    “Zinfandel: Napa, $6,100; Sonoma, $5,884.”

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