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.
This was our objective at yesterday’s tasting. The answer:
- high alcohol
- tremendous fruity extract
- thick tannins
- soft acidity
- a sense of sweetness
Think about each of those. Each element is at the utmost of the limits of a table wine to remain balanced. In this high-wire act, if you make the slightest error, you’re screwed.
The high alcohol means that, while it’s there (and we’re talking 15%-16% or more), if the wine is in the slightest degree hot, it loses points.
The tremendous fruity extract means that, if you get it wrong, you end up with a fruit bomb.
The thick tannins mean that you don’t want to end up with something that’s harsh in the mouth.
The soft acidity presents the danger of an insipid, boring wine, flashy, perhaps, with the first sip, but one that quickly palls.
So we’re talking about that elusive but vital element, balance. It’s funny that people always talk about a more delicate wine, like Burgundian Pinot Noir, as being so transparent that balance, or any hint of imbalance, is apparent. But that’s also true of these gigantic Paso Robles GSMs. Mere size isn’t enough to hide flaws. Nothing can hide a flaw to the discerning taste. And yet, a good winemaker can turn size to his advantage.
These winemakers—Matt Trevaison, Justin Smith, Stephen Asseso and the like–chose to make these sorts of wines, and by the standard of the market, they’ve been wildly successful. These westside GSMs have become Paso Robles’ most expensive wines. Produced in tiny amounts, they sell for far more on the aftermarket than their initial release prices. So, when my friends at Jackson Family Wines asked me to put together a Paso Robles tasting (and the family currently owns nothing in Paso Robles), I happily acceded.
I could have done a tasting of Paso Bordeaux blends. I’ve been a big fan; that was part of the reason why I successfully argued for Paso Robles to be Wine Enthusiast’s “Wine Region of the Year” a couple of years ago.
I could have done a tasting of what I call Paso’s “wacko blends,” those innovative blends of everything from Tempranillo and Zinfandel to Merlot, Sangiovese and Petite Sirah. I wrote extensively about them for Wine Enthusiast. These young winemakers, who invaded Paso Robles over the last 5-10 years, had nothing to lose by being creative. They knew they couldn’t compete against Napa Valley with Cabernet Sauvignon. Pinot Noir was out of the question. Why not create a blend that had never existed before in the history of the world, if it made a delicious wine? It was a niche to be explored and exploited.
But GSMs are the signature wines of Paso Robles, especially at the high-priced end. So here were the seven wines we tasted yesterday, in a blind tasting. (Sadly, although I ordered the L’Aventure 2013 Cote de Cote directly from the winery, and paid $120.68, including shipping, for it, it never arrived.)
The wines, with SRP and alcohol:
Saxum 2012 Heart Stone, $149, 15.1%
Tablas Creek 2013 Cote de Cote, $55, 14.5%
Law Estate 2011 Sagacious, $67, 16%
Linne Calodo 2013 Sticks & Stones, $79, 15.8%
Jada 2012 Hell’s Kitchen, $54, 15.5%
ONX 2012 Crux, $45, 15.2%
Booker 2013 Full Draw, $75, 15.3%
My favorite, and the group’s, too, was the ONX. It was closely followed by the Jada, Tablas Creek, Saxum, Linne Calodo, and Booker. The trick with wines of this sort, which are very popular with critics, is to keep them balanced. All the individual parts—tannins, fruity extract, alcohol—are so strong, in and of themselves, that if any one of them sticks out, it perturbs the entire wine. (One of my co-tasters called several of the wines “distracting,” for that very reason). In this modern In Pursuit of Balance world, we make much of the structure and finesse of lightly-structured wines, which are so transparent that inherent imbalances quickly reveal themselves. As we focus—properly—on these wines, we tend to forget that these big, rich wines have similar balancing challenges; like Bob Dylan’s “mattress balanced on a bottle of wine,” the equilibrium must be just-so, the poise exquisitely tense, or otherwise the wine just collapses under its own weight into a heap.
Still, these west side Paso Robles wines (which now come under a guise of AVAs since Paso Robles split up into 11 appellations) are attention-getting, although I’m not sure I’d want to split an entire bottle with someone over dinner.
I’ve been reviewing some really good Grenache Blancs lately that me me wonder if this isn’t the up and coming white variety in California.
Other critics, it seems to me, give more emphasis to Roussanne and Marsanne than they do to GB. But good as those wines can be, they’re sometimes too oaky or heavy in some way. GB on the other hand is usually unoaked or just neutrally oaked, and so pure and bright in fruit and acidity, it offers something for everyone.
For example, the Jaffurs Vineyard 2011 Grenache Blanc, from the Thompson Vineyard in the Santa Ynez Valley, is one of the best I’ve reviewed this year. It was 35% stainless steel fermented and 65% fermented in neutral oak, which must be responsible for the creamy, smoky notes. But you’d never say this wine is oaky because it isn’t. Also typical of the successful GBs, the wine did not complete the malolactic fermentation, which is the secret behind the bite of green apple acidity that is so cool and refreshing.
I always get orange and tangerine fruit in GBs, although judging by winemakers’ notes, others find everything from melons (cantaloupe and honeydew) to peaches and citron. I can’t imagine a Chardonnay lover not enjoying the richness of a good GB, but I also can’t imagine someone who likes a crisp Pinot Gris or Sauvignon Blanc turning it away. It’s right in that middle of the spectrum, light-bodied, light-hearted and low in alcohol. Makes you think of a summer day in a garden (which is how Hugh Johnson used to describe Rieslings, but it applies equally to GB).
Other fine producers include Zaca Mesa, Tangent, Coghlan, Stark, Tres Hermanos and Tercero. Note the prevalence of Santa Ynez Valley origins. There’s no question that this wonderful, warmish inland valley, in the heart of Santa Barbara’s wine country, has established itself as the capital of Rhône varieties, red and white, in California. The Thompson Vineyard, by the way, is from the Los Alamos Valley, which, I understand, will be an official appellation sooner or later. It’s a very interesting part of the greater Santa Ynez Valley. I think of it as wedged between the warmer, more famous stretches around Los Olivos, Santa Ynez town and Ballard, and the cooler Santa, err, Sta. Rita Hills to the west. Los Alamos Valley, then, sits at the balancing point where the valley goes from cool to warm, which is always a nice place for a wine region to be. I suspect somebody could grow a nice Merlot down there, but I don’t know anyone who does, because it would be a hard sell.
If you’re ever down that way, make a quick visit to the funky little town of Los Alamos, which is on the west side of the Freeway. It has some big antique shops to browse. Eat at Full of Life Flatbread Restaurant, which makes pizzas to dream about. All the local winemakers hang out there. They have a great local wine list. If I lived in the area, I’d be at Flatbread all the time.
Official word from my source is that The Wine Advocate has hired its new reviewer for the California Central Coast as well as the Rhône Valley.
He’s Jeb Dunnuck. I had never heard of him, which means absolutely nothing. So I pulled out the old Google machine and here’s what I found out.
Jeb is best known for his publication, The Rhône Report ($59 a year), which describes itself as being “dedicated to all things Rhône.” Jeb, whose age I don’t know but he’s good looking (kind of like a young Parker, with a little Russell Crowe for good measure) and could be in his 30s, “grew up on a farm in rural Indiana,” and worked in London for a while, where he became interested in wine. He used to be a software engineer, wrote “the image processing software for two NASA programs” [how cool is that!], and eventually took a job “working evenings” at a liquor store in Denver to further his knowledge of what he calls “ITB” (“the In The Business”) crowd. These days, Jeb writes, “I’ve since stopped working in the wine business, clock my 40 hours writing software and then read, post, drink and think about wine at home. Like anything worth pursuing, wine enjoyment is a journey and not a destination. I currently live in Broomfield, CO with my lovely wife Traci and adorable pooch Abigail.”
That’s good. Dog people make the best wine critics.
I don’t have a subscription to The Rhone Report so I can’t tell you if I like Jeb’s writing, but I think I would. He’s clever with a phrase (La Peira en Damaisela is “the sine qua non of the Languedoc”), not afraid to be a kingmaker (it’s also “the leading estate in all the Languedoc and Roussillon.” If you think it’s easy coming out with a declaration like that, it’s not.), and has obviously been influenced by Parker, both in The Rhone Report’s structure and in Jeb’s rather straightforward, lucid writing style.
He’s active on twitter (1,496 followers), Facebook (1,427 friends, of which 371 are mutual with me), a Democrat (yay!), an atheist (not going there), likes Florence and the Machine, the Colbert Report and Dune, the book. His Facebook friends already are asking him if he’ll continue to write The Rhone Report; as of my writing this post, he has yet to respond. He tweeted earlier this year that the “top producers” in Paso Robles are “Saxum, l’Aventure, Epoch, Booker, Alta Colina, Denner, Terry Hoage, Villa Creek,” which perhaps is an indication of his palate. Big, ripe, fruity, high alcohol wines? That would be in keeping with Parker. In another tweet he had a big shoutout for the Melville 2010 Verna’s Syrah.
Jeb seems like he’s in the mold of Steven Tanzer and Allen “Burghound” Meadows, not a big media guy, but dedicated, professional and passionate–the kind of guy who can start a prestigiously small newsletter and be taken seriously by the collector crowd. That’s no mean feat, when there are scores of bloggers who wish they could do the same thing, but can’t. Robert Parker has chosen wisely, in my humble opinion. I congratulate Jeb on his new job, and am looking forward to meeting him.
Forty years isn’t particularly old for a European winery, but in California, it’s positively Methuselean. A handful of wineries began in 1972—Caymus, Jordan, Silver Oak, Stag’s Leap, Edmeades—almost all of them in the North Coast. This was a time when viticulture in Santa Barbara County was mostly a gleam in people’s eyes; Richard Sanford was busy with his Pinot Noir, in the western Santa Ynez Valley region that’s now called the
Santa, err, Sta. Rita Hills. But inland the valley was still mainly cattle and horses.