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.
“Achieving scale doesn’t change things unless you allow it to change you.”
That’s what Lagunitas Brewing Company’s founder, Tony Magee, told the San Francisco Chronicle, which today reported that beer giant Heineken has bought a 50% interest in the Petaluma, CA-based craft brewer.
(I couldn’t find the Chronicle link, but this is the L.A. Times story.)
I’ve long said that the prejudice against alcoholic beverage companies based on size alone is exactly that: a prejudice. There is no reason, in principle, why a big winery can’t produce wine exactly the same way as a smaller winery—except in larger quantities.
Viticulture? Pretty much the same. Grow in the right [coastal] areas. Do your pruning and cluster thinning, and hope Mother Nature gives you a good vintage. Get the best barrels you can. Apply artisanal techniques: sur lie, pumping over, hand-punchdowns. If this can be done successfully for 500 cases of wine, it can be done for 50,000 cases—or 500,000 cases.
Just why and how “small is better” became the prevalent theme in winemaking is a bit of a puzzle. The Bordeaux chateaux were never particularly small. In an abundant vintage, they can produce 40,000 cases of wine. Much of our notion of the importance of smallness derives from Burgundy, but there, the situation is completely anomalous. Burgundy is a patchwork of small vineyards due to France’s inheritance laws. One could, I suppose, argue that, if Burgundy had evolved another way, with large individual landownings a la Bordeaux instead of tiny parcels, the world would have been deprived of the glories of the terroir for which we rightfully celebrate Burgundy. But we speak of terroir in Bordeaux, and there’s no reason we can’t speak of it in a very large vineyard whose parent company produces many thousands of cases.
If that line of reasoning doesn’t resonate with you, try this: Even in a very large vineyard, you must grant that, if you subdivide it into blocks, you wlll discover nuances of terroir. And that is exactly what many, if not most, large coastal vineyards in California do.
I do hope that Lagunitas doesn’t change. I’m a big fan of their IPAs, which are inexpensive (I pay $8.99 a sixpack at Whole Foods). I will take Tony Magee at his word when he says things won’t change. If they do—if the beers get diluted—I’ll find some other beer: Sierra Nevada, Deschutes, the supply is endless.
But before I trash Lagunitas for “selling out,” I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt. I won’t leap to conclusions “just because” Lagunitas has partnered with Big Beer!
No new post today. We’re gearing up for the Warriors parade this morning in Oakland and are so excited we can’t even think! But I want to give a big “thank you!” to the lovely people who came to my talk last night at the Napa Valley Wine Technical Group.
Have a great weekend.
I’ve long been a critic who agrees that expensive wine isn’t always or necessarily better than inexpensive wine. This conclusion is based, not solely on common sense, but on experience. It’s a topic that’s of interest to people because, after all, we’re all limited in how much we can spend on stuff (especially a discretionary item like wine, although I realize that for some people wine isn’t discretionary but mandatory, and I’m one of them). You can’t blame anyone who likes a $12 wine for wondering what they’re missing in a $120 bottle.
Well, I’ve tried to wrestle with this concept for a long time, and here I go again. This video quotes a “Princeton economist” on the topic of expensive wine to this effect: “there is an unhappy marriage between a subject that especially lends itself to bullshit and bullshit artists who are impelled to comment on it. I fear that wine is one of those instances where this unholy union is in effect.” This quote leads the article’s author to opine that “layered onto [objective qualities] is a mountain of subjective opinions, people trying to prove their sophistication, and a whole lot of marketing. The nature of wine makes it really hard to tell the difference between expertise, nonsense, and personal preference.”
The writer strongly implies that “subjective opinions” are irrelevant in wine appreciation—that they distort the wine experience so much that the drinker is hopelessly misled by her own feelings about the wine, which have nothing to do with its objective qualities.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Yes, it’s true that a very expensive wine might not be objectively better than an affordable one, in the same way that, say, a Jackson Pollock splatter painting may seem to be nothing more than the dribbles of a child. However, the art market doesn’t view things that way, and neither do I. Having tasted a gazillion wines in my career, here’s what always gets overlooked in claims that there’s no difference between amateur and high art beside subjectivity: People don’t drink wine simply for its objective quality. Or, to put it another way, wine is one of those life experiences that can’t be reduced to simplistic analyses.
The best way to appreciate the truth of this statement is to think about your own life and the things you love. It may be a partner, or kids, or a job or hobby, a favorite sweater or hoodie, a café, a dog, a plant in your yard, a house in your neighborhood. There’s something about it that turns you on. You don’t look at it objectively, you look at it in terms of how it makes you feel. And feelings, I would argue, trump objective qualities every time.
In terms of expensive wine, people buy it because of the way it makes them feel. And there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, the wonderful thing about wine always has been that it makes us feel better about ourselves, the people we’re with, and the world. Even after all these years of tasting and reviewing wine, I still get excited when I pop certain bottles. I suppose that means I’m biased in favor of liking them, but it could also result in disappointment, if a highly-anticipated bottle disappoints. But that’s beside the point. The point is, my emotional pleasure in drinking certain wines is at least as important to me as the external, objective qualities of the wine.
So it’s rather mean-spirited for people to point to these laboratory studies as “proof” that “expensive wine is for suckers.” That is a very cynical, naïve way of looking at things. It disregards romance, love, intuition and creativity, which are the true wellsprings of pleasure. It disregards how what we eat, drink and experience adds pleasure to our lives—and who is anyone to dictate to me what pleasure means?
It seems to me that these writers who are constantly trying to disparage expensive wine are missing the point. Perhaps they’re not really wine lovers. The love of wine is impossible to define: It’s irrational. It has nothing to do with blind tasting and everything to do with emotions that get us swept up into the moment. As a former critic, I do agree that wine reviews ought to be conducted blind and thus objectively, but as a wine consumer I understand the objections to this rule. I’m caught between the two extremes. Look, the writer in the piece I referred to talks about how a white wine that was dyed red “can dominate wine students’ sense of smell” in a laboratory study. Well, sure, that’s always a possibility. But what does that have to do with the love of wine—with the way it makes you feel? Nothing. It’s like reducing human behavior to that of a rat running through a maze. Don’t we feel we’re more than that?
Years ago, I had a dear friend with a good job. He was the wine columnist for a periodical with considerable influence in Wine Country. One day, he found himself unemployed, because the newspaper he wrote for was downsizing. He took a job doing P.R. for a winery.
He was very upset about it. “I’ve gone over to the Dark Side,” he explained confessionally, as if he’d done something wrong. He meant that, in our little industry, there’s a strong, longstanding perception that a writer who writes for an independent publication, like a newspaper or magazine, is more honest and straightforward than one who spends his days writing for a wine company.
I remember telling my unhappy friend, “Look. There’s no such thing as ‘the Dark Side.’ Wherever you work, and whatever you do, you do it with integrity and honesty. And remember this: Everyone’s got a boss. Like Dylan sang, you gotta serve somebody.”
I meant those words. I’ve worked with public relations, communications and marketing people for decades, and liked and respected the vast majority of them. They don’t “spin” any worse than a winemaker describing his or her wine, and they follow their own ethical principles. We have this belief in the wine industry that independent critics are “honest brokers” who can cut through the hype. That’s true, as far as it goes—but it only goes so far. The wine writer, no matter who he is, always walks a delicate balance, having to take many things into account. There are very few “fearless crusaders” among wine writers, who learn early on how to preserve their relationships, reputations and jobs by understanding where the red lines are, and respecting them.
So it was that, when I took my job at Jackson Family Wines and people made the “dark side” remark, I patiently explained to them that, no, I don’t see things that way. The way I see it is, I’m using the same muscles to do a different sport. In the world of martial arts, there’s much mixing up of different types of fighting: jujitsu, karate, muay Thai. I studied all of them; each is unique, and yet they all require the same skills (strength, speed, awareness). In the case of my career, I utilized my talents in research, writing, wine tasting and public speaking when I worked at wine magazines, and I use exactly the same skills in the things I do at JFW.
So what’s it been like for me? I took the job on March 10, 2014. It’s been a little more than a year now. I work with the company’s Marketing and Communications (MarComm) team, a bunch of smart, young pros whose skills run the gamut from social media to video, event planning and P.R. The kinds of things I do vary widely, and I work mainly from home, in Oakland. As I write these words, I’m in a plane somewhere over the Midwest, on my way to Boston, where tomorrow night (tonight as you read this) I’ll be hosting an Earth Day dinner focusing around issues of sustainability. Next week I’ll be pouring at the Sonoma Barrel Auction, and staging a wine tasting for some people, and reviewing wine for the company newsletter. So the stuff I do is all over the map.
I’ve enjoyed my year at JFW but things are going to be changing. Starting this summer, I’m beginning a new consulting phase. JFW will be my first client; I’m interested in others, provided the work is absorbing. I see this as the cresting of the arc of my career. I’m looking at turning seventy years old next year. While my health is fantastic, I’m thinking of a life beyond wine writing—taking things easier, slowing down a bit to smell the roses (or is it the coffee?). I’ve worked very hard for a great many years, and while I’ve enjoyed 95% of it, there’s also been a lot of stress—as there is in everyone’s life. But I’m just about the only member of my generation in my family who hasn’t retired, and the ones who have tell me the same thing. It’s fantastic, the best thing they’ve ever done. In fact, they’re all in agreement that they’re happier and busier than ever.
Well, I’m not retiring. Call it pre-retirement: I want to do interesting things that call on my talents. (I always liked JFK’s quote about the ancient Greek definition of happiness: “The full use of your powers along lines of excellence.”) But I also want more time for myself, to go to the gym, volunteer at the SPCA, take Gus on long walks, maybe even expand a social life that’s been on hold for too long because of the demands of the job. And I have a bucket list: learn how to bake bread. Study salsa dancing. Maybe even return to the painting I used to love.
And this blog? Well, I don’t know. It will soon be seven years old and, since I’ve already quoted Dylan, I might as well quote George Harrison: “All things must pass.” I haven’t decided whether or not to continue it. I’d like to hear from my readers: Do you still value reading me? Do I still have something to say, now that I’m no longer a F.W.C. (famous wine critic)? When the late, great San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen retired after more than fifty years, due to a deadly illness, he announced it one morning in a column and never published anything ever again. There’s something to be said about unprolonged exits.