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Crying all the way to the bank



What are we to make of the winemakers quoted in Karen MacNeil’s latest column in The Somm Journal?

Asked by Karen their views on the word “cult” to describe their wines, the sextet unites in condemning a term they all say they loathe.

Bill Harlan says the word “implies blind followers who lack discernment.” For Doug Shafer, “It’s a manufactured term…I don’t understand what it means.” Dan Kosta calls it “lazy,” Celia Welch “something that simply has investment value,” while Sir Peter Michael dismisses it as “the so-called ‘cult’ status of a wine.” Ann Colgin cracks an uneasy joke: “I was born in Waco, Texas, why is why I’ve always hated the term ‘cult.’” (She refers, of course, to the infamous 1993 siege of the Branch Davidians.)

It may well be that these winemakers and winery owners are made uncomfortable by a term now so widespread that its use instantly telegraphs almost all that an English-speaking wine person needs to know about a “cult” wine: that it is red; that it is probably a Bordeaux-style wine from Napa Valley (Kosta Browne and Peter Michael excepted, but most of them are); that it is produced in small quantities; that it has achieved very high ratings from two, or three, or four top critics; that it is ultra-expensive and—as Ms. Welch implied—that it often is resold (via the Internet and auction houses) to amass sizable profit to the original purchaser. Indeed, as Karen herself, in her article, notes, “now…the term has been stitched into common wine language.”

My sympathies for the sextet, then. “I feel your pain,” as Bill Clinton, using that very phrase, famously said in a figure of speech in 1992 when responding to a critic of his AIDS policy.

So too is there a bit of figurative speaking when the sextet bemoans this most common and useful descriptor of their wines. They mean it, I guess—albeit with qualifications of which they may be unaware. So too there is a bit of disingenuousness. Harlan Estate’s fans may not “lack discernment,” but “blind followers” is a not inaccurate way of describing their lust, which most of us feel is inspired by high scores and the desire to show off, as much as by an appreciation of the wine itself. Dan Kosta’s “lazy” simply affirms that many layers of meaning—all of them accurate—are wrapped up in that single adjective, “cult”; there’s nothing “so-called” about it. As for the “investment value” part, well, that’s why people call it flipping.

The sextet has done well, extraordinarily well, with their wines, but it’s not as if their rare, exalted status happened ipso facto—by itself, with no external causation. The proprietors and their marketing advisors worked exceeding fine to manufacture exactly the desirability that is one of the layers of meaning of the word “cult.” I can speak only of my own personal experience, of course, but consider that:

Ms. Colgin pours her wines by appointment, in the Versailles luxe of her Pritchard Hill mansion. Mr. Harlan similarly tastes by appointment; he once requested that I taste BOND and Harlan Estate in separate places, a few minutes’ drive apart, in order, I suppose, to better appreciate their ambience. Sir Peter has been on endless magazine covers—with the honorific “Sir” conjuring up associations of English royalty and wealth (exactly as it is supposed to, and what is more cultish than the Royal Family of Great Britain?)—while Dan Kosta benefited from his “lazy” characterization to the tune of his share of the $40 million when Kosta Browne was sold, in 2009. So let’s not feel too sorry for these cult wine proprietors.

Look, I love their wines. Used to give ‘em high scores at Wine Enthusiast. I appreciate how hard it is to make them—how much effort goes into every aspect of growing and vinifying. I’m not even particularly bothered by the prices: crazy as they are, the market determines that. And some of these proprietors, the ones I know—perhaps all of them–are wonderful people. I’m just sayin’ that the “woe is me” croc tears aren’t credible. These guys are crying all the way to the bank.

  1. Bill Haydon says:

    Sour grapes. As you said, these people–and their expensive marketing teams–did everything possible to craft this illusion of exclusivity and cult status. It’s only now, when they are increasingly being viewed as both the gauche relics of a best-forgotten gilded age and the exemplars of a coarse, in-your-face winemaking style that they publicly decry their moniker as cult wines.

    If these people really want to change their image, here’s a thought. Rather than shove all of those unsold cases into a warehouse somewhere in the hopes that one day you will be able to unload them to the Chinese, how about lowering your prices to meet the markets waning demand for your wines? You could possibly change your “sledgehammer on the palate” winemaking approach too, but that would probably be too much to ask.

  2. Bob Henry says:

    Do winery owners genuinely appreciate the style of their California wines?

    Excerpt from The Napa Valley Register “Wine” Section
    (January 22, 2010, Page Unknown):

    “The Collapse of Cabernet”


    By Dan Berger
    “On Wine” Column

    For more than a decade, I have hoped for a miracle. Then last week I realized the worst: Cabernet sauvignon has changed so appreciably that I fear we’ll never see it in the way we once did.

    Cabernet has undergone a makeover that has, probably forever, made it little more than a parody of itself, entering a realm that 20 years ago I never would have believed.

    Today, California cabernet is a virtual wine, made to be consumed as an aperitif and as young as possible. A long book could be devoted to this sad tale of decline. What follows is a brief look at the collapse of what once was California’s most prized possession.

    First, let’s look back on what cabernet used to be. It was dry red wine. It was aged in oak not for oaky flavor, but for maturity and complexity. It was modest in alcohol – 12.5 percent for the vast majority; a few “over-the-top” wines reached 13.5 percent.

    Also, it was designed to be aged a little bit, and a few a lot longer. When very young, the wines were tannic and needed taming. I still have some 1970s cabs in the cellar that are in great shape.

    Moreover, once the wines got some bottle age and a bit of bouquet, they went nicely with food. Since they had good acid levels, food was a near necessity, and the list included steaks, chops, stews, roasted chicken, game and more.

    What we have today, mainly at the $30-and-above price point, are wines that are the near antithesis of this: high in alcohol (almost nothing of supposed quality is less than 14.5 percent; some are 16 percent), very low acid levels (which almost guarantees that the wines won’t age well), and actual residual sugar in many.

    This is wine that some reviewers say smells like chocolate, mocha, smoke and roasted nuts. These aren’t aromas derived from fruit; they come from the smoked oak barrels in which the wines were aged, clearly an idea that was never at play decades ago.

    The most telling — and damaging — aspect of today’s cabernets is what I hear from wine makers, and always off the record. The phrasing may differ, but the sentiment is the same: “I MAY MAKE CABERNET, BUT I DON’T DRINK IT ANY MORE.”

    . . .

  3. Alex Kanzler says:

    BILL HAYDON IS BACK EVERYONE! What’s today trick? Oh, nevermind, just the same old and tired claims of falling skies in high-end Napa Valley. So, alas, I ask the same old and tired question: Bill, where’s the proof? Give us something, ONE THING verifiable and/or quantitative to support your anecdotes of impending doom for Napa. On the flip side here’s a snippet from a Napa County Register article from 10/2/15:

    The county pending projects lists (sic) shows 60 winery applications, 21 for new wineries and 39 for either major or minor modifications to existing wineries.

    If Napa is going down the toilet why does everyone want to build or expand a winery there? There are a handful of wealthy idiots who will make wine for posterity and not care about sales, but 60 trying to start or expand? Yeah… business is really crashing in Napa.

  4. Bill Haydon says:

    Hey, I’ve never said it’s still not the Disneyland of the wine world. Build it and the drunken bachelorette parties will come. It’s just not considered a serious wine region by the audience that it covets the most.

    In those precious Michelin starred restaurants and trendy big-city wine bars it is so horribly out of fashion as to be comparable to a leisure suit. Hell, don’t tell me you don’t see it even in SF. Don’t tell me that Napans aren’t muttering about those damned gatekeepers amongst themselves. And it ain’t coming back. People have taken the training wheels off. And what I’ve seen developing over the last decade in NYC, Chicago and DC is now clearly in process in the secondary markets surrounding them. I was in a boutique distributor’s warehouse in Ohio last Spring, and I’d venture that maybe a quarter of his inventory was domestic. He’s not doing this because he’s on a mission to evangelize the state of Ohio for imports. He’s doing it because he’s reacting to the demands of his market.

    Poor, pitiful Napa. They followed the Pied Piper of Monkton only to never be seen in a Michelin starred restaurant again.

  5. redmond barry says:

    One could do worse at far worse QPR than drinking the cabs coming these days from the old guard on the right dirt : Mondavi, Inglenook, Krug, Freemark Abbey, Heitz, Grgich Hills, and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, among others.

  6. Bill Haydon says:

    Here is the QPR ration that is eating Napa’s lunch. Last night I had a 2009 Grand Cru St Emilion for dinner. 1500 cases (less than Harlan) were produced from 40 year old, certified organic vineyards, and the wine saw 33% new oak. According to the restaurant’s wine director, he pays $240/case for it, which would put it on a retail shelf for $30. And having tasted both Harlan 1994 and 1997 (along with their Parker top scoring peers) at 10 year retrospective tastings, I can state with absolute certainty that this St. Emilion will age far more gracefully than any Napa Cult wine.

    The wine world has changed, and Napa can either adapt to it or watch its consumer base grow increasingly aged and centered around second and third tier markets.

    And steakhouses. They’ll still have the steakhouses.

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