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Notes on Some Wine-Review Books

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2. We come to Cabernet Sauvignon

Lest the reader fear that she’s in for a hundred and fifty thousand wine reviews, I promise that won’t be the case. I admired Michael Broadbent’s encyclopedic “Great Vintage Wine Book” and used to hope that someday I might compile all my notes into a volume of similar breadth and depth. But I quickly realized that (a) I couldn’t come close to Mr. Broadbent, (b) it would be far more trouble than the result would be worth, and (c) nobody would care anyway. It would be like reading thirty years of somebody’s taxes.

Instead, I propose to do what Professor Saintsbury did: write something first and foremost for myself, which might then be of interest to others, my philosophy of reporting always having been that something of interest to me will interest others. This philosophy guided all my reporting, no matter where I was working; it informed the longer, more literary articles I wrote in Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast, and it even impacted my reviews, which I tried to make ever more haiku-like. That approach certainly guided my hand when I wrote A Wine Journey along the Russian River. One of the reasons why Professor Saintsbury is such a rewarding read is that his humanity—the spirit in his flesh, as it were—shines through the pages of Notes On A Cellar-Book. The man is scholarly, sometimes to the point of opacity (for those of us who didn’t go to Oxford or major in classical literature, and can’t read Latin). But he always radiates essential cheerfulness and enthusiasm. He is a man, albeit from another time and place, you think you would have liked to know.

His “concentrating on only the finer wines” constitutes both the book’s strength and its weakness. We (I mean the wine community; if you’re in it, you know what I mean) enjoy reading about the world’s most famous wines, which are also the most expensive. Even if we can’t afford Yquem, Romanée-Conti or Lafite (and most of us can’t), we imagine them in our minds, and that is why a book like The Great Vintage Wine Book is so much fun. How else would any of us have any idea what 1825 Chateau Lafite was like? Broadbent gave it 5 stars (his highest level, the equivalent, you could say, of 100 points), and called it “outstanding, enchanting” when he tasted it in 1979, at the age (the wine’s age, that is, not Broadbent’s) of 154 years. He mentions that he had it “At the Overton tasting,” a reference to a Texas neurosurgeon, Dr. Marvin Overton, who coincidentally died this past Spring (2020). I knew Dr. Overton, not well, and we spoke with some frequency over the phone. He was an informal member of a very small and exclusive group of [primarily male] wine collectors in the U.S. His collection was massive; as I recall, it contained hundreds of thousands of bottles. Dr. Overton used to share his cellar’s wealth with his colleague wine collectors and a small batch of influential people, like Michael Broadbent, although never, alas, with me. I remember the last time I talked with him—this must have been 25 years ago. He told me he had just converted to some form of evangelical Christianity, at the urging of his wife, who had persuaded him into giving up the consumption of alcohol! Dr. Overton as a result sold his massive collection, and presumably made a fortune, wine being a very great appreciator in value if it has the right pedigree and provenance.

But that exclusivity also is Saintsbury’s weakness, as he feared. I always was fascinated with the question of why Lafite, for example, costs so much more than Pontet-Canet or Batailley, which share the same commune in Bordeaux (Pauillac). Before I ever had an opportunity to taste any of these wines, the question thundered in my head. Was it really because (as conventional wisdom had it) that Lafite sat on a little mound with superior drainage than its neighbors? Did that result in something remarkably better? Could anyone discern this “betterness,” or was it something you only knew (or thought you knew) about, a knowledge that then elevated your experience of the wine? Or did mere market forces of supply and demand push Lafite’s price so astronomically? If the latter, then there was something decidedly less romantic, and more vulgar, to explain these price disparities. One could say the same about (venturing to another wine region) Burgundy. Was the Romanée-Conti vineyard and wine really better than Les Suchots, which adjoins it on the Golden Slope in the commune of Vosne-Romanée? Certainly the former is far more expensive. But why? I knew, from reading, that history accounts for a good deal of the explanation for such phenomena. I also knew, or was beginning to know, at that early stage of my wine reviewing career, that the beliefs wine people have had inculcated in them are fungible and often irrational. Word of mouth, and certification by authority, are powerful mental influencers. If Dr. Overton (to use him as an influencer) says that Lafite is worth far more effort and money to buy than Pontet-Canet, should we mere mortals not accept his word? After all, he, not we, has done the tasting and is thus the expert. Then, because a few dozen Overtons (or Desais, or Lawlors) praise Lafite, its price soars. But if this is true, then—again—a large part of the romance and mystery of famous vineyards is drained away, and we are left with the same simple economic facts as drive the price of soybeans and toilet-seat covers.

So it was that my tasting career began at a non-elevated level, which is a good place to start, I think, because a wine like that long-ago Kenwood 1980 “Vintage Red” provided a fine baseline against which to measure all subsequent wines, including Lafite and Romanée-Conti. Now, many a wine aficienado will be aghast at such a statement. Has Heimoff lost his mind, comparing a cheap Kenwood wine with a Grand Cru Burgundy? But why should we not do so? Nothing can in itself be evaluated; it can only be measured against other, similar things. We compare things all the time: a Tesla with a Prius, season five of The Sopranos with season six, early Beatles with Let It Be. By so doing, we learn to detect subtlety and calibrate quality, and can appreciate what we’re dealing with more fully.

The ninth wine I reviewed, in that little black-bound notebook, was the first pure Cabernet Sauvignon (or Bordeaux blend), other than the Kenwood, which with its Zinfandel was not a Bordeaux blend: Chateau Beauregard 1976. I had it on May 25, 1983 (that is, about three months after the Morgon-Macon Villages-Kenwood trilogy), and it cost me $4. Beauregard was then (I don’t know if it still exists as a chateau) a relatively minor Saint-Julien, but still, it was Saint-Julien, the home commune of Ducru-Beaucaillou, the various Leovilles and Langoas, Beychevelle and Talbot—in other words, famous, extraordinary wines. So I could hardly resist buying it at that price. I liked it a lot, and for the first time in those tasting notes, I used the French term goût de terroir, literally, “taste of the soil.” That term, like “fizzante,” I picked up from some book, and found useful at the time, although in later years I shied away from such borrowed foreign words and phrases. By it, I meant two things: that the wine, or something in it, smacked (or reminded me) of earth, stones and soil—I have been known to put all three into my mouth while wandering through vineyards–and secondly, that it seemed to me representative of its origin, in this case Saint-Julien, which (in my head) I had formed an opinion of: that its red wines were harmonious and elegant. I did not record the details of the cepage, or blend, but in addition to a majority Cabernet Sauvignon it probably contained lesser amounts of Cabernet Franc and Merlot. Certainly, it established a benchmark in my mind for dry red wines made with Bordeaux varieties, especially the California (“cult”) Cabernet Sauvignons that later became so important to my career. And it set up a tension between the Bordeaux style (lower alcohol, less overtly ripe fruit) with California Cabernets, especially from Napa Valley, which over the years became ever more ripe, heady, sweet and, sadly, hot. But I will have a lot more to say about that in coming pages.


Ranking California wines

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I do a lot of reading in these shelter-in-place days. In fact, I’m cannibalizing my library—reading the same books over and over. One that I started yesterday is an old standby: The Wines of California, The Pacific Northwest & New York, by Roy Andries de Groot (1982). De Groot, a kind of minor James Beard, was a New Yorker with a reputation for being a gourmet and wine lover; he also was blind. In this book he developed what he called “the first classification” of the vineyards and wineries in the three states, a task he modeled after the 1855 Bordeaux Classification.

What is striking about The Wines of California is how dated it is. De Groot used a numerical rating system based on 50 points, and classified the wines into eight tiers; the top ones he called Noble, Superb and, at the pinnacle, Great. A good many of the wineries he included no longer even exist. Others, such as Beaulieu, have undergone corporate changes and are no longer what they used to be. And obviously, there are now hundreds of wineries in California alone that didn’t exist in de Groot’s day. For these reasons, de Groot’s classification is of no value today.

But it does make for interesting reading. I have to give him credit for at least attempting the task. Forty years ago, when de Groot was compiling his research (which meant traveling the country tasting wine), he had no reason to think that the wine industries of California, the Pacific Northwest and New York would not settle down and become as fixed and immutable as in Bordeaux itself. Bordeaux, after all, had remained relatively stable for 400 years of turbulent European history; there had been minor shifts in chateau ownership and vineyard holdings, but for the most part, the wineries and vineyards of Bordeaux in 1980 were much as they had been a hundred and fifty years earlier.

California looked to repeat the pattern. There were a handful of high-quality wineries of longstanding pedigree (Inglenook, Beaulieu, Louis Martini, Charles Krug) and, more interestingly from de Groot’s point of view, there had been a rash of new “boutique” wineries from the 1960s onward: Joseph Heitz, Robert Mondavi, Burgess, Carneros Creek, Fisher, Matanzas Creek, Chateau Montelena. De Groot was well aware of the burgeoning nature of California wineries: how relatively easy it was for a young winemaker, especially one of means, to plant a little vineyard and start a winery. Still, he believed that the California wine industry was settling down, the same as Bordeaux had, and that the U.S. consumer needed a reliable guide to choosing its wines.

De Groot had a good palate and a deep understanding of viticulture, enology, cuisine and history. Despite the book’s datedness, it’s fun to read for the snapshot it gives us of what the wine landscape looked like in the early 1980s. But it also is an object lesson in what not to attempt in a wine book. No wine writer in his right mind would attempt to classify the “wineries and vineyards” of California today; if one were to try, no publisher would be interested, for such a book would be an anachronism before the ink was dry.

De Groot noted, correctly, that the 1855 Bordeaux Classification had been based partly on the prices then obtained for the wines, and partly on the wines’ reputations among people of knowledge: brokers, mainly. Today, we still unofficially “classify” wines based on the same or similar criteria. Ask someone with a fairly good understanding of California wine what the “top” Cabernets are, and he will likely include Screaming Eagle, Harlan Estate, Bryant, Abreu, Phelps, Diamond Creek, Dalla Valle and perhaps a few dozen others. Has that person tasted all these wines? Probably not. Few have. He will have based his conclusions on what he’s heard of the reputations of those wines as well as what he knows of their prices.

That’s the way human judgment works. Reputation is everything. The Bordelais proprietors of the 19th century knew this as well as the owner of Screaming Eagle knows it today. Their methods are similar, although the details have changed. You have to identify the tastemakers and then get them to authenticate your product. You spread the news via word of mouth or, in these modern times, through print media and social media. You induce the best restaurants to carry and promote your wine. You introduce the notion of scarcity: there’s not much of this, folks, and everybody wants it, so you better get yours while to can.

Back to Bob Thompson’s “rabbit hutch.” Just as it’s nearly impossible to take a census of, say, 1,000 bunnies in a pen, because they’re reproducing so fast, so it’s nearly impossible to count the number of wineries in California. Some are “virtual” wineries, possessing no “bricks and mortar” facilities, merely buying grapes, must or finished wine from someone else and bottling it under their brand. The same wine might appear under a dozen labels. There are probably fewer wine brand startups these days, with the pandemic; but before the era of the virus, the explosion of labels, some tiny to the point of vanishing, was significant, and the explosion likely will begin again once the pandemic is over (may it happen soon).

All these factors mitigate against formulating a new classification, but somehow, we humans end up classifying wineries anyway, in more indirect, subtler ways. There’s something in our brains that longs to create order out of chaos. We’re uncomfortable with thousands of winery brands in California; it’s too messy and incomprehensible. So we classify and rank and compare in any way we can and, as the saying goes, perception is reality. Is Screaming Eagle really the best Cabernet in California because it’s the most expensive? No. But if enough people—people who count, that is—think it is, then it is.



New Wine Reviews: Steven Kent

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It was with enormous pleasure I found Steven Kent’s four new releases sent to me. I hadn’t asked for them. I always had the greatest respect for proprietor Steven Kent Mirassou’s wines. To my way of thinking, he was, not only the greatest winemaker in Livermore Valley, but one of the best in California, which means: the world. He took a growing region that seldom rose to its full potential and crafted exciting, world-class Cabernet Sauvignons and blends. I suppose the buzz about my reviews will be that I have given two of the four wines 100-point scores. Should I second-guess myself because both were perfect?

Mia NIPOTE 2017 Il Rinnovo (Livermore Valley); $50. Petite Sirah, which comprises half the blend of this youthful wine, is immediately apparent, in the pitch-black color and massive aromas and flavors. Blackberry jam, teriaki, chocolate macaroon, licorice, cherry pie, my goodness, the rich strands intertwine in the mouth and explode into a long, spicy finish. The other half of the blend, Cabernet Sauvignon—which marries beautifully with the “Pet”–contributes black currants and just a hint of dried herbs, as well as the fine tannin structure. There’s oak, too—50% new French—adding sweet vanilla and caramelized toast. That’s a lot of new oak, but the wine easily handles it. What a mouthful of flavor! And yet the wine never loses elegance. It remains supple and balanced, with just enough acidity to balance out the creamy sweetness. Yes, there is some heat from alcohol. But it’s a gently warming heat. I think a lot of people might drink Il Rinnovo (“renewal” in Italian) with summer grill, particularly in Livermore Valley, as restaurants re-open; and that’s fine. But I’d keep it for wintertime, when you’re cold and thirsty for a big, rich, delicious red. And there’s no reason it won’t hold for many years. A great achievement from Steven Kent Winery. Score: 93 points.

Steven Kent 2017 Ghielmetti Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Livermore Valley); $65. The best Ghielmetti from Steven Kent I ever reviewed was the 2007, and this beauty is even better. Right from the get-go, you know it’s a fine, serious wine. One hundred percent varietal Cabernet, it shows impressively alluring aromas of blackcurrants, savory red licorice and toasty oak, with similar flavors that veer into rich, creamy milk chocolate. There’s an elusively herbal touch—Bay leaf? Sweet thyme? Just enough to ground it. And is that floral note violets? It’s very rich—the winery calls it “gigantic”–but the structure is superb. Such nice tannins, firm and sweet, with a fine bite of acidity to balance everything out, and a noble, dry finish. The vineyard sits at between 500 feet and 1,000 feet in altitude in the Livermore Valley’s eastern foothills, the heart of its wine country. It’s a warm area, but benefits from Pacific air that flows in through gaps in the coastal hills from San Francisco Bay. The 2017 vintage was just about perfect: lots of rain during the winter, but then things dried out during the growing season, and except for the usual Labor Day heat spell, things went well. To be honest, Bordeaux wishes they could get grapes this ripe. Score: 95 points.

Steven Kent 2017 The Premier Cabernet Sauvignon (Livermore Valley); $125. Made from 100% Cabernet, this wine is a blend of three vineyards the winery accesses, including their Home Ranch and the esteemed Ghielmetti. The result is, in a word, stunning. I would stand it next to any Cabernet Sauvignon in the world; it’s that good. Let’s break it down. The flavors are awesome and impeccable, luxuriously showing the ripe blackberries, black currants, milk chocolate and olivaceous sweet savoriness associated with Cabernet. There’s a lot of new French oak (75%) that is perfectly integrated, with its smokiness and vanillins. But what really stands out is the wine’s structure. I think of it as a room where tannins are the walls and acidity is the floor. It’s the kind of wine you take one sip of and think, Wow. Then another sip, and another wow. And a third. The critical mind looks for flaws, but there aren’t any. There’s not even the excessive heat from alcohol that can mar many otherwise remarkable California Cabs. There’s also an element that’s hard to put into words: call it elegance, the kind of designer effect you find in a great sports car or the best clothing. The wine feels “jazzy,” a word my mom used to use to describe things she loved. And the finish! Don’t get me started. I was writing years ago that Steven Kent was lifting Livermore Valley Cabernet to unprecedented levels. He still is. It’s expensive, yes, but it’s not an everyday wine, and compared to Napa Valley, which is just next door over the hills, it’s a bargain. What a treat to experience this wine! If I had a case, I’d try to keep my hands off it for six years, and then open one bottle a year. I could give this wine 98, 99 points and hedge my bets, but why bother? It’s perfect. Score: 100 points.

Steven Kent 2017 Lineage (Livermore Valley); $175. This is the winery’s Bordeaux-style blend, although it’s probably time to stop using that derivative phrase. It’s 75% Cabernet Sauvignon (legally enough to call it Cabernet; proprietor Steven Mirrasou prefers to call it “Red Blend”), 20% Merlot, and 5% Cabernet Franc. Like the winery’s other new reds, it’s quite oaky—60% new French, aged for nearly two years—a bit less than The Premier, but it doesn’t need as much wood. The official alcohol reading is 14.9%. Only about 330 standard cases were produced, in addition to some big bottles. It’s also, obviously, Steven Kent’s most expensive release. I mention these particulars only because some people like to know. Now that the details are out of the way, what of the wine? To begin with, it’s enormously complex in aroma and flavor. The Cabernet Sauvignon contributes its telltale black currants and powerful tannins, but the cherry, raspberry and fig notes derive from the Cab Franc and Merlot, leading to a prettier, more feminine feeling compared to the 2017 The Premier or Ghielmetti Cabernet Sauvignons, both 100% varietal. It also feels, for that reason, more accessible now. The fruit and oak create a sweetness in the mouth, deliciously soft and decadent, heightened by a fabulous backbone of acidity. The winery’s tasting notes suggest 5-10 years before drinkability. I disagree. A wine like this is exciting even at the tender age of less than three years. And it’s not just a winter-sipping wine; I can imagine summer barbecue with grilled steak. The precision, tailoring and esthetic impact of Lineage are remarkable. I don’t taste a huge range of wines anymore since I retired, but I have my memory and my notes of the tens of thousands of California Cabs and blends I tasted in my career. And frankly, none have been better. A huge achievement, both for Steven Kent and for the Livermore Valley to which he has been dedicated for so long. Score: 100 points.


Wine rating systems: time for a change

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I spent the better part of 30 years living and working in 100-point land: the wine-rating system used by my two former employers, Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast, as well as by Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate.

The 100-point system surely is the most popular in the world. It has survived decades of often fierce criticism. Critics said it was arbitrary and capricious, that it presented itself as scientific when it was anything but, that it had a deleterious effect on wine style because the most powerfully extracted, oakiest wines got the highest scores. All these things were true, but the 100-point system proved remarkably robust. When I retired from formal wine tasting eight years ago, it dominated the market, and, as far as I can tell, it still does.

The 100-point system looks like it’s here to stay, at least in America. There’s nothing looming on the horizon to replace it. Oh, sure, a new generation of wine drinkers has increasingly turned to peer-reviewing on social media; they no longer care what some (usually white) wine critic says, and that’s fine. But in that sense, the market may be ahead of the industry. Winery P.R. communications continue to tout high scores (anything over 90 points) in their campaigns. As long as that’s the case, wine samples will continue to be mailed to wine critics, who will continue to publish reviews using the 100-point system, which will continue to be touted by winery P.R. people, and on and on…It’s a cycle, and like most cycles, it’s hard to stop.

But a new development in China throws all this into an interesting perspective. Mike Veseth, the respected wine economist, just published an issue of “The Wine Economist” that reports on “China’s 10-Point Scale.” That gigantic country apparently is launching an official, national rating system of 10 points that will “score…each wine on the market taking into consideration…Chinese tastes, cuisine, and culture.” The new system is being rolled out in stages. It was introduced late last year, but The Drinks Business publication reports it “is not yet compulsory for all wines sold inside China [and] may serve as a base for formulating a national [wine] recommendation system.” That article quoted a Chinese expert as predicting that, eventually, “[the] majority of wines sold in China will adopt this system.”

Now that I’m not living and working in 100-point land, I have the benefit of hindsight about the 100-point system that provided such a nice job for me for so long. And the more I think about it, the sillier it seems to be. I used to be quite sincere when people asked how I could determine the difference between, say, 87 points and 88 points.. I would say, “Easy. To me, it’s obvious.” And I could go into great detail, if they wanted. At the same time, I always admitted that, if I tasted the same wine (from different bottles) on separate occasions, chances were good that I’d give it different scores. But, I argued, in general the scores would be close together. In the end, I always said, a wine review ought to be looked at as the taster’s impression of that wine, at a particular moment in time, and consumers were free to accept, reject or ignore the review.

Nowadays, I often cringe when I see how wine scores are used. There are so many critics across this land (and elsewhere) that a P.R. person has her pick of dozens of reviews to use in an advertisement. We, the consumer, often don’t know the qualifications of the reviewer, or the circumstances under which he reviewed the wine (blind? Open?), nor do we always know with precision what the relationship is between reviewer and winery. Has the reviewer been paid? These are important considerations. (Of course, the new Chinese system suffers, I would think, from the same drawbacks.) I turn to critics and scores to inform my own buying decisions, but I always feel a little guilty about it. I wish that all numerical rating systems would go away, and be replaced by something more esthetically satisfying: a short essay, for example, that showed real writerly qualities.

I think there’s a place for more intelligent, nuanced wine reviewing. As we emerge from the pandemic, it’s going to be a different world. After all these months of sheltering in place, people may well be more reflective, and less reflexive. I know that social media tends to work in the opposite direction, making people think less; but here and there I pick up on clues that younger people are getting tired of social media. They’re reading more books and spending less time scrolling through meaningless Twitter feeds. I’m hoping to see new publications emerge that treat wine consumers as intelligent, thinking adults, instead of like cows lining up for silage.


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.


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