Cult Wine


Cult Wine n. [ca. 1990, U.S.] A rare and sought-after wine, esp. Cabernet from Napa Valley, characterized by small production volume, powerful flavor profile, near-perfect scores from the critics and astronomical prices.

 A big wine moment: I recently was treated to a bottle of 2002 Screaming Eagle by my colleague and new fairy godfather, Michael Chandler. “How many people have worn the Hope Diamond?” said Chandler when asked why he collects “cult Cabernets” like this one. “It’s not the very best wine in the world. But it’s very rare.”

Chandler, who oversees a premier cellar as wine director of Enotria restaurant, can easily pick the cult Cabs out of a lineup of premium California competitors, saying it’s the long finish that sets them apart. “Screaming Eagle is probably No. 1 when it comes to the finish,” he said. “Ageability? Nah. Too much alcohol, not enough balance. Every time I’ve tasted them blind, though, they stand up.” With Screaming Eagle commanding a street price of between $1,200 and $2,200 per bottle, I was amazed he was willing to share with me. But, grateful and excited as I was as we prepared to open the bottle, I couldn’t help but think about how many homeless kids it could feed.

We tasted the wine “blind” at first, wrapped in a paper bag (classy!), along with a few high-end Napa Cabernets from 2002. The undercover Screaming Eagle didn’t wow us, despite the fact that it had been decanted two hours earlier. Michael said it was “closed.” That sounds like wine geek for “isn’t as good as I thought it would be,” but it refers to an actual adolescentlike stage, when a wine shuts down for a while.

In the nose, I was overwhelmed with the burn of high alcohol. Even after this blew off, I didn’t get much more than syrupy fruit aromas. On the palate, it was a typical cult Cab: mega-ripe fruit flavor, as if you’d stirred some raspberry sauce into prune juice. I could taste that the wine had been aged in pricey new French oak barrels; the oak dominated the hot finish.

The best part was the way it felt in the mouth. The structure was impressively elegant, with refined tannins unusual in a young Cabernet. It was a very nice wine.

Personally, though, I’d trade one bottle of Screaming Eagle for a half-case of glorious 2000 Chateau Margaux, and still have some cash left over to donate to the homeless shelter.

The Making of a Cult Wine

How did they get cult status? My top five guesses:

  1. Memorable marketing by the likes of Ann Colgin, a Sotheby’s auctioneer, who kisses each auctioned bottle of Colgin Cabernet, leaving a bright-red lipstick mark.
  2. A highly “extracted” style of wine: Using very ripe Napa grapes and expensive new oak barrels, winemakers create a big, rich flavor that gives immediate gratification to the consumer or critic.
  3. Careful allocation to people on the winery mailing list and selected restaurants and shops.
  4. Sky-high scores from just one man: critic Robert Parker. A score of 90 points or more from his newsletter The Wine Advocate can make a winery, and scores over 95 practically ensure a cult candidate.
  5. Bandwagon thinking. Cult wines are hypervalued largely because some people have more money than confidence in their own preferences. This has been amplified by the rise of Internet discussion groups for wine lovers, where prevailing opinion is spread with broadband speed.

Want to be a Cult Wine Collector? Be Ready For:

  • Sticker shock. While the wines retail for $150-$450 from the wineries’ mailing lists, auction prices skyrocket from there. Magnums (1.5-liter bottles) are especially prized and can cost thousands.
  • Kissing up to sales clerks in wine stores. Only a few democratic joints, such as Corti Brothers and Beyond Napa, will sell the big names to anyone who walks in. Most others, including David Berkley and The Wine Consultant, have a long list of regular customers who get first pick.
  • Fluctuating fads. Remember that status can fade faster than that jammy fruit flavor. Currently in vogue: Harlan, Screaming Eagle, Araujo, Bryant Family, Colgin. The next wave: Abreu, Gemstone, Sloan, Blankiet and HL.