Icons & Innovations: California Cult Wines: California Cults

  • Andrea Robinson

For centuries, France has been the undisputed standard bearer in the world of fine wine. But, in less than a generation, America’s so-called “cult” wines have more or less balanced the critical scale between legendary Bordeaux and relative upstart Napa Valley. A multitude of variables have contributed to this shift, but the two constants in the equation have been the enthusiasm of connoisseurs and critics, and the realities of the vineyard.

High prices have been the most visible result of the first of these factors. At $175 to $300 per bottle, Screaming Eagle, Colgin, Harlan Estate, Grace Family, Araujo, Dalla Valle, and Bryant Family largely have surpassed the cost of the benchmark French Bordeaux reds after which most of them are styled. But these numbers actually make sense when one considers the quantities produced by each of these labels—from a few hundred cases to at most 2,000 per vintage, which pales in comparison to the output of the top-ranked Bordeaux. (Château Lafite Rothschild, for example, produces about 25,000 cases per year.) What raises some eyebrows are the sums these wines fetch at auction. Since only the few hundred or so members on the wineries’ mailing lists (most of which are closed to new customers) can buy them at winery prices, these wines instantly command a price two or three times their initial amount in the secondary market. The $300 bottle of Screaming Eagle instantly becomes a $1,000 bottle—or more—and the buyer confronts the wrenching conundrum: “Can I afford to actually drink this stuff?”

While many of the vintners bemoan this outcome, since they produce their wine to be enjoyed, most of them (most notably Dick Grace of Grace Family) have turned this situation to their advantage by donating standard and large-format bottles to charity auctions, where prices really soar. The less philanthropically minded collectors who buy these bottles acknowledge that part of the price premium comes from the sense of accomplishment they have in acquiring something so scarce. As someone for whom opening a cult is a rare and special occasion, I can attest that the “trophy” value of these wines does add to the thrill of drinking and sharing them with people whom you like or want to impress.

But the greatest impact of these wines may be the improvement of quality at every price point, as other winemakers worldwide try to emulate their success. Given the lengths to which cult winemakers go to achieve quality, establishing a viable contender is not easy. Attention to detail at every stage of production is incredibly exacting. In the vineyard, each individual vine is coddled like a Thoroughbred throughout the growing season, often by a sought-after vineyard expert like David Abreu (whose own wine, Abreu, pulls down critics’ scores comparable to those of the labels whose vineyards he manages). As harvest approaches, excess clusters of grapes are cut from the vine to nurture a few perfect ones. At picking, the grapes are nestled into smaller-than-normal boxes, after which each berry is sorted. The wines go to “finishing school” in oak barrels from the finest French forests and coopers, and every step of the process is usually overseen by one of the “fab four” of consulting enologists: Heidi Peterson Barrett, Mia Klein, Philippe Melka, or Bordeaux’s Michel Rolland.

Ann Colgin of Colgin Cellars aptly refers to this intensive application of science and craft as “extreme winemaking.” American vintners are sometimes criticized for focusing too much on process (extreme or otherwise) instead of on distinctive vineyard sites; but neither Colgin nor any of her peers set out specifically to “create” an important wine using the best-of-the-best techniques. Rather, they sought to achieve the best expression of vineyards that have captured their hearts and imaginations.

American winemaking has always been about the land. Two of the greatest post-Prohibition California wines, Stag’s Leap’s S.L.V. Cabernet and Ridge’s Montebello, are still based on the principle of great vineyard expression—what the French call terroir. But these wines did not influence the tide of California winemaking in the way the modern cults have, since they came to prominence in the late ’60s and early ’70s, when the industry was dominated by big manufacturing entities. Although the core American wine model still emphasizes brand building, the new cult wines have put the quality potential of California’s premier vineyards permanently on the world wine map.

As a Master Sommelier whose palate was trained on the French Bordeaux and Burgundy benchmark wines, I was skeptical of these wines’ ascension to prominence in the ’90s. Were they so much better than the Bordeaux classics that inspired them? They certainly tasted better young, and in many cases, they were better. As Harlan Estate director Don Weaver points out, except for 1990 itself, “Bordeaux had a much tougher go of it,” in terms of vintage quality during the past decade, than did California.

But for me, it was not possible to assess one essential aspect of these wines that is intrinsic to the quality and collectibility of their Bordeaux counterparts: their ability to age. At the same time, some of these estates’ comparatively old-guard neighbors—Opus One and Shafer Hillside Select, for instance—had reached the point of being able to muster 15-to-20-year verticals, and those wines were showing the sumptuous fruit I think of as Californian, as well as the dusty, earthy complexity that, for me, is quintessentially European. And recent tastings of decade-old Colgin, Harlan, Screaming Eagle, Dalla Valle Maya, and Araujo reveal that these wines have reached a similar point, as they transition from the sexy seduction of youthful fruit and oak to the subtlety and substance of what might become the unique expression of their vineyards’ terroir.

Whether they continue to age as gracefully as the greatest Bordeaux over the next 30, 50, or 100 years is difficult to gauge. What is certain, in my opinion, is that California’s cult wines represent a unique blending of old-world trueness to place with new-world drive that has enabled them to prove the potential of their vineyards in decades, not centuries. While the owners of this select group of wineries cringe at the term “cult,” which suggests a short-term fad rather than the long-term commitment to quality and tradition that defines Bordeaux’s great châteaux, these American upstarts nevertheless have managed to inspire winemakers—and wine drinkers—the world over to rethink some of their assumptions about the quality of this most hedonistic collectible.

 

Andrea Robinson is one of only 14 women in the world to be appointed Master Sommelier by the Court of Master Sommeliers. The recipient of two James Beard Foundation awards, she is the author of numerous best-selling books on wine and food and appears regularly on television.

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