I'm in the back row of the steep-pitched amphitheater at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, in the Napa Valley. There are 19 glasses of wine in front of me. Not just any wine. The combined street value of the bottles currently in this room runs into the tens of thousands. Standing below me, presiding, is the man arguably responsible for the wines' stratospheric price tags ― wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr.
The charity tasting is filled with winemakers who've lined up their costly wines with their peers' for Parker's comments. And with others who've paid $1,000 just for a taste of Harlan, Colgin, and Screaming Eagle. As for me, I'm here to find out if a $500 bottle of wine tastes any better than my typical BevMo splurge.
Welcome to the world of California cult wines. Mostly Cabernet Sauvignons, and mostly from the Napa Valley, they've brought an obsessive edge to making great wines, and even challenged the idea of what wine is for: sensory pleasure or savvy investment?
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
For tasting participant Bill Harlan, the road to cult status began with the land. Setting out to make a Napa wine comparable to the legendary first growths in France, he spent years negotiating to buy a piece of property with the right stuff: the well-drained hillsides and volcanic soil known to produce great grapes.
Harlan found his perfect plot tucked in the western hills of Oakville. Then he set to the painstaking work of getting the basics ― rootstock, varieties, clones, spacing, trellising ― just right. Today, Harlan cherry-picks his vineyards to produce fewer than 2,000 cases a year of his namesake label (which sells for $350 a bottle to the lucky few who buy it, untasted, months in advance).
Another cult wine superstar, Ann Colgin, also understood from the beginning how expensive it is to coax even a great vineyard to produce the very best grapes it can. But she added another reputation-launching detail ― an inaugural winemaker whose name practically had the word "cult" attached to it already. Helen Turley had made Peter Michael and her own Marcassin label household names ― at least in houses with rich wine cellars. As it works out, creating a successful cult wine is like creating a winning baseball team. George Steinbrenner knew Alex Rodriguez was worth his salary. Colgin knew Turley was worth hers.
PLEASING MR. PARKER
The cult winemakers have calculated that they can earn as much money selling a few bottles of expensive wine as larger wineries can selling many bottles of cheaper wine. But the success of that business plan requires a final element ― publicity, of a specific, discreet, word-of-mouth variety. And ideally from Robert Parker.
There's no better proof of Parker's influence than the triumph of possibly the most famous of California's cult wines, Screaming Eagle, and its then-winemaker Heidi Peterson Barrett.
Screaming Eagle's current general manager, Ursula Hermacinski, remembers when the label went from mere wine to icon. She was a wine auctioneer, and a case of Eagle came up for bid. "It was the '92, with a release price of $50 a bottle. But the bidding was astonishing ― $1,000, $1,500 … The case went for $9,600. I thought, Something's wrong here."
What was "wrong" (or right) was that Parker had praised the wine in his newsletter, The Wine Advocate. For the collectors who could afford to buy at the top of his 100-point scale, Screaming Eagle's status was sealed.
Today, almost every wine claiming membership in this "cult" has consistently earned scores in the high 90s to 100 from Parker. That means they presumably have what some have called "the Parker style" ― fruity, lush, deep, round, and ripe.
THE BIG TASTING
Back at the Greystone tasting, we're all waiting to see what Parker thinks of the 19 wines he's chosen as the California Cults. And we want to see how our opinions of the wines compare to his.
He tastes. We taste. Are the wines three, five, 10 times as good as their $50 counterparts? No. That's why they call cult wines a phenomenon. But are they good? Yes, and how ― powerful, complex, elegant. All harbor the hefty levels of alcohol that distinguish most California Cabernets from their French cousins. But while many possess almost shameless layers of ripe fruit, others are leaner, almost Bordeaux-like ― testimony to the diversity, not the monotony, of Parker's taste.
As for Parker, affable and unassuming, he minimizes his influence over winemaking styles. "Hey, I'm a fruit guy. I'm only one opinion, but wine is made from fruit. It needs to have fruit." Still, he makes a striking pronouncement, sure to ruffle some feathers in Bordeaux: "I think people need to come to terms with the fact that they" ― meaning California Cabs ― "are better wines."
"YOU COULD SAY THE SAME ABOUT A FERRARI"
As for the average wine lover getting a taste of those "better wines" ― well, that can be a challenge. Take Screaming Eagle. The Napa Valley winery makes only about 500 cases of its legendary Cabernet each year, and only the lucky souls on its mailing list get to buy them ― at $500 per bottle.
Check on eBay a few days after the mailing-list champions claim their bounty, and you may see a bottle or two of the Eagle selling for $900, even $1,300. (Or, for a bottle of Barrett's '92 Screaming Eagle, as much as $9,000.) If you're planning a big night out, you can order it from the wine list at places like Restaurant Gary Danko in San Francisco and Crush in Seattle ― for $1,600 to $3,000.
"Honestly, these high-end wines aren't for everybody," says Colgin. Still, she adds, they bring attention to Napa Valley and fuel quality winemaking there. If cult wines seem elitist, says Bill Harlan, "you could say the same thing about a Ferrari. Is Picasso uninteresting because the average person can't afford one?"
PERSONALITIES OF CULT
Our picks for the best of the best, and a few other names to keep your eye on
Wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr. presided over a remarkable tasting on October 25, 2007, at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena, California. The title: California Cult Wines. And the wines: 19 Cabernets and Cabernet blends that he had picked himself ― all from the Napa Valley, and all of which have gotten very high scores from him on a consistent basis (read on for the complete list).
SUNSET'S PICKS FOR BEST OF SHOW
They don't call these wines "cult" for nothing. Except for the Opus One, all of these particular vintages are sold out at the wineries, and some, such as Colgin and Screaming Eagle, are notoriously difficult to find in any corner of the wine market. If you want to splurge on a coveted label, try the wine list at your favorite high-end restaurant, or scope out the market at Wine-searcher.com. (Our estimates of these bottles' current worth came from Jason Alexander at Vintrust.)
But if your pockets aren't Grand Canyon-deep, don't despair. A couple of our top picks from Parker's tasting can be had for ready money right now, proving that not all great wine requires years of waiting.
Araujo Eisele Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 (Napa Valley). Elegant fruit, with touches of minerals and soy on the nose, gives way to a gorgeous floral palate, layered with blackberries and licorice.
Price at release: $195 (sold out)
What it's worth now: $350
Wait list? Yes. The winery tries to limit the wait to one to three years, closing the list to newcomers if it seems as though the wait might be longer.
Caymus "Special Selection" Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 (Napa Valley). Generous oak houses loam and soy aromas, followed by soft, cedary, spicy dark fruit, with hefty tannins underneath.
Price at release: $136 (sold out at the winery; may be available at high-end retailers)
What it's worth now: $160
Wait list? No
Colgin "IX Estate" 2004 (Napa Valley). A stunner ― silky, elegant, and clean, with deep mocha, dark berries, and cassis flavors.
Price at release: $250 (sold out)
What it's worth now: $400 ― and hard to find
Wait list? Yes, estimated to be three to five years. (There are 3,000 people in line ahead of you.)
Opus One 2004 (Napa Valley). After an earthy, dark, and beautiful nose (Bordeaux-like) full of berries, cedar, and tobacco smoke, the flavors on the palate build slowly and last long, in perfect balance with the nose ― bright and silky at once.
Price at release: $180 (current release)
What it's worth now: $180
Wait list? No
Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 (Oakville). Pure cassis and a whole forest of cedar; intense and balanced.
Price at release: $500 (sold out)
What it's worth now: $1,600 ― if you can find it
Wait list? Oh, yes. The wait to purchase this wine is infamous. Six years? Eight years? Every enophile has a story.
Seavey Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 (Napa Valley). Lean and well structured but approachable. A classic dark and brooding Cab, with blackberries and cocoa.
Price at release: $78 (technically sold-out; may be available at high-end retailers or the winery, though)
What it's worth now: $95
Wait list? No
AND CULTS TO COME
In his bellwether role, Alexander advises keeping an eye on these promising Napa Valley Cabs.
Ghost Block The "ghosts" honored on the label are pioneer winemakers who rest in peace in a tiny 150-year-old cemetery near the Rock Cairn Vineyard this wine is from. The family who makes the wine has harvested that vineyard for at least 100 years. $55.
Maybach Family If you visit this winery's website to find out about its sole offering ― the Materium Cabernet, first released in 2007 for $110 ― you'll see this: "Dear Friends of the Winery, Thank you for your interest in the Maybach wines. The launch of our 2004 'Materium' Cabernet Sauvignon was a success and we are currently sold out. Our 2005 Vintage has been bottled and we anticipate a Spring 2008 release." $110.
Scarecrow Bret Lopez, formerly a professional photographer, has come home to make wine on his grandfather J.J. Cohn's old Rutherford estate, where he played as a child. $150.
Tierra Roja Vineyard & Winery This wine comes from the reddish hills east of Oakville ― starting point for many of the Napa cults. $105.
-Sara Schneider with Elizabeth Jardina
THE COMPLETE GREYSTONE CALIFORNIA CULT LINEUP (in alphabetical order)
Araujo Eisele Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 (Napa Valley)
Beringer "Private Reserve" Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 (Napa Valley)
Bryant Family Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 (Napa Valley)
Caymus "Special Selection" Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 (Napa Valley)
Colgin "IX Estate" 2004 (Napa Valley)
Dalla Valle Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 (Napa Valley)
Dominus 2004 (Napa Valley)
Dunn Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 (Howell Mountain)
Harlan 2004 (Napa Valley)
Hundred Acre Kayli Morgan Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 (Napa Valley)
Joseph Phelps "Insignia" 2004 (Napa Valley)
Kapcsándy Family State Lane Vineyard 2004 (Napa Valley)
Opus One 2004 (Napa Valley)
Paul Hobbs Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 (Oakville)
Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 (Oakville)
Seavey Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 (Napa Valley)
Shafer "Hillside Select" Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 (Stags Leap District, Napa Valley)
Sloan 2003 (Rutherford)
Vineyard 29 Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 (St. Helena)