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.