The $9,000 bottle of wine

Sunset's Sara Schneider takes us into the crazy world of California's cult Cabernets. Are they that much better than a BevMo splurge?

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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).

 

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