Californian Cult

Distinctly American

Wines that have come out of nowhere and become collectable, extremely expensive commodities have a habit of coming out of California more than anywhere else

Since there is no official listing of which wineries in California qualify for “cult” status, it’s anyone’s guess. There are certain properties we can all agree upon: Screaming Eagle, for example, and Harlan Estate, also in Napa Valley. Others are less obvious. Is Marcassin a cult wine? Alban? Saxum? Blankiet? Williams Selyem? Kistler? Opinions will vary.

The “cult” word seems to apply only to red wines; I suppose there are certain California Chardonnays that are coveted, but you never hear them referred to as cult wines. Nor are there cult dessert wines in California (as, for instance, Yquem is in Bordeaux). If the term originated with Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, it now has spread to other varieties: Pinot Noir, certainly, and (arguably) Syrah, or Rhône-style red blends.

Yet Napa Cabernet (or Bordeaux blends) remains the epicenter of the cult wine phenomenon. Besides Screaming Eagle and Harlan, properties generally accorded entry into the cult realm include Araujo, Colgin, Bryant Family, Sloan, Hundred Acre, Futo, Abreu, Schrader, Grace Family, Scarecrow, Levy & McClellan (Bob Levy makes Harlan and his wife Martha McClellan makes Sloan) and Staglin. One often finds, associated with these brands, the same names: celebrated consulting winemakers and vineyardists who rotate from property to property (and even from continent to continent), their services always in demand; for to have a name attached to your wine such as Heidi Barrett, Michel Rolland or David Abreu is a glittery thing.

If there is a geographic epicenter to the cult epicenter within Napa Valley itself, it would be Oakville, the tiny hamlet immediately north of Yountville and south of Rutherford. It is to Napa Valley what Pauillac is to Bordeaux: home to the most, and most famous, first growths. I would not want to overstate the case (since great Cabernet Sauvignon evidently can come from anywhere in Napa Valley), but Oakville’s temperature pattern, which is warm but not overly hot, seems to suit Cabernet best. The greatest of Oakville Cabernets come, however, not from the flatlands along the Napa River, but from the benches and slopes of the Vaca Mountains, in the east, and up onto the benches and hills west of Highway 29.

The list of cult wines is, and always will be, fluid. A Cabernet called M by Michael Mondavi (the elder son of the late Robert) vies to enter the pantheon, and well might, as it is certainly as fine as anything else already on the list. A Cabernet called The Vineyard House, also from Napa Valley, could make it. Some individuals, such as the Japanese magnate Kenzo Tsujimoto, spend untold tens of millions of dollars establishing new, unproven estates in Napa, hoping to be the next cult wine. Only time will tell if Kenzo Estate makes the list. Then, too, some wines that used to be cults have fallen off, by general consensus. Dunn Vineyards’ Howell Mountain used to be a cult wine. Groth Reserve certainly was, after Robert Parker gave it 100 points in the 1980s. Both are still good wines, but they seem a little passé.

It must also be said, from a critical point of view, that there are wines every bit as good as the cult wines, yet that lack the shining halo of cultdom. That a wine is rare, coveted and expensive can never be a guarantee of greatness.

The risk and the challenge of being a cult wine, as with famous movie stars, is that it is difficult to remain on top forever. The public is fickle, and wants new superstars to satiate their boredom and amuse them. The Great Recession, too, is taking its toll on the cult wines, as the only people who can afford them anymore seem to be Asian billionaires. Yet there will always be cult wines for the simple reason that people crave status and rank; and possession of the latest cult wine confers both on the possessor.

Written by Steve Heimoff

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