The History of Cultwines

How Screagle, Harlan et al. came to be

To fully understand the California cult wine phenomenon, one must know that it did not arise from a vacuum. Its source material lies in the fact that the wealthy and powerful always have coveted certain wines, whose rarity put them out of reach of all but Emperors and Popes...

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Perhaps the first coveted wine recorded in history was Falernian. Pliny the Elder tells us that Julius Caesar served it in 46 B.C., on the occasion of a banquet he held to celebrate his third consulship. Apparently a sweet white wine, Falernian even had celebrated vintages; the 121 B.C. was as famous in its day as, say, 1945 was for the Médoc. It also lasted for a very long time. Petronius, a Roman who may have written the Satyricon, recorded that at another banquet “[T]hey brought in some glass amphorae carefully sealed with labels tied to their necks, inscribed ‘Falernian of the Opimian vintage. A Hundred Years Old.'” The Opimian Vintage, named after the consul Opimius who ruled in 121 B.C., was another of those celebrated years, like 1811, when Halley’s Comet was seen from Earth on its 76-year passage. “There was such a blaze of hot weather [that year],” Pliny writes, “the grapes were literally cooked…”. H. Warner Allen (1881-1968, from whose book, “The Romance of Wine [1932], I obtain much of this information), tells us the 121 B.C. Falernian had an alcohol level of 15%, and may have been rather Sherry-like. Whatever its characteristics, the point is that Caesar himself coveted it. It was, in essence, the first “cult wine.”

History records many others. Samuel Pepys, the English diarist, recorded on April 10, 1663, drinking “a sort of French wine called Ho Bryan, that hath a good and most perticular taste that I never met with”; that wine was Haut-Brion. More than 100 years later,Thomas Jefferson (as Hugh Johnson reminds us in “Vintage” [1989]), called it “the most esteemed at Bordeaux.” Jefferson also was a fan of “Sauterne” and particularly of the wines of “M. Diquem” which, of course, was Chateau d’Yquem. Both Haut-Brion and Yquem remain among the world’s most coveted wines.

In California, perhaps the first “cult” wine was a Cabernet Sauvignon, from a vineyard called La Questa [“the quest”], planted in the hills of a small town, Woodside, south of San Francisco, that straddles the border of the Santa Cruz Mountains viticultural area, near modern-day Silicon Valley. The American wine importer Frank Schoonmaker, writing in “American Wines” (1941) described La Questa as “the most expensive Cabernet listed…on most California wine lists of the early 1900s,” and the great Gerald Asher writes that he tasted a half bottle of the 1936 vintage when it was nearly 50 years old and found the “cassis we associate with distinguished classed growths of the Médoc.”

André Tchelistichef’s Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, from Beaulieu’s vineyards in the central Napa Valley, was for many decades the most famous and one of the most expensive Cabernets in California, although it might be stretching the point a bit to call it a cult wine. I think the first modern Cabernet Sauvignon we can say achieved cult status (although this was long before that word was in vogue) was Heitz Cellars’ Cabernet Sauvignon from Martha’s Vineyard, in Oakville. The first vintage was in 1966, and was considered shockingly expensive at $7.50 the bottle. The late Harry Waugh, who was on the Board of Directors of Chateau Latour, tasted it when it was five years old and called it a “triumph”; he described the ‘67 as “reminding me…of Mouton-Rothschild or Lynch-Bages.” Robert Balzar, a famous American wine writer of the mid- and late 20th century (he presided over the wine service for Ronald Reagan’s two inaugural celebrations), called the Martha’s “one of the finest clarets of the world.” By the 1970s, Heitz Martha’s (those were the only two words you had to say for connoisseurs to understand) was the reigning Cabernet in California, coveted by many, owned by few.

But things were changing quickly. After Robert Mondavi established his eponymous winery, also in Oakville, in 1966, the explosion of “boutique wineries” that followed soon provided ample competition for the heavyweight title.

Written by Steve Heimoff


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