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Welcome to our first post of Know Your Napa Cult Wineries!  You may be asking what is a cult winery and why do I care to know them?  Cult wineries by definition are wineries that make very small amounts of wine that receive outrageously high scores, praise, and accolades from wine critics, wine media, and wine experts.  They also make incredible wine! As you might expect, the wines released by these producers can range in price from expensive to “What? Am I getting a free Ferrari with this bottle??”

You may wonder what separates the expensive and the outrageously priced wineries.  Very simple…

Exclusivity

Ah yes.  We Americans love our exclusivity.  We love to have what others can’t have.  It fills us with pride.  It makes us feel that chicks still dig us despite the unsightly paunch in our bellies and folically challenged domes.  It’s why we’ll wait 10 years to get into that top golf club or wait 2 months to get a table at French Laundry.

It’s all about supply. You see, anyone willing to schlep out $1,000 for a CHÂTEAU HAUT-BRION Pessac-Léognan can do so. They made over 10,000 cases in 2009.  Opus One made over 16,000 cases in 2008 of their expensive Cab.  But a Screaming Eagle?  Not so fast sparky.  They only made 680 cases. You can’t get one if you’re not on their allocation list. To get on the allocation list you have to first be on the waiting list.  In their FAQ on the website one of the questions pertains to a wanna be customer who has been on the wait for 2 years and when can he get in.  Answer?  We don’t know!! That my friends is exclusivity.

Not All Cult Wineries Are This Over The Top

Note that Screaming Eagle and the other top end producers are more of an exception than a rule.  Most cult producers have much more reasonable prices, deliver amazing wines, and are much more accessible than these creme de la cremes.  In this series, we will not usually introduce wineries whose wines we have not tasted.  Have we had an SE?  No and probably never will. However their story is interesting so we introduce the mother of all cult wineries…

Screaming Eagle began in 1986 when founder Jean Phillips, a former real estate agent, bought the 57 acre Oakville vineyard that was soon to gain enormous attention.  For the first few years, she managed the parcel as a pure vineyard selling the grapes to other producers.  The parcel contained a mix of varietals and 1   acre (roughly 80 vines) of Cabernet.  This she did not sell.  Instead, she had some folks at Robert Mondavi have a look at them to see the potential for creating her own Cab.  After a thumbs up from the Mondavi people, she hired winemaker Heidi Barrett to get the first vintage off the ground.

The 1992 Screaming Eagle Cabernet was released in 1995 to instant smashing reviews.  Robert Parker gave the wine a 99 with Wine Spectator just as impressed calling it the wine of the vintage (scored: 96).  Subsequent releases got equal praise and by the 1995 release, the wines price grew to $100.  I would assume the waiting list started about this time as well.

Changes

From 1992 until 2006, all went well with SE at the top of the Napa Valley food chain.  In 2006, owner Jean Phillips suddenly sold the entire operation to sports agent Charles Banks and notable sports franchise owner Stanley Kroenke.  Out went winemaker Barrett and in came Andy Erickson (formally of another high rated cult producer Staglin).  After a short lived dip in scores and praise and a price raise to $500 a bottle, SE climbed back on top.  However, more change was in the offing.

Uncertainty

In 2009 Banks and Kroenke apparently had a falling out with Banks leaving the operation.  By 2011 winemaker Erickson followed to be replaced by former Harlan Estates young gun Nick Gislason.  These rapid (by wine industry standards) changes have left members with some sharp uncertainty about the future.  So far the wines are still scoring in the low 90’s but have not had a breakout vintage in a while.  According to several blogs I’ve read and chatter in some of the discussion forums, current customers on the allocation list are staying the course but are a bit nervous about the changes. Time will tell but with Gislason’s star on the rise things should be just fine at SE.

Cinderella Story

So there you have it.  A meteoric rise to the top of the Napa heap for an inexperienced former real estate agent, sale to big name investors, and shake ups galore make this a very interesting Cinderella Story unlikely to be repeated.

If You Could, Would You?

If you could get on the allocation list of exclusive cult wineries would you do it? I’m pretty sure my answer would be no.  That said, there’s more to these Napa darlings than just the pure taste of their wine.  On that level, the answer is clearly no.  Why pay $2,500 for 3 bottles of a wine that you would score a 94 when you could get a biscuit shy of 3 cases of wine you would score a 98?  No, there’s more to it than flavor. Exclusivity, trendiness, prestige, bragging rights.. However you slice it, there is something that keeps these producers going…

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