Cult Worship | The New Cult Cabernets
Napa Valley cult Cabernets epitomize the vanished days of '90s excess. Or do they? Wine Editor Lettie Teague finds the trend very much alive.Get free recipes every week! Click here to sign up for The Dish—our weekly e-mail newsletter.
It never fails to surprise me how many big names from one decade become obsolete by the next. Take, for example, a few from the '90s. Does anyone care about Ross Perot? Gennifer Flowers? Tickle Me Elmo? Famous then, forgotten now. There are, of course, some notable exceptions, like Hillary Clinton and cult Cabernets.
These Napa wines, which debuted in the '90s, became almost as renowned for their four-figure prices as for their tiny production amounts and rich, concentrated style. And while some pundits predicted their outsize popularity would disappear when the decade's prosperity did, labels like Harlan Estate, Araujo and Screaming Eagle are as sought after as ever. Moreover, it seems every new Napa label has been made in the hope that it, too, will become a cult Cabernet. But which, if any, are likely to be the next big names? I went to Napa to talk to a few top producers and taste some new wines.
"I don't like the word cult," Bill Harlan told me, looking pained. (Never mind that his Harlan Estate red helped inspire the name.) Harlan recently launched a new Cabernet label called Bond—which others are calling (predictably) "the new Harlan." But he isn't interested in making a cult wine per se: "We're just trying to make wines that can compete with the world's best."
Of course, in Harlan's case, that means competing against his own wines. In fact, the three 2001 Bonds that I tasted in barrel—St. Eden, Melbury and Vecina—reminded me a lot of the original Harlan: They were big, rich, powerful and impressive, though still very much in their youth. This was hardly a revelation, as they are all produced by the same winemaking team using the same vineyard techniques (densely planted, low-yielding hillside sites). But unlike Harlan Estate, produced from Harlan-owned vineyards, each Bond wine is made with fruit from a different grower's vineyard, cultivated with direction from the Harlan team. And the Bonds cost less though they're hardly cheap: The first (1999) vintage sold for $150 a bottle, versus $265 for Harlan Estate. And how had they been received? All were sold out, was the reply.
I wasn't surprised that the Harlan team could turn out a second cult label (even if they don't want to call it that), but what about the new producers? What were their strategies for creating a would-be cult wine? I put the question to Jeff Smith of Hourglass Vineyard.
Smith and I met in his mod office in downtown St. Helena, which he said was often mistaken for an architectural firm or a beauty parlor, "depending on what we put in the window." Smith shares the space with a tiny wine shop, Acme Fine Wines, which specializes in—what else?—cult wines, although owners David Stevens and Karen Williams prefer to call them "boutique" wines.
What was Smith's first requirement in creating a would-be cult wine? A densely planted hillside vineyard, he replied. (His own is a closely spaced four-acre affair north of town.) As Smith pointed out, many of the original cult Cabs—Bryant Family, Colgin Cellars, Harlan, Dalla Valle—came from hillside sites. The reasons were simple: Better drainage meant better water control and less vigorous vines, which produce smaller berries with more intense flavors.
But there are plenty of hillside vineyards in Napa that don't produce cult wines, I replied. Isn't it important to make sure the wine is hard to get? Smith agreed. "Phelps Insignia is a great wine, but there are 15,000 cases made every year. You can't have a cult wine that's available at Costco," he said. Consider the original cult wines: Harlan's production is around 1,500 cases; Screaming Eagle, 500; Bryant Family, 900; and Colgin Cellars, 350. Did Smith make only 150 cases of his rich, textured Cabernet that first year because he was aiming for cult status? "No, it was because we didn't know what we were doing," he laughed. His production is now at around 700 cases, an amount he pronounced ideal. (The distribution of cult wines varies, but most wineries strive for a mix of mailing-list customers and restaurant accounts. Cult wines are rarely, if ever, found in stores.)
And price? Is a cult Cabernet by definition pricey? They can be expensive, Smith replied (after all, they aren't cheap to produce), but they don't have to be. His first, 1997, vintage cost $75; this year's release is closer to $100, but, he insisted, "people tell me I'm underpriced." David Stevens of Acme overheard this exchange and came by to join our discussion. Cult-worthy Cabs, he asserted, can be more affordable: from $45 to $60 a bottle. He named Drinkward Peschon, Stanton Vineyards, Arns and TOR—none much more than $60. And Hourglass? I asked. Well, yes, Stevens conceded, Hourglass, HL Vineyards and Hundred Acre are all close to or over $100 a bottle. Was it, I wondered, the "H" that costs extra?
When I visited Hundred Acre later that day, I mentioned this conversation to owner Jayson Woodbridge and his winemaker Philippe Melka (who also happens to be the new winemaker for Bryant Family). I'd admired Woodbridge's ultrarich Cabernet too, though its style was softer, rounder and more accessible than that of Hourglass. Woodbridge took exception to the hillside rule (he had just planted a hillside vineyard, but his Hundred Acre vineyard happens to be planted on flat ground). The quality of the soil, he contended, makes the difference—that and the talent of the winemaker, of course, he added, with a nod toward the talent.
Melka kept his thoughts on talent and hillsides to himself, though he theorized that what any would-be cult wine really needed was the approval of one man: critic Robert M. Parker, Jr. "Without his blessing, it will be hard for any wine to achieve cult status," said Melka. (I wondered what Parker would think of the theory that his critical powers trump even geographical fact.)
A chat with winemaker Mark Aubert of Colgin Cellars (and earlier, Peter Michael fame) revealed much the same thing, although Aubert contended there were very few great hillside sites and "a lot of counterfeits." Not to mention some counterfeit winemakers. He cited an ad in a local newsletter in which a winemaker offered his services making "cult wines." Aubert telephoned. "Needless to say, the guy had never made a wine you'd recognize."
My last appointment was with Aubert's mentor, the cult-wine-producing goddess Helen Turley. We met at the winery of her client Blankiet, whose hillside vineyard is so close to the Yountville Veterans Home that we accidentally ended up in their annual parade. To Turley, a hillside site was not the only necessity for a cult wine (though she too eschewed the word "cult"): The vineyard should face east, preferably near a body of water, and possess fractured rock or gravel soil.
No wonder so many people want to make cult wine: All that's required is the right winemaker, the right (hilly, east-facing, water-adjacent) site, the right price per bottle, the right production level and, of course, Parker's phone number. But, as Aubert noted, "A cult wine can't be made with a pen." It needs something ineffable. Call it charisma or glamour or even magic, it makes some wines stars and others also-rans—and as every great winemaker will say, it's what keeps them all in the game.