In its second decade, Food & Wine was swinging for the fences: Julia Child and Marcella Hazan joined as contributing editors, we launched the Best New Chefs award, and we expanded our exploration of global cooking traditions with passion, curiosity, and, as always, great recipes.
If the 1990s marked the rise of the celebrity chef—thanks specifically to the Food Network, which launched in 1993—those years also marked the appearance of the first celebrity wines: the “cult Cabernets” of Napa Valley.
Just as names like Julia Child and Wolfgang Puck were precursors to a deluge of TV-ready chef talents that started popping up with whack-a-mole regularity on the airwaves, there were wines that could serve as early stirrings of the cult era: In the ’70s and ’80s, cars would line up along Napa’s state Route 29 on release days for Heitz Cellar’s famed Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet; equal numbers of fans would swarm Silver Oak’s release days, desperate for a bottle or two.
Those wines were pricey, but they were still accessible. In 1990, a bottle of Heitz Martha’s would run you $50 at the winery; by no means inexpensive, especially at the time, but within the realm of reason. Even the most expensive of the quintet of stars that first appeared in 1995 and 1996—Araujo, Bryant, Colgin, Harlan, and Screaming Eagle, the names that truly launched the term “cult Cabernet”—topped out at $65 a bottle.
Then things went nuts. In 1997, for instance, a single bottle of the initial 1992 vintage of Screaming Eagle—released in 1995 and originally priced at $50—sold at auction in Chicago for $715. Similar markups happened elsewhere. The frenzy (fueled partly by the tech-boom heat of the Clinton-era economy, partly by critic Robert Parker’s stratospheric scores for these wines, and partly by their minuscule production levels) was on. To get the wines, you had to get on the mailing list; to get on the mailing list, you had to get on the waiting list. You had to bide your time, twiddle your thumbs, and hope—or else hit the nearest wine auction and pay through the nose.
Were the wines good? Exceptionally so, in a certain style: Hedonistic, lush, extravagant, powerful, concentrated—their flavors and textures seemed to mimic their exclusiveness. They also created a model (for better or worse) for high-end Napa Valley Cabernet: hire a star vineyard manager and consulting winemaker, make the wine in enforced-scarcity amounts, plan on a stupendously high Parker score, and sell exclusively to a mailing list and (possibly) a few top restaurants. You could even make a case that this moment was what completed the work started by the 1976 Judgment of Paris tasting. Now, not only were California wines seen as competitive in terms of quality against the great wines of France, but the most acclaimed of them were able to command equally extravagant prices, too. A good thing? Probably, at least for Napa Valley. For the rest of us, well, in just a couple of years we’d all be shifting our gaze sideways and starting to think, “Hey—wait a minute. What about Pinot Noir?”
Cult Winemakers’ Passion Projects
Many of the winemakers known for their work with cult Cabernets make great wines at less-than-culty prices, too.
Heidi Barrett, who made Screaming Eagle’s first vintages, is the longtime winemaker at Paradigm. Try the powerful, distinctive 2013 Paradigm Cabernet Sauvignon ($85).
Andy Erickson made Screaming Eagle from 2006 to 2011. Track down the ROOM wines he makes with his wife Annie Favia, like the bright 2016 ROOM Albariño Calveras County ($28).
Philippe Melka has consulted for Bryant Family and Dalla Valle, among others. His polished 2014 Melka CJ ($75) Cabernet blend shows his deft touch.
Formerly a consultant for both Dalla Valle and Araujo, Mia Klein also has her own brand: Selene Wines. Look for her graceful, blueberry-scented 2015 Selene Chesler Cabernet Franc ($40).