Just after recording Matt Parish talking about how everybody should be able to afford great Napa Cabernet, I read the perfect article to follow that video up in the San Francisco Chronicle on the history of cult wines and where they are today.
I say it’s perfect because the author honestly explores Cult Cab, a world so exclusive that even wine journalists get goosebumps when they’re invited for a sip of wine. And while Matt and I come at this with a very strong opinion that wine should be more accessible, this article is informative and impartial.
What is a cult cab?
First things first: it’s not as cool as it sounds.
The term Cult Cab refers to a group of really hard-to-get wines that cost a fortune to buy and have relatively long waiting lists which make them hard to buy even if you are rich as Crassus.
The usual suspects all popped up around the same time: Screaming Eagle, Harlan, etc.
Sometimes the term is broadened to just mean the wine is popular and highly sought out (although the SF Chron also published a great article about the new generation of sought-out wines that are more “clique wines” than “cult wines”). We frequently refer to Merus, Grange and others as cult wines even though we really just mean they’re expensive and hard to get your hands on.
But the classic Cult Cabs are a specific group of wines with a really intriguing history…
How did the Cult Cabs come to be?
Esther, the SF Chron writer, digs into the history of the small wineries and winemakers who kicked off this whole trend.
There’s some interesting history about Stony Hill and early Heitz cuvees that raked in $35/bottle in 1975 (that’s $159.50 in today dollars according to DollarTimes).
And then you get to the 1980’s when Grace Family Vineyards and Dalla Valle started turning heads.
Then in the 90’s you’ve got five new wineries launching their first vintages: Araujo, Bryant, Colgin, Harlan and Screaming Eagle.
There are a lot of similarities between the wines that pioneered this space
- Napa Cabernet, baby.
- Mid-slope hillsides
- Investments from outside the wine biz
- Very low volumes
- Audaciously high prices for the time
- They strove for perfection
- They didn’t simply copy what was being done in Europe
- oh, and there’s a funny overlap in consultants/winemakers
- David Abreu (Araujo, Bryant, Colgin, Grace, Harlan, Screaming Eagle)
- Michel Rolland (Araujo, Bryant, Dalla Valle, Harlan, Screaming Eagle)
- Heidi Peterson Barret (Dalla Valle, Grace, Screaming Eagle)
- Helen Turley (Bryant, Colgin)
The Caricature of Cult Cabernet
Eventually, Cult Cabs became the target of a lot of hate.
I myself am regularly beating the drum for transparency in wine and for affordable pleasure. I read Reverse Wine Snob and Wine Curmudgeon and other writers who believe that wine should not be too expensive to enjoy.
And here you’ve got a small group of wineries with closed doors and huuuge price tags, and they’re a very easy target (like that time Harlan was suspected of selling some of the wine they produce at Costco under a private label – see? I just can’t help myself.)
But there’s an interesting twist here. It’s that Armand de Maigret (Screaming Eagle) said, “I wish people would stop being jealous.” He continues, “Don’t be jealous…Don’t hate us because you’ve never tasted the wine.”
But who can taste the wine?!
These wines are inaccessible by design.
The Chronicle article is great because it acknowledges that these wines are delicious. They’ve got sunny ripeness and taste like fruit (“Who hates fruit?”) And it acknowledges their important place in the history of Californian wine.
But ultimately, there’s a literal emptiness to these wineries. In their desire to maintain exclusivity, they’re creating wine that will only be enjoyed by a tiny few. And their economics mean that this small number must pay a hefty fee to keep the winery in business.
I personally could devote my life to many pursuits. I’m so proud of the wines my family makes. Incredibly proud. And I’m even prouder that normal Americans and Brits get to drink these wines.
And I’m so happy that my parents and I can make our living this way. Without becoming one of the extravagantly priced icon wines that once made Jancis Robinson ask “Icon: is that one word or two?“