What is a cult wine? If you want more than the typical flippant answer – it’s a wine you cannot afford – here goes how I would explain what makes a cult wine. This explanation is best described by a story about a friend of ours. Our good friend, Steve Carpenter, along with his wife, are extraordinarily knowledgeable about wine, have a large cellar, and are generous in opening up legendary wines in their collection for friends such as us. (We’re very really lucky in who we have as friends.) A few years ago, Steve found a Cabernet Sauvignon, the 2012 Ontogeny by Bevan Cellars, that he absolutely loved. The wine critic Robert Parker had recently scored it quite high, and Bevan’s small production of it made finding bottles still available very hard. Steve did some research and found out that one random wine store in Las Vegas still had three bottles. The wine store, however, would not ship to Colorado. So, Steve paid for the wine and told the wine store to hold it. He then bought a plane ticket to Las Vegas, picked up the wine, and brought it back to Colorado. That, my friends, is the very definition of a cult wine – a wine that gains such a religious following that people will literally fly around the country to scoop up the last few available bottles.If a winery needs to state it makes a cult wine, that claim all but guarantees they do not. Click To Tweet
Unlike the First Growths of Bordeaux, there is no set list of which wines are cult wines and which are not. This, of course, leads various American wineries to claim that their wines are cult wines. However, if a winery needs to state it makes a cult wine, that claim all but guarantees they do not make a cult wine. Rather, a cult wine is one that has a small production and is in such demand that the prices for it get inflated (especially in the secondary market) beyond all rational levels. If the winery makes a cult wine, it doesn’t need to say it makes a cult wine; rather the fact that its wines are unaffordable prove the point. It’s basic economics – the supply is tiny (for example, Screaming Eagle produces 600 cases a year), and the demand is gigantic – which leads to astronomical prices. These wineries have waiting lists for many years to get any wine directly from the winery (we signed up on the Screaming Eagle waiting list in 2007 and we are still waiting nine years later to get on its allocation list… ahem, hint hint Screaming Eagle).
So, which particular wines are the cult wines? With some wealthy friends, (as I said before, we’re lucky when it comes to our friends), we had a cult party a year ago where we opened up most of the cult wines from the 2004 vintage. The wines we chose to have at the party were:
- Araujo Estates
- Bryant Family Vineyard
- Colgin Cellars
- Harlan Estate
- Schrader Cellars
- Screaming Eagle
- Sloan Estate
So, one could take this as a rough list of the California cult wines. People can certainly disagree with this list, and other names that also are commonly listed as cults from California are Bond, Dalla Valle Vineyards, Grace Family Vineyards, and Sine Qua Non; though again there is no agreed upon list.
The story of Sine Qua Non’s elevation to cult status, recounted more thoroughly in the book, The Emperor of Wine, is hysterical. The wine critic, Robert Parker, who has an out-sized impact on the wine market, tasted a bottle, loved it, and called up the owner to ask about the wine. When he realized that the phone number listed for the winery was the owner’s personal phone number, Parker insisted the owner set up a business number right away as Parker was about to write up Sine Qua Non in his magazine, The Wine Advocate. Two weeks later, when Parker’s magazine came out with gushing praise of the wine, the phone never stopped ringing at Sine Qua Non with people desperately trying to purchase this (now impossible to obtain) wine. Fortunately, the owner had heeded Parker’s advice, and set up a separate phone number for the winery.Although Screaming Eagle was the top of both of our lists, it was only slightly ahead of the others Click To Tweet
Returning to our cult wine tasting, we used both wine-searcher.com and cultwine.com to locate the bottles. Although all wines were great, my favorites were Screaming Eagle, Scarecrow, and Araujo; and my husband’s favorites were Screaming Eagle, Araujo, and Bryant Family. Sloan wasn’t far behind those for either of us. And, although Screaming Eagle was the top of both of our lists, it was only slightly ahead of the others – even though it is far more expensive.
If you, like us, have been lucky enough to have some of the cult wines, what are your favorites? And, what wines did I leave off the list of cult wines that really should be included?