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Cult Cabernets

Napa Cabernets are shrouded in mystery Parker scores, high prices and limited availability. NORM ROBY looks at the next likely cult members.

At the spry age of 88, Robert Mondavi, Napa Valley’s ambassador, appeared on stage in drag, but when the day ended the headline stars of the 2001 Napa Valley Wine Auction were Screaming Eagle, Dalla Valle’s Maya, Colgin Cellars, Harlan Estate, Staglin Family and other wineries of cult Cabernets. Their auction lots sold from $150,000 up to more than $600,000, higher than the price of most middle America suburban homes. These wineries, along with Grace Family Vineyard, Diamond Creek Vineyard, Bryant Family Vineyard and Araujo Estate, are names that are referred to as cult wines. They share several features such as mind-bogglingly high ($300 per bottle) prices, tiny production, close to 100-point ratings by Parker and the Wine Spectator for at least one vintage, and a demand so strong that people will pay whatever it takes to buy these wines from any source available.


Unlike Bordeaux’s cult wines, sales of these California cult wines are initially to clients on a mailing list. Ann Colgin of Colgin Cellars recently had to stop adding names to her waiting list. She has 1,000 clients on her mailing list and a production of 300 cases of Cabernet from the Herb Lamb Vineyard to offer them. The waiting list had grown to more than 4,500 names, so being added was an exercise in futility for all parties.Now, not suprisingly, we are seeing cult wine wannabes popping up and aiming for instant fame. Pillar Rock Winery is now mentioned as a cult winery. Owner Ronald Kuhn built a small winery in Stags Leap and attracted attention as Napa’s top bidder at $995,000. The ultimate new boutique brand may be JP Harbison, producer of one barrel of 1998 Napa Valley Cabernet. Harbison made only six cases available to the public, donating the rest to charities. While Harbison’s wine is excellent, others are realising that tiny production and high prices are not guarantees of cult status.


In August of this year, Silver Oak Cellars, which bottles close to 80,000 cases a year will release its 1997 Cabernet. On that day it anticipates a crowd of close to 6,000 customers at its Napa and Geyserville facilities, said marketing director Peter Carisetti. Before the cellar doors open, fans will begin to line up at each winery just to buy as many bottles as permitted. Apparently being a normal-size winery does not prevent Silver Oak from being viewed as a cult winery.So for those who did not make the primary list of the current cult Cabernets, take heart in the Silver Oak lesson and look for potential cult Cabernet elsewhere. Established wineries (such as Silver Oak) who continue to market their wines through traditional channels are an excellent source of cult-like wine.

The 1997 Cask 23 from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellar is as great as the 1974, and the same is true of neighbour Shafer Winery with its Hillside Select Cabernet. Also high on my list is Beaulieu Vineyards Private Reserve Cabernet – on top form since the 1990 vintage. Beringer’s Private Reserve Cabernet has outperformed many cults over the last 25 vintages. Caymus Vineyards, now a Cabernet specialist, was founded in 1972, and in the 1990s the demand for Caymus Cabernet has been strong. The Insignia from Joseph Phelps is another cult alternative that is outstanding in the glass and a top performer at auctions. Recently, estate-grown Cabernets from Duckhorn Vineyards have been ripe and showy but beautifully structured along classic lines. Justin Vineyard from Paso Robles is making a cult-worthy red meritage, Isoceles, that in 1996 and 1997 could hold its own with the leaders of the cult. Niebaum-Coppola with its Coppola Family 1998 Cabernet is polished and complex, making it a good alternative.

A second route is to consider those small to modest-sized wineries on the threshold of cult wine fame. Because the 1998 vintage was so uneven, there could be some serious regrouping within the cult and would-be cult ranks when all of the players are on the market. While some stars will be under-achievers in 1998, others like Hartwell Vineyard, Quintessa, Vineyard 29, Craig, Von Strasser and Barnett will emerge as the genuine article, potentially cult Cabernets.

The Next Cult Generation

Hartwell Vineyards: Bob Hartwell has 6.5ha (hectares) on south-facing slopes in the Stags Leap District. His 1995 and 1997 Cabernets were outstanding, overflowing with the richness and velvety texture that define the region. The 1997 was in the same league as the Stag’s Leap Cask 23 and Shafer Hillside Select. In 1998 Hartwell de-classified some of its wine so the amount of 1998 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon was cut back. The end result is a 1998 Cabernet of great concentration with plum and blackcurrant flavours, and an absolutely refined, supple, hedonistic texture. Hartwell’s first Merlot, the 1999, will blow the competition away.

Quintessa: This beautiful estate vineyard in Rutherford was developed by Augustin and Valeria Huneeus who produce one wine, a Bordeaux blend named Quintessa. The rootstocks and clones were matched to the five soil types, and Cabernet, Cabernet Franc and Merlot were planted by soil type and micro-climate. By the 1995 vintage, quality shot up dramatically and the following vintages have been finer yet. Both the 1996 and 1997 exhibit the polish, elegance and finesse one finds in great claret. Harvesting usually is a block by block procedure over four weeks, and after fermentation of each block the blend is assembled relatively early. Aged in French barrels (50% new) for two years, Quintessa is sinfully supple and harmonious. Recent vintages have yielded around 5,000 cases.

Vineyard 29: This small (2.6ha) estate was acquired last year by Chuck and Ann McMinn. They are adding Cabernet Franc to their densely planted, meticulously maintained vineyard at 2929 Highway 29, north of St Helena. Heidi Barrett made several vintages and recently the equally talented Philippe Melka has been handling winemaking. In 1997 production nudged the 1,000 case level, allowing additions to the mailing list. The winery’s style through 1997 was a dark, brooding, concentrated, full-bodied Cabernet with some power and layered flavours. Complex with ripe and sweet tannins, Vineyard 29 Cabernet is highly distinctive but similar to those from Screaming Eagle. It is also the kind of Cabernet that made Napa Valley famous long ago and it has added to the fame of Heidi Barrett, winemaker for Screaming Eagle, Paradigm, and the Jones Family Vineyard.

Robert Craig Wines: Robert Craig offers not one but three fascinating Cabernets, Mt Veeder, Howell Mountain and Affinity, a meritage blend. Bob Craig rose through the Napa Valley ranks as a vineyard manager and developer for Hess and other mountain vineyard projects. His special affinity for mountain-grown grapes became the focus for his approach to Cabernets. Since the premier vintage of 1992, Craig’s Affinity has been rich, concentrated, and ripe, yet with approachable flavours. The 1997 Howell Mountain Cabernet shows all of the wild berry flavour and fruit intensity expected of Howell Mountain. The 1998 Affinity (80% Cabernet, 18% Merlot and 2% Cabernet Franc) is silky, supple and concentrated. Craig sells through a mailing and through a few wine shops.

Von Strasser Winery: Von Strasser is another winery to sweep past the competition in the difficult 1998 vintage. With 6ha (hectares) in the Diamond Mountain appellation, Rudy von Strasser settled into Napa after a stint at Château Lafite. His Diamond Mountain Cabernet (90% Cabernet Sauvignon) is aged for 22 months in French oak, 50% new. An extraordinary reserve, typically 40% Petit Verdot, 40% Cabernet and 20% Merlot, it is aged entirely in new French oak. Both Cabernets are huge, yet soft and amazingly viscous. Von Strasser is about midway toward the production target of 6,000 cases, and the reserves to date have been one barrel per vintage. In 1999 the winery began its Diamond Cartel series of vineyard-designed wines from special vineyards within Diamond Mountain.

Barnett Vineyards: This Spring Mountain producer has developed 6ha of Cabernet, Merlot and Cabernet Franc on steep slopes located at a 600m elevation. Yields are tiny, and from the 1992 vintage onwards, the vineyard has provided an intense, dramatic, ultra-ripe, long-lived Cabernet Sauvignon. Owned by Fiona and Hal Barnett, this winery doesn’t compromise, and is not trying to appeal to any and all critics. In some vintages they bottle 100 cases or so of Cabernet from a special parcel known as Rattlesnake Vineyard.

A third possibility is to gamble and look for new Cabernet producers that have everything together and seem to be charting a cult wine course:

Four ‘can’t miss’ Cult Candidates:

Lail Vineyards: Created in 1995 by Robin Lail, whose family founded Inglenook Vineyards in 1869, Lail Vineyards has a blend of Cabernet and Merlot named ‘J Daniel Cuvee’, after Lail’s father. Lail was a partner in Merryvale and co-founder of Dominus with Christian Moueix. Her family retains 0.8ha of its original vineyard in Yountville and bought 1.2ha on Howell Mountain in 1996. In the 1997 vintage she and winemaker Philippe Melka tilted the blend in favour of Cabernet with Merlot playing a strong second fiddle. That wine, she explains, represented their benchmark style. The 1998 is as similar as the vintage allowed. Current production is around 1,000 cases, and the family has set 2,500 as the long-term goal.

Showket Vineyards: Located in the eastern hills of Oakville, Showket has all the right stuff necessary for stardom. It has a prime vineyard location in the eastern hills of Oakville in the upscale neighbourhood of Dalle Valle and Vine Cliff. Winemaking chores are in the hands of Heidi Barrett who makes big, ripe and structured Cabernets. The winery began with a brilliant, ultra-rich refined 1998 Sangiovese, and its premier Cabernet Sauvignon from the same vintage will debut this autumn. Aged for two years in French oak from several coopers, the 1998 Cabernet shows ripe currant and black cherry fruit and has lots of spicy-toasty oak and integrated tannins. Total production in 1998 was 1,150 cases, and the bottle price is $69.

Sawyer Cellars: Founded in 1994 by Charles and Joanne Sawyer of Florida, it has 2.8ha of Cabernet and some Merlot and Petit Verdot within the Rutherford District. With winemaking handled by veteran Brad Warner, Sawyer’s 1997 Cabernet (with 3% Petit Verdot) was aged for 25 months in French oak, 40% new. Production in 1997 was 490 cases, with a bottle price of $32. The Sawyers also produce a smooth, silky Merlot, polished red meritage named Bradford Meritage and a Sauvignon Blanc.

Madrigal Vineyards: A red wine specialist, the Madrigal family has been farming vineyards since the late 1930s. In 1995, the father and three sons decided to ease into wine production. Using winemaker Jack Ryno, the Madrigals focus on their estate vineyard in the Larkmead District mid-way between St Helena and Calistoga. Recently planted to a high-density scheme, this vineyard is the primary source of Madrigal’s Cabernet and Merlot. To date, all wines are top-notch, including the Petite Sirah. The 1998 Cabernet ranks as one of the best from the year.

Owners of cult wineries object to the name because cult implies a fad and they like to think their brands will endure. Well, should any of them falter, there are many who are ready and able to take their place.

Norm Roby is a co-author of the New Connoisseur’s Handbook of Californian Wine

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