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james laube's wine flights

A Mystery Solved

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Oct 27, 2006 12:06pm ET

I wondered about it. James Suckling blogged about it, too. And several people who tried the Screaming Eagle Cabernet -- including new owner Charles Banks and his winemaker, Andy Erickson -- at Friday’s Wine Experience seminar had the same impression: The wine didn’t have the richness and opulence it typically shows.

Now we know why: We weren’t trying the 2002, as planned. The wine actually poured was the 2003, which was a weaker vintage overall.

A shipping snafu led to six cases of the wrong vintage being sent to San Francisco. And, as the vintage date is at the bottom of the back label, where it can be obscured when someone is holding the bottle to pour it, none of us on the panel caught it until later.

It’s difficult tasting on stage in front of 1,000 people. But in my notes, I wrote that the Screaming Eagle tasted austere and closed, more like the 88-point wine that it was than a 95, which is what the 2002 scored.

Banks, who was on the panel, noticed it too, as did his winemaker, Erickson, sitting in the audience. “I’d had the [2002] wine along with the other 2002s [poured that afternoon] a few days earlier, and it didn’t have the richness and depth it had shown,” Banks told me today. “It just didn’t taste the same as it usually does.” He and Erickson wondered if the wine had been decanted long enough.

My colleague Suckling also commented in his blog this week that the 2002 Screaming Eagle didn’t show as well as it did in a cult wine tasting this past summer.

Well, now we know why we think it didn't show that well.

So for those of you who attended the tasting, you’ll have to modify your scorecards. Scratch the 2002 and put in 2003. Very different wines.

Lucie Sweda
October 27, 2006 12:59pm ET
Will everyone who attended receive a bottle of the 2002 as a result of this mix up?
Mark Mccullough
GA —  October 27, 2006 3:32pm ET
A good example on the 2003 overall vintage rating debate also.
Colin Haggerty
La Jolla, California —  October 28, 2006 10:34am ET
Is he still charging $500 for what he acknowledges is an 88-point wine?
Stephen J Levin
California —  October 28, 2006 10:36am ET
I question whether this was an inadvertant error. If you had five cases of an 88 point wine to donate to the Wine Experience, or five cases of a 95 point wine to donate, and you had just paid ninety-hundred-gazillion dollars for the winery, which would you send? I would probably send the 88 point wine and say "ooops!" later.
Tom Kees
October 28, 2006 1:11pm ET
I don't understand why there is so much coverage of cult wines by Laube and others when 99% of us will never taste these wines. It seems to me that the wine press ought to talking about wines that most of the world can taste or buy.
Dan Kosta
October 28, 2006 3:35pm ET
I LOVE it when this happens! It is not often when an adverse situation arises that truly and blindly confirms or questions our own palates. This happened to me recently when I didn't check the vintage on one of my own bottles of KB. I did a double take, checked the label and Voila! Not the vintage I had thought. I'm glad I picked it up, unlike when I call my Dad and he says, "Who's this?"
Charles J Stanton
Eugene, OR —  October 29, 2006 1:05am ET
I have to admit getting a chuckle out of this faux pas. Last year during the Grand Tasting in NYC, all of the pourers (including the great Bordeaux first growths) for the wines were gracious and a joy to interact with, save one. The fellow pouring the Screaming Eagle (with an eyedropper, I might add) kept grousing about how much he could sell the wine for, instead of having to pour it por nada (for the rabble, I take it). C'mon guys, is it really necessary to bow deeply at the waist and bleat "We're not worthy!" with some of these cult Calif. Cabs?
John Wilen
Texas —  October 29, 2006 8:42am ET
Tom, the reason that a publication like WS spends time on cult wine producers is obvious, and the rationale is not simply limited to the world of wine. In many industries, leading edge change and innovation occurs "at the margin" by outsiders. Often it is the small, out of the mainstream firm that brings true innovation to an industry. On the other hand, mass producers usually end up emphasizing manufacturing and sales efficiencies out of necessity. Few find the resources to support a culture of innovation.

Regardless of whether most people will ever get to try these cult wines, it is critical to understand what they are and how they were made. Yes, they are woefully expensive, but that is because they are dreadfully inefficient. The vineyard and winery techniques they are employing would quickly kill a large producer. Fortunately for them, and all of us, wine collectors and trophy seekers are willing to fund their R&D. Over time, you and I will benefit as their improvements permeate the rest of the industry.
Will Miner
Denver, CO —  October 29, 2006 2:09pm ET
John, wrong analogy. Wine is not an R&D-oriented commodity -- unless people are developing new hybrids or genetically engineering their grapes and not telling us -- but a craft-oriented business. And I challenge you to show that the making of Screaming Eagle involves cost that are proportional to the excessiveness of its price. Yes, the grapes are from expensive real estate, but that's about it.

In fact, SE is expensive because it can be. There are enough collectors for whom $500 a bottle is no object who can snap it up. Even though in my own business I like to set prices based on my perception of value, it would be hard to thumb my nose at a bonanza like that. WS and the other ratings publications facilitate this premium with their ratings -- almost any winery whose wines consistently score in the 90s seems to push its price upward each year as far as it can. But to equate the inflated price to some inherent value in the wine itself or in the cost of the winemaking is to not understanding what drives prices at the upper end of the wine market. I'll bet that the price of the 2003 SE doesnt drop, even though it's an 88-point wine, because the rating of a given vintage isn't even what's driving its price.
Anthony Clapcich
October 29, 2006 9:50pm ET
I love some of the commentary! In the end, doesn't it make you laugh to know there are boobs out there that are willing to pay $500 for the emperor's new clothes? What could possibly be the reason for a sane person to drop that kind of cash for a mediocre wine that Laube describes as "austere"? Let's be honest, this kind of activity is purely for trophy or investment purposes, not for enjoying a beverage meant to be consumed with food since ancient times. This little experiment does also point out that most of the experts at WS did NOT get fooled by the false billing, which gives their wine soap box added credibility...keep up the good work!

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