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Silence Is Golden for Screaming Eagle's Founder

Jean Phillips recently purchased a Napa vineyard, but don't expect another cult sensation—she wouldn't want one
Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Aug 19, 2011 10:00am ET

Don't bet on Jean Phillips breeding another Screaming Eagle. She did it once, her way, on her own terms, and that was more than enough for this ever so private former vintner.

Phillips is as shy and humble as they come in Napa Valley. She bought a nice vineyard the other day, and I'm sure she could again make another great wine. But the one thing she couldn't recreate is the timing. Screaming Eagle was a brilliant wine that came along at just the right time, the start of the go-go 1990s. Hers remains one of those rarest of rarities, a wine fantasy come true. Her success reminds me of another tale from Sonoma, the rise of Williams Selyem winery, the garagiste vintners who triggered the ascent of Pinot Noir.

Ms. Phillips happily stepped out of the spotlight a few years ago, and were it not for the text message she sent me Tuesday evening, confirming her purchase of the Pillar Rock property, she has been true to her word, living her life happily in anonymity. She has politely declined invitations to visit at least in part because she values her freedom from attention. Media types are sort of OK. But she can live without them.

Screaming Eagle was as close as an overnight sensation as it gets in wine and, frankly, the notoriety that came with her success exceeded anything that she ever imagined, much less wanted. Lightning struck once and she doesn't need it again.

Hers will remain one of Napa's legendary stories, impossible to duplicate.

Todd Johnson
washington, DC —  August 20, 2011 10:14am ET
True that a wine like this is extraordinarily rare, as are the chances of being lucky enough to afford and even find a bottle of Screaming Eagle, since unlike a Phelps Insignia which produces mass quantities while still being consistently among the best wines, SE was small production and started the cult wine phenom, which along with the tech bubble burst, has lost its luster. I am sure Phelps could duplicate a Screaming Eagle if they decided to, but why bother when they produce the perennial winner with Insignia.

Wine does not have to be so complex to be good as is the same with cooking.
Joseph Newmyer
Bloomfield Hills, Michigan —  August 20, 2011 5:01pm ET
Her success just shows what can happen when you truly have a passion for what you desrire to do. While the financial side of this story will be difficult to duplicate it is possible for some wineries to produce world class wines consisently providing they have the commintment. Name one winery with Screaming Eagle's rating record for any time period you elect to choose. Guess what - there is none! People will always pay substancial prices for large or small production gems that are difficult to obtain. Many of our Clients have filled their cellars with the Phelps, Harlan's etc. They are always looking for the next great wine. It's up to the wineries to produce it! If you cannot be the best at what you do, why do it???
Brent L Pierce
St. Helena, CA —  August 23, 2011 6:18pm ET
Too bad. Seems like a no-brainer, especially if she could get Heidi as winemaker again. But if you don't want to be in a particular business, you don't!
Capn Snyder
AZ —  December 9, 2011 3:53pm ET
Joseph... consistently high ratings? Try Schrader vs. SE for last 10 years.
Thomas S Brennan
Bucks Co. Pennsylvania —  September 18, 2012 6:37am ET
One of the great challenges of tasting wines are the fleeting fabric of a given experience and the impactors that influence-i.e. How you feel that day, consuming with food, drinking other wines at the same time, time of day and the atmosphere at the time (small group/large party), etc. etc..
Last year at my neighbors house(A very generous friend with a substantial cellar), we tasted three greats that evening: a 2007 Hobbs Beckstoffer, a 1997 Harlan and a 2003 SE, in that order. The Hobbs and Harlan were visibly beautiful wines, well delineated and blockbuster stuff. Then the SE was served up-visibly cloudy, and seemed mucked up. Then the bouquet hit-then the taste and the wine soared. It left the other two wines in the dust. The 1997/2007 years were iconic-the 2003 was good but not a great year.
Go figure-how do you explain the SE's performance based on what you anticipated with the other wines? I think you don't- it just depends, doesn't it?? We just go with it and be thankful!

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