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California's Cult Wines

Who they are and why they're red hot

James Laube
Posted: April 4, 2000

Take a closer look at nine cult wines you'd be proud to have in your cellar.

Sky-high prices from the new kids on the Auction Block.

These overlooked gems are worth the search.

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For other ratings of California wines, check our Wine Search.

For James Laube's detailed California Cabernet tasting report, including tasting notes for 43 wines, see the April 30, 2000 issue of Wine Spectator, page 153.

California's Cult Wines

Who they are and why they're red hot

By James Laube, senior editor

They flew north to Napa from Los Angeles and settled in for dinner at Don Giovanni restaurant. They then feasted on chef Donna Scala's sumptuous Italian cuisine, but they were there for more than just the food. It was Cabernet they were after, and not just any Cabernet. They were hunting for the high-flying bird of prey, and found it.

This year, the group of 14 outdid themselves, draining among other wines eight bottles of the exotic 1996 Screaming Eagle Napa Valley Cabernet. At a cool $750 a bottle, the wine tab alone soared to more than $6,000, and while that might make most heads spin, it happens more often than you might expect. Owner Giovanni Scala, Donnas husband, insists its just part of the "madness" surrounding the surge in popularity of Californias cult wines. "It sounds crazy," he laughs, "but they come here every year, looking for [Screaming Eagle]."

Welcome to the brave new world of California "cult wines," a 1990s phenomenon that has collectors in a frenzy. These wines are rare and majestic. They have received glowing reviews, glorious accolades and stratospheric scores. Mostly, they are Cabernets, usually from Napa Valley and typically from a single, small vineyard capable of producing a finite number of bottles. They are often made by California's cutting-edge winemakers, sell for high prices and marketed via coveted mailing lists. Lastly, these wines have set the auction market on fire with sizzling prices.

Today, the inner circle of California's top cults encompasses nine wines. The current line-up includes eight Napa Valley Cabernets: Araujo Estate Eisele Vineyard, Bryant Family Vineyard, Colgin, Dalla Valley Maya, Grace Family Vineyard, Harlan Estate, Screaming Eagle and Shafer Hillside Select. There's also one Chardonnay: Marcassin.

Because they are a prized few -- and so many seek them out -- cornering California's cult wines has been driving collectors to extremes, pushing prices well beyond the means of most. As the roaring 1990s came to an end, California's cult wines were hotter than ever, with the most cherished wines selling for record prices. Are they worth all the fuss? Well, yes and no. If you're among the fortunate few to be able to buy the wines directly from the winery, the cost is high -- but not as expensive as buying a great Château Margaux, Château d'Yquem or Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. But if you're not on the list and want the wines resting comfortably in your cellar, it can be maddening and very costly to acquire them.

Yet there's no ambiguity about their quality. For the most part, these are extraordinary wines. The best display uncommon richness, depth, complexity, personality and finesse, setting new standards of excellence for California wines. These are wines capable of earning exceedingly high ratings, 94 to 99 points. While they're not always the highest-scoring or highest-priced wines, they are usually among the elite. Indeed, even a working definition of "cult" wines can be elusive, and their ranks can be quite fluid -- great wines fall out of favor almost as fast as they catch fire.

Each of the nine cults has its distinctive identity, but they can also be grouped based on their origins. Click the image to the right to learn more about these wines and their makers.

MaryAnn Worobiec contributed to this report.

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