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Screaming Eagle

Home Winemaker Hits a Home Run

James Laube
Posted: April 5, 2000

Jean Phillips
Back to Cult Wines

Screaming Eagle
Home Winemaker Hits a Home Run

Jean Phillips didn't have a clue that fame would be thrust upon her. In 1992, after years of selling grapes to Napa Valley wineries, she decided to find out if her homemade wine, created in a plastic trash can, was any good.

She took a sample to nearby Robert Mondavi Winery and asked the winemaking staff to assess its quality. She confides that she was a "nervous wreck" at the time. Saddled with steep debt from her purchase of a 57-acre vineyard in Oakville, she privately hoped that her wine might have commercial potential, but she had no grand illusions.

"I had no idea how good my wine was, or even if it was good, period," recalls Phillips, the shy yet energetic owner of Screaming Eagle. But she was eager to find out. The staff at Mondavi thought enough of her dark, rich, cassis-flavored Cabernet to encourage her to bottle it, though they snickered at her proposed name and politely suggested that she find another, more suitable, label.

"It was going to be Screaming Eagle or nothing," Phillips insists, with a laugh. The name symbolizes her determination to strive to make the greatest wine possible, and by most accounts, she's right on target. Soon after releasing her first Cabernet, in 1996 -- that dense, polished, deeply flavored 1992 vintage, which she bottled by hand -- word of mouth began to spread, and accolades followed.

It didn't take long for Screaming Eagle to become one of the most celebrated wines in Napa Valley history. In 1986, Phillips bought her Oakville property, with all but one acre (roughly 80 vines of Cabernet) planted to a mix of white varieties. "I personally took care of those 80 vines," she says, and nourished them to health. After Mondavi's blessing, Phillips hired Richard Peterson as a consultant, and in turn she met Peterson's daughter, Heidi Peterson Barrett, who became her winemaker.

By all appearances, Phillips' Screaming Eagle vineyard seems ideal for Cabernet. The soil is virtually a rock pile on a gentle, west-facing slope east of the Napa River. Drainage and exposure are excellent -- witness the string of first-class vintages the wine has enjoyed. The property is at a point in the valley where the weather is hot enough during the day to ripen Cabernet to its optimum, yet the grapes are cooled by the afternoon breezes that blow north from San Pablo Bay.

Through the years, Phillips has removed tons of rocks from her property, making a major contribution to the many rock walls you see while driving along the Silverado Trail in the Oakville area. She's also presided over a massive replanting, replacing the white varieties with Bordeaux red grapes. One inspiration came from the late André Tchelistcheff--the master vintner urged her to focus on Cabernet and use Clone 7. This expensive undertaking took several years, but now all of her 57 acres are planted with Bordeaux varieties.

The resulting wines are brimming with deep, plush layers of flavor, echoing currant, cassis, blackberry and black cherry. The tannins are soft, round and polished, yet firm enough to give every indication that the wines will age quite well for 10 to 20 years. Oak plays a minimal role as a flavor accent, lingering in the background.

Phillips, who is a real estate agent specializing mostly in prestigious Napa Valley vineyards, homes and undeveloped land, is determined to continue to make wine on her own. She has steadfastly refused to take on a partner or inflate her production, moves that would help her retire debt but might threaten quality. "I could double [production] in a minute," she says of her current 500-case output. Yet she knows she's fortunate to have been so successful. "All the wonderful things that have happened, well, I don't want to think about it too hard," she says. "I don't want to know all the whys. I'm just enjoying it."

Her goal now is to slowly increase production, but she faces limitations. For one, her winery is tiny--barely larger than a small garage. She built a barrel-aging cave a few years ago, but it too is small. Another consideration is maintaining quality. One of her favorite books, Ground Rules for Winning by New York Yankees manager Joe Torre, helps keep her focused. "You work hard, you do your best," she says. "Those are the things that guide me."

Screaming Eagle
Oakville, Napa Valley

Founded: 1989
Owner: Jean Phillips
Winemaker: Heidi Peterson Barrett

96 Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 1996

Release Price: $125
Current Auction Average: $1,047
Production: 500 cases

Sharply defined, this hits all the right notes, with ripe, supple, seductive and detailed plum, berry, cherry, floral and spice flavors woven together. Picks up mineral, cedar, tar and anise one the long, elegant finish. Best from 2001 through 2010.

-- J.L.


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