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Screaming Eagle's Broad Wingspan

A complete vertical tasting shows off many magnificent Cabernets

James Laube
Posted: November 3, 2005

It's rare. It's expensive. And there's a mystique about it.

But Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon is no pretender. It's the real thing, and it deserves to be considered among Napa Valley's prestige wines.

In New York two weeks ago, two collectors invited me to taste a 10-year vertical of this celebrated Cabernet, and I have to say it was one of the most inspiring tastings I've experienced, so you'll have to pardon the superlatives.

You can't make wine this magnificent without fabulous grapes, and Screaming Eagle clearly comes from a spectacular vineyard. Moreover, Jean Phillips, the energetic owner, is uncompromising with her standards for excellence. The wine more than lives up to its lofty reputation.

  Jean Phillips of Screaming Eagle
I've been fortunate to taste all of the Screaming Eagle Cabernets upon release, and I've had older vintages in retrospective tastings. The reason the wines are made available is simple: Phillips is a competitor. In that sense, she reminds me of Robert Mondavi. The name "Screaming Eagle" personifies her innate spirit and aspiration for perfection. If there's a tasting, she wants her wine on the line. Certainly she doesn't need the publicity. The wine sells for $300 a bottle, and there's a long waiting list to buy it.

Phillips oversees the vineyard, precision farming and exacting winemaking with the help of winemaker Heidi Peterson Barrett. This time of year, for instance, with the 2005 vintage fermenting, you'll likely find Phillips close to her cellar, checking her wines at all hours of the day and night. Call her "Sleepless in Oakville."

Her vineyard, on the east side of Oakville, near the Oakville Crossroad, is one of those sweet spots in Napa Valley. The property, with 59 acres of vines, slopes from Silverado Trail toward the Napa Valley. Phillips uses only a small portion of her grapes and sells the rest. The signature of the wine for me is captured in the rich, loamy earthiness that gives her Cabernet a plush structural foundation and folds in with its layers of currant, plum, cherry and herbal flavors.

While ripening Cabernet (and smaller amounts of Merlot and Cabernet Franc) is routinely easy in this area, one of the trademarks of Oakville Cabernet is that the wines often display an herbal quality that manifests itself in a variety of subtleties, including hints of anise, sage, dusty berry, cedar and occasionally a whiff of new leather and tar. You find these shades of herb in Cabernets like Heitz Martha's Vineyard (grown on the west side of Oakville), with its signature minty currant personality, or Groth, which is one of the cooler sites on the valley floor.

Screaming Eagle captures the best of all these elements. It also epitomizes exquisite balance, managing both to be enormously complex and concentrated, yet elegantly styled, with a smooth, polished texture. It is the proverbial iron fist in the velvet glove. One measure of its consistency is the blend. It is almost the same every year: 85 percent to 88 percent Cabernet, 10 percent to 12 percent Merlot and 1 percent to 2 percent Cabernet Franc.

I typically hesitate to use the word incredible to describe wines, but in the case of Screaming Eagle, and in this particular vertical tasting of the 1992 to 2002 vintages, it works, pure and simple.

There were a few surprises in this non-blind vertical, of course, but all of them were pleasant.

The debut 1992 is still dazzling. Given its youthful exuberance at this point, it could age for another 10 to 20 years.

The vintages from 1993 to 1997 are strong, too. For me, the 1997 and 1998 vintages are about as different as Cabernet gets in Napa. The former is ultraripe without being overdone, plush and unique in its opulence. The latter is from a cooler vintage, and displays more dried currant and herbal notes. Of all the wines, the 1998 should be enjoyed soonest.

I'm a huge fan of the 1999 vintage in Napa. The best wines from this year show amazing balance and complexity with subtlety and nuance, and they avoid some of the riper flavors that showed up in vintages such as 2001. The '99 Screaming Eagle is stupendous.

No 2000 was sold, as it didn't meet Phillips' standards. The 2001 has been slow to evolve. It showed better this time than it has in the past, with a tremendous surge of rich, layered fruit; it should be long-lived. The 2002 is absolutely delicious, a precocious wine with impeccable balance and a long, sleek finish that mirrors the 1999.

Even for Phillips, who had to pass on the New York vertical to oversee her harvest, tasting all of her wines is a rarity. "I've done a vertical twice," she says, explaining that she doesn't have a big library of older wines. On those rare occasions when she does study her wines, she likes to taste them early in the day, then again before and with dinner, and sometimes even the next day or two to see how they hold up and develop. To her, the rich fruit flavors are the hallmark of the vineyard.

My personal notes from this tasting follow.

1992: Very dark in color, dense and concentrated, with vivid red currant, blackberry and wild berry scents. Youthful, with hints of tar, anise and herb, and all those flavors fold together on the finish, giving it a fascinating aftertaste. Impeccably balanced. Drink now through 2012. 98 points.

1993: A shade lighter than the '92, but still very rich, with elegant, polished currant, berry and plum notes. Drink now through 2009. 91 points.

1994: Splits the difference between '92 and '93, sharing the rich opulence and power of the former and the exquisite balance and fine-grained tannins of the latter. The core loamy currant and black berry flavors pick up a hint of tar and anise. Drink now through 2012. 95 points.

1995: This exhibits the earthiness of the vintage, with mineral, leather and black fruits. It's zesty, vibrant and even a touch racy, with the currant and wild berry flavors building to another fantastic finish. It's youthful in its own way and much better than it tasted in my recent retrospective (where it rated 87 points and lacked the depth and complexity it showed here). Drink now through 2013. 95 points.

1996: While the '95 is racy and showy, the 1996 is classic in its understated richness. Amazing harmony, depth and density of flavor. While it's not as obvious as some other Eagles, it is profoundly deep and richly flavored. Once again, the loamy earth, tar and pure Cabernet flavors are deftly balanced. Drink now through 2016. 96 points.

1997: This wine sticks out for its ripeness, a signature of this vintage. Opulent, with broad cassis, kirsch and blackberry fruit. Intense and multifaceted, it keeps revealing subtle flavor nuances, at times teasing with its voluptuous fruit yet showing a rich tannic backbone on the finish that reminds you it has a long life ahead. Best from 2007 to 2015. 98 points.

1998: Excellent balance for the vintage, as this was not a ripe year in Napa and the wines tend to show more of Cabernet's herbal persona. Here the herb, currant, earth and anise flavors are more medium-bodied. Very complete and ready to drink. Not likely to improve. 88 points.

1999: Another amazing wine, young, elegant, richly flavored and deeply concentrated, with impeccable balance. Beautifully defined currant, blackberry and anise flavors are tightly wound and sharply focused, ending with the vineyard's signature loaminess and a crescendo of currant-laced Cabernet fruit. Best from 2009 to 2019. 99 points.

2001: This was the best the 2001 has tasted for me (I rated it 92 points on release). Very dense and concentrated, even reduced and backward, very slow to unfold. Yet there is a profoundly complex and youthful exuberance in this wine that promises to develop. Way too young now. Best from 2009 to 2019. 95 points.

2002: The opposite of 2001 in its showy precocious opulence, showcasing the classic personality of the vineyard with its mix of loamy earth, currant, wild berry, herb, tar and cedar, with fine-grained tannins. Amazing length. Best from 2008 to 2018. 95 points.

Greg Gregory
Napa, CA —  December 20, 2012 6:17pm ET

I had to go back and re-read this article. Brings back GREAT memories of an incredible evening! So glad you could join me at Daniel briefly to taste through that amazing line up!

Cheers and Happy Holidays!

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