What is a winery's responsibility? Is the responsibility to the consumers or to itself? Should a winery always strive to make the best wine possible or should it simply offer commercially viable (i.e. not flawed) wine at a fair price? Should a winemaker only make wine he or she likes or should consumer preferences be considered? Should a vineyard be planted with popular variety, such as cabernet sauvignon, because it will sell or should a lesser-known variety, like petit manseng, be grown if it is better suited for the site?
I think all of the above are fair questions and could all be answered in the affirmative. What got me thinking about winery responsibility was the release of Screaming Eagle's third wine. In 1995, the very first commercial vintage (1992) from this tiny Napa winery garnered a perfect 100-pt score from critic Robert Parker. Parker's (and others') continued enthusiasm for this small-production cabernet sauvignon started a high-end wine frenzy that has gotten more outrageous every year. Now, Screaming Eagle is the most expensive American wine with a release price of $750 per bottle. Yes, that is one dollar per milliliter of fermented grape juice. Almost $30 per fluid ounce.
For almost two decades and three owners Screaming Eagle produced exceptionally limited amounts of just one red wine. However, earlier this year Screaming Eagle released 50 cases of a sauvignon blanc for a relative bargain price of $250 per bottle. Both the red and white can be found on the secondary market for thousands of dollars per bottle.
The release of the white Screaming Eagle came as a bit of a surprise, but just this week Screaming Eagle announced the release of a third wine produced from estate-grown merlot and cabernet franc that is not blended with the iconic cabernet sauvignon. This new wine is called Second Flight and is being initially offered as a vertical pack (two bottles each) from the 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009 vintages for $225 per bottle. Now, I have no problem with wineries using excess juice to produce less expensive "second" wines, but this release made me scratch my head.
In the September issue of Decanter magazine, Adam Lechmere described his rare visit to Screaming Eagle's vineyard and winery in Oakville. In the article, Lechmere explained that "there is no second wine: what doesn't make the blend is poured down the drain." Well, now we know this isn't true. Even more curious to me is a quote from former co-owner of Screaming Eagle, Charles Banks. Michael Jamais, of California Wine Report, wrote about the white Screaming Eagle this past May. In the article, Banks is quoted as admitting, "merlot actually doesn't perform very well in our vineyard." This confession strikes me as troubling considering the new wine is made with merlot.
Is Screaming Eagle pawning this merlot-based wine (some vintages may contain more cabernet franc) on its customers just to make a quick buck? Or are they attempting to meet an almost limitless demand on all things Screaming Eagle? I have no reason to suspect that this wine is anything less than delicious, but I also have no reason to doubt the former owner's claim that merlot doesn't do so well on Screaming Eagle's property. What is Screaming Eagle's responsibility when it comes to its wine, especially considering the price? Is Screaming Eagle's responsibility different from any other winery? What do you think?