Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The fiction of cult wine

The word "cult" gets thrown around a lot in the wine industry. The idea of cult wine started in the 1990s with the rise of critically acclaimed, limited production California cabernet sauvignons such as Bryant Family Vineyard, Grace Family Vineyards, Harlan Estate and Screaming Eagle. The initial prices of these wines were high to start with, but not absurdly so. Bryant released at $36, Grace Family at $25, Harlan at $65 and Screaming Eagle an astonishing $50. These big names aside, the first California wine to actually eclipse the triple digit price tag was Diamond Creek with their 1978 Lake Vineyard release. It wasn't until customers began flipping the wines at auction for many times what they paid to the winery after the wines received numerous 99 and 100-point scores from Robert Parker that their prices began their stratospheric rise. The age of cult wine was born.

Other California wineries, such as Sine Qua Non and Marcassin, are now lumped into the misappropriated cult status. Of course the First Growths of Bordeaux with their much larger production, yet equally high price tag somewhat fit the profile. A few Burgundy domaines (Domaine Leroy and Domaine de la Romanée-Conti come to mind), E. Guigal's single-vineyard "La La's" and a handful of "Super Tuscans" share the same mythical trophy status as their California brethren. While the wineries make (or attempt to make) these trophy wines, it isn't until the secondary market raises the prices exponentially does a wine achieve cult status. Not surprisingly, most of the owners of these wineries eschew the term "cult wine" and I have to agree with them. Not only is the term overused, it doesn't even really fit.

When I read a recent article in the Press Democrat bestowing "cult-status" on Copain's Wells Guthrie, I knew the term has run its course and is no longer useful. Yes, Guthrie's wines are highly acclaimed, but they lack the price tag, the exceeding limited production and unattainable rarity that has come to define a cult wine. "Cult" does not describe Copain nor does it aptly define Screaming Eagle or Harlan anymore.

A cult can be defined as a group bound together by the veneration of the same thing. The infatuation with these wines still exists, but is waning. Cults are also led by charismatic leaders that often bestow unconditional love and attention on their followers. The leaders are there, but is the love? When the cult wineries began their rise in the 1990s, the idea of have a relationship with winery did not exist. Now, in the age of social media a connection with a producer of any product is an expectation of most consumers. People want to feel connected to those who make the prized wine showcased in their cellar or might even enjoy with dinner. People enjoy buying things from other people they like and who return the favor. No one wants to buy something from a jerk.

A recent thread on Wineberskers has highlighted this trend. A comment by a former Screaming Eagle customer sparked a bit of outrage towards the winery's handling of "flippers." After 15 years of buying Screaming Eagle directly from the winery, this customer's status was changed to inactive because Screaming Eagle determined that he had previously flipped the wine he purchased. Screaming Eagle also recently made headlines because of their personal consumption policy for their white Screaming Eagle (which nevertheless found its way onto the secondary market and sold for ten times the $250 release price). Notwithstanding, Screaming Eagle is well within its rights to sell to whomever they desire. Does it make sense to punish the very people who drove the price up to begin with? Maybe. The aura of exclusivity remains and the winery maintains more control over price and profits. Yet, unfortunately, this behavior will not discourage future customers, nor will it lower the price. However, I do think it changes the identity of the winery.

Yes, cults are exclusive entities, but they also entail a sense of community. The wineries like the ones I've listed above have built their reputations on quality and exclusivity, but not necessarily community. This lack of coterie makes the term "cult" inappropriate. Should a wine have the negative connotations of the word "cult" associated with it simply because it is expensive and rare? Of course not. I've never tasted Screaming Eagle, but I'm sure that it is a fantastic wine. I've only tasted a few wines that fall into that category, and for the most part they have been remarkably delicious and memorable experiences. But at no time did I feel a part of a cult. I felt like I was experiencing a handcrafted, artisanal product. Call them First Growths, call them grand crus, call them boutique wineries, but don't call them cults.

1 comment:

  1. THANKS for setting it straight!! First Growth is my preference :D