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Cult cabs: Why Screaming Eagle fetches top dollar

Auction Napa Valley

Thursday: Vintner Welcome Parties at wineries throughout Napa Valley, 6 p.m.

Friday: Napa Valley Barrel Auction at Charles Krug Winery, 2800 Main St., St. Helena, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Saturday: Live Auction at Meadowood Napa Valley, 900 Meadowood Lane, St. Helena, 1 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Sunday: E-Auction, which began last Sunday, closes at noon

More information:auctionnapavalley.org

The shock lingered with the crowd under the white tent at Auction Napa Valley, well after the swirl of confetti settled. The year was 2000, when a 6-liter bottle of Screaming Eagle’s 1992 Cabernet sold for a record-breaking half a million dollars.

Screaming Eagle’s spiraling bid remains an enigma for those curious about California’s so-called “cult cabernet” and its ability to fetch ridiculous amounts of money.

With Auction Napa Valley this weekend, it will be another opportunity to ponder the allure of cult cabs, as cabernets continue to play center stage in many auction lots.

Wine critic Karen MacNeil, author of “The Wine Bible,” has observed the phenomena of cult cabs over the years and has an interesting explanation.

“These are wines that possess what I call the desirability of unattainability,” she said. “It’s not merely that they’re expensive, although they are ... but with them you need a special status or a special power to land one of these cult cabs, some kind of insider access. Whether or not this is true is another story, but that’s the belief.”

For those who wonder if cult cabs are merely hype - smoke and mirrors - MacNeil said that’s not the case.

“I don’t think it’s all marketing, which some people would argue that these people are just rich and good at marketing, and they may be both but they have the goods,” she said.

“They do have great pieces of ground, and they have significant skill with viticulture and winemaking, and these cult cabs are really amazing wines. It’s pretty irrefutable that these are really very, very good wines. No one is pulling the wool over consumers’ eyes.”

The era of cult cabs began in the late 1980s or early 1990s, according to MacNeil, when there was a critical mass of wines like Screaming Eagle, Harlan Estate, Colgin and Dalla Valle Vineyards. All of these brands have received incredibly high scores from wine critics, but MacNeil said that alone won’t necessarily bring them into the fold.

“It has more to do with the impression of unattainability,” MacNeil said.

Winemaker Jesse Katz, who crafted the world’s most expensive wine in a 750 ml. bottle called “The Setting” that sold for $350,000 at the Carnivale du Vin’s charity auction in New Orleans in 2017, said part of its appeal was that it was donated and signed by celebrity agent Shep Gordon.

The agent was featured in Mike Myers’ 2013 documentary “Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon.” Chefs like Emeril Lagasse also credit Gordon for single-handedly creating celebrity chefs.

But wine critics claim the cabernet was also a runaway success because of Katz’s winemaking prowess.

As assistant winemaker at Screaming Eagle from 2008 to 2010, he was accustomed to producing wines in auction lots that command six digits. The wines Katz worked on - vintages 2007, 2008 and 2009 - sold to members on Screaming Eagle’s list for $850 a bottle, while the secondary market charged $2,000 to $3,000.

“Cult cabs, for me, usually come from one single site that can’t be replicated, one that has unique characteristics that are unlike any other wines,” said Katz, who now produces his Aperture and Devil Proof brands in Sonoma County.

“By default, the small site or vineyard block limits productivity and scalability. You can’t go and double production. But it’s also that this site consistently makes some of the greatest cabernet fruit year in and year out.”

Beyond the site, scale and fruit, Katz said a winery having disposable income is crucial when crafting cult cabs.

“Essentially every decision we made (at Screaming Eagle) was based on quality and sometimes made no financial sense whatsoever,” he said with a laugh. “We did ridiculous amounts of sorting. We did a lot of small lot barrel fermentation. Whatever showcased that unique site was our number one priority.”

Quality winemaking, Katz added, is typically paired with a great backstory, and Screaming Eagle has a good one.

“Jean Phillips, the original owner, was a popular real estate agent in Napa Valley who purchased this little plot of land in Oakville in 1986, and she had her friend (winemaker) Heidi Barrett create two to three barrels. Before long it created a buzz as one of the great vineyard sites in Napa.”

Cabernet collectors continue to be smitten with the brand, particularly the inaugural vintage of 1992, which wine critic Robert Parker Jr. rated 99 points. JJ Buckley Fine Wines currently sells a bottle of the 1992 vintage for $8,995. The current 2015 bottling sells for $950, Katz said.

Just down the road on Highway 29 is another sought-after cult cab called Scarecrow. Its 2015 vintage is selling for $350 a bottle, and its waiting list is roughly three years.

Auction Napa Valley

Thursday: Vintner Welcome Parties at wineries throughout Napa Valley, 6 p.m.

Friday: Napa Valley Barrel Auction at Charles Krug Winery, 2800 Main St., St. Helena, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Saturday: Live Auction at Meadowood Napa Valley, 900 Meadowood Lane, St. Helena, 1 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Sunday: E-Auction, which began last Sunday, closes at noon

More information:auctionnapavalley.org

The 98-point score that wine critic Robert Parker Jr. gave Scarecrow’s inaugural 2003 vintage jump-started its cult status.

“It was Christmas Eve in 2006, and the telephones started ringing,” explained Scarecrow winemaker Celia Welch.

“We had to begin a waiting list because we were sold out of the 400 cases we produced. When the 2004 vintage came out in the spring, it sold out in a matter of hours.”

Welch is convinced that what makes Scarecrow a standout is the rarity of the vines in its vineyard. Two acres within the estate’s 36 were planted in 1945.

“It’s really a piece of Napa Valley history,” Welch said. “These 2 acres are among the oldest cabernet blocks in the state, and the quality is exceptional.”

With the vineyard planted on Rutherford’s J.J. Cohn Estate, Scarecrow also has an interesting backstory.

The late Joseph Judson Cohn, who was born in Harlem and lived in dire poverty, eventually became chief of production at MGM. Cohn was instrumental in making many film classics, including the most beloved, “The Wizard of Oz.” The label, named after the film’s endearing scarecrow, pays homage to the MGM giant.

The vineyards ribbed into the hillsides of Napa Valley are filled with stories like this one, small plots of land that are turning the heads of both the critics and the collectors.

Auction Napa Valley, which raises money for local causes like health and education, showcases cult cabernets in auction lots because organizers can count on spiraling bids.

Names that appear most years include Screaming Eagle, Harlan Estate, Bryant Family Vineyard, Colgin Cellars and Dalla Valle Vineyards.

“I have tasted cult cabs and they are remarkable,” MacNeil said. “Because of their prestige and rarity over the years, organizers know that the wake that builds behind these wines is a wake of curiosity.

As time goes on and you’ve heard about Harlan all these years, now you’re in a position to taste it. The curiosity factor is at an all-time high for these wines.”

Wine writer Peg Melnik can be reached at 707-521-5310 or peg.melnik@pressdemocrat.com.

Peg Melnik

Wine, The Press Democrat

Northern California is cradled in vines; it’s Wine County at its best in America. My job is to help you make the most of this intriguing, agrarian patch of civilization by inviting you to partake in the wine culture – the events, the bottlings and the fun. This is a space to explore wine, what you care about or don’t know about yet.

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