Cult cabs: Why Screaming Eagle fetches top dollar
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.