Working in a retail store many years ago, I used the phrase “cult wine” to describe a bottle to a client. Her eyes went wide, as if it were the product of some kooky group that believed the end was nigh, and she might have to sign up to join them.
Fortunately, cult wines are much less sinister – and more delicious – than she imagined.
“Cult wine” typically refers to Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, which are the wines
the term was coined to describe. Recently, though, the definition has expanded to include other regions and grapes.
So, what is a cult wine? It is denoted by several criteria. “The basis is supply and demand,” says Gwendolyn Osborn, in-house wine expert for Wine.com. “People can’t easily get their hands on it, there is low production, limited availability – usually through mailing lists – high prices and high points from critics.” The wine may also have a well-known winemaker or viticulturalist attached.
From the days of Thomas Jefferson, certain wines have been coveted by the well-heeled connoisseur. Even a novice knew that there was something special about a Bordeaux or Burgundy, but the idea that they had a cultish following was nowhere in evidence.
In fact, according to Ursula Hermacinski, the phenomenon started “out of nowhere” in the early 1990s. Now a senior advisor for Zachy’s Wine Auction, Hermacinski was an auctioneer at Christie’s at the time, and was an Estate Director for Screaming Eagle in between.
As she tells it, “Someone bought a full case of  Screaming Eagle and consigned it to auction. [The price] was estimated at $600 to $900, and I looked down at the order bids sent by phone and fax, and they said, $2,200, $3,000. I turned to the guy next to me and asked, ‘Is this a mistake?’”
She can’t recall the final selling price, but thinks it was between $6,000 and $9,000. This number, interestingly, mirrors the current price for a single bottle of 1992, the wine’s first vintage, which can be had for between $5,475 and $8,750 depending on the source. For perspective, the winery sold its first vintage for $75 a bottle.
It was a perfect storm: Napa Cabernets were becoming “Parkerized” (i.e., noticed for their high scores), the stock market was going gangbusters and money was flowing everywhere. During these heady days, “no one was talking about wine prices,” Hermacinski says.
The winemakers, however, were simply set on creating excellent wine; starting a phenomenon wasn’t on their agenda. “The world did it to them,” notes Hermacinski, adding, “They just managed it right by keeping production low to maintain and improve quality.”
There are undoubtedly multitudes of winemakers in Napa and elsewhere working just as hard not only to create excellent wines but also hoping to recapture that lightning in a bottle.
An old joke makes it clear that many have tried and failed: It suggests that the way to make a small fortune in the wine business is to start with a large one. The reasons are legion.
First up is staying power. “It is possible to create a cult wine,” says Osborn, “but there are more failures than successes.” She cites Blankiet as one that aspired to cult status with a superstar winemaker, limited production and mailing list distribution, but “never got the accolades to sustain the buzz.”
Money, of course, also matters. These days, “most people can’t afford to start from scratch and make only 200 cases of wine,” notes Hermacinski. “Guaranteeing success requires a lot of money, which means you need to make and sell more to recoup [those costs.]” Greater production, of course, erodes cult status.
Even those with deep pockets need several years worth of patience. “No cult wine is made in thirty minutes,” says Chimo Boehm, Director of Fine Wine for Wine.com. “It’s a two year process if not longer.” And that’s if you start with already-producing vines. A vineyard planted and nurtured from scratch takes at least four years to start producing wine-worthy grapes.
But as humans, we are nothing if not persistent – or at least dreamers! To those willing to try, Hermacinski advises looking for the vineyard.
“Fruit is the holy grail and [the winemaker] wants to discover that hidden row of vines someone has overlooked. Then when they bring the fruit in, they have to have the equipment and facility [to make the wine].”
However, she points out, once the winemaker gets through all that, s/he usually doesn’t have any interest in – or perhaps the energy for – the sales process. Makes sense, as it takes away from the “fun” work of growing the wine.
So marketers are hired, facing their own unique challenges. Wine.com’s Osborn notes that, for high priced and collectible wines, it is vital to “market without selling. High end wines want to seem exclusive and unattainable. They don’t want social media.”
Which begs another question in this electronically linked world: how do people know which wines are – or will be – the cult wines? The buzz starts with collectors, according to Osborn: “[They] talk together about wines, get talking on their message boards.”
Though she compares the phenomenon to the cool kids in high school dictating trends, these people are clearly devoted to their hobby, and certainly help drive the market.
What this passion brings them varies. “Some collectors have never tasted their wines,” notes Hermacinski, unbelievable though it may sound. They presumably are out to simply make money off their cellar.
On the other end of the spectrum, she describes “collectors who drink, who are passionate about wine, they live, drink, breathe [it]. They have to satisfy their curiosity, have to know what it tastes like.”
Other reasons Hermacinski cites are more prosaic. “It’s a cheap thrill for a private membership club. [Screaming Eagle] is $750 a bottle and you are only allowed three a year. It’s for bragging rights, the pleasure of ownership, or the chance to instantly double your money.”
Okay, that’s Screaming Eagle, which along with Harlan Estate is one of the only cult wines that reliably increases in value. The prices of other cult wines generally fluctuate through the years.
“Through our cellar acquisitions department, we get a lot of cult wines that were hot ten years ago. But [some collectors] are disappointed as to what they are worth today. These collectors aren’t tracking the price history,” notes Boehm.
Another reason that cult wines can go out of favor is that they are much shorter-lived than their collectible counterparts like Bordeaux or Burgundy. “These are not Bordeaux wines that improve over 30 years. They aren’t meant for a long time in the cellar,” Osborn says of Napa’s cult Cabernets. “Many are big and ready to drink now, and most have a seven to 10 year drinking window.”
Thanks to the economy, the appeal of super-expensive cult wines is fading as well. “There’s less sport drinking these days,” Hermacinski succinctly puts it.
Which means that anyone wanting to try these trophies while still sticking to a budget, now is the time. Wine.com’s Osborn notes that these days, “there is higher availability of cult wines through our channels.” If you missed the craze the first time around, she points out that the secondary market – auctions and the online marketplace – is a good way to get into the club.
This is not to say that any cult wine is easy to get. Boehm cites a recent conversation with Dan Kosta, who said their mailing list swelled to 100,000 names after Kosta Browne Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir was named 2011 Wine Spectator Wine of the Year.
As this wine’s appeal indicates, there are other wines and regions beyond Napa and Cabernet capable of achieving vaunted status. Boehm cites Napa newcomers Saxum (which specializes in Rhone varietals) and Schrader, but also name checks Sine Qua Non, quirky wines from California’s Central Coast, and Washington’s Quilceda Creek.
The availability of more wines from more areas offers additional motive to join the club. If jumping into this game as a collector appeals to you, Hermacinski warns that trying to pick the next cult wine is like picking the next hot stock.
Instead of chasing a name, she says, “Spend your money on the experience. Come to Napa – or any region – go out and meet people. Set up appointments, have lunch with the winemaker, and buy those wines you have personal experience [drinking].”
Hmmm – collecting – and drinking – for pleasure? That’s a cult worth joining!