Is the clock ticking down on cult wines?

When
I was California editor for Wine Enthusiast Magazine, I had the hardest time
getting to sample the wines of Bryant Family Vineyard.

I managed to, two or three times. My last tasting, in 2012, was only because Tim Mondavi obtained a bottle for me to include in my tasting of the wines of Pritchard Hill, the region of Napa Valley that is not (yet) an official American Viticultural Area, but that is (as I wrote back then) “the best grape-growing region in Napa Valley you’ve probably never heard of.” (Tim has his own winery, Continuum, up there.)

Bryant’s
Cabernets are routinely included among the “cult wines” of Napa Valley. Now,
let me say that my nearly thirty-year career as a wine writer taught me a thing
or two about cult wines. Today, six years after I retired, when I think of
them, I think of exclusivity, of extreme difficulty gaining access (even for
me), of super-high prices, and of a certain manipulation of the winery’s image
as rare and difficult to obtain—precisely the kind of attributes that appeal to
wine aficienados who have more money than common sense.

My
most enduring memory of tasting these cult wines is of my visit to Colgin
Cellars, a neighbor of Bryant Family’s on Pritchard Hill. After much difficulty
obtaining an appointment, I was met, in the foyer of the winery (which reminded
me of Le Petit Trianon, at Versailles), by the proprietress, Ann Colgin. It
felt like a State Visit; never was I more uncomfortable tasting wine than under
her hawk-like gaze, as I tried to shield my written notes from her wandering
eye. It was not a welcoming vibe.

Other cult wineries were far more amenable to my visits. I remain indebted to Bill Harlan (who wrote the Forward to my second book) for always welcoming me, and for setting up the most extraordinary tastings. But even there, Bill continued to propagate an aura of mystique by insisting that we taste the Harlan wines in one structure of the estate, and the BOND wines in another, further up the hill.

Bryant has found itself with publicity lately that I’m sure is unwelcome by the owners. The San Francisco Chronicle’s Esther Mobley has been reporting on a lawsuit hagainst the winery by a former employee.

I’m
not particularly interested in the details of the lawsuit, nor do I care about
the winery’s monetary value (a subject of dispute). What I find interesting is
Mobley’s question: “Is that business model [of cult wines] foundering in a
changing wine market?”

Cult
wines, whether they be in Bordeaux, Burgundy, Tuscany or Napa Valley, always
have depended on the desire of wealthy people to own them. They’re not “better”
than other wines; this is a notion I’m firmly convinced of, after having
reviewed perhaps 150,000 wines over a thirty-year period. The word “better” is,
of course, impossible to define; quality is subjective. I’ve done many blind
tastings in which a $30 Cabernet beat out a $300 Cabernet. Anyone who thinks
that a $300 wine must be ten times better than a $30 wine is fooling herself.
So there must be reasons other than objective hedonism to explain why cult
wines cost so much. (Mobley writes that the current vintage of Bryant Family,
the 2016, is $550. The 2009, by contrast, was a measly $335.)

These
other reasons, aside from the market force of supply and demand, are
psychological; they include the prestige of being able to afford such wines, the
ego-gratification associated with big spending, and a desire to show off to
whomever the buyer wishes to impress. These are not completely inauthentic
reasons to buy a wine, but they have less to do with the wines themselves than
the buyer’s internal needs.

For
many years the cult winery owners were riding high. Sure, there were always
rumors of financial troubles behind the curtain, but since the owners never
revealed their books to anyone, the rumors remained exactly that. Was Bill
Harlan raking in a fortune? Screaming Eagle, Araujo, Dalla…


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