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A Reason to Drink Slowly

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Monday, July 17, 2000


A new breed of cult wines is changing the status quo, vexing wine snobs and garnering record prices

In France they have vins de garage. Here they go by the low-rent-sounding "garage wines." But the name is the only thing about them that's drab. Some of the most coveted wines are made in minute quantities in wineries that are often no bigger than, yep, a garage. While their output may be small, the lengths to which people will go to get the wines are vast. And nowhere has the small cult wine taken off as it has in California.

Callers to Screaming Eagle vineyards in Napa hear this recorded greeting: "The wines are sold out for an indefinite period of time, so please don't leave your name." Like most boutique wineries, Screaming Eagle offers its 500 or so cases to longstanding customers first. Others have to find the wine elsewhere. A 1996 Screaming Eagle-$125 to those on the mailing list-has an average auction price of $1,047.

Traditionalists claim that the frenzy over these wines, which are sold through a mailing list, is unjustified, and that comparing the product of tiny new vineyards to that of historic vineries is folly. But bolstered by high ratings from wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr. and the raw snob appeal of rarity, the wines are in great demand.

The Bryant Family vineyard, producer of what "may be one of e single greatest Cabernet Sauvignons," according to Parker, has a list of 3,000 people eager to pay $100 a bottle. The 500 cases of the current vintage are already spoken for, but that doesn't stop folks from trying. Owner Donald Bryant has been offered free surgery from doctors wanting to jump the queue.

And over at Colgin Cellars, owner Ann Colgin could have swapped a case of her Cabernet for a Mercedes suv. (She passed.) With 5,000 customers for only 400 to 500 cases of each vintage, Colgin restricts the number of bottles each can purchase. Many folks get only one. Wine lovers are not averse to venting their frustration over this paucity. At a dinner party, Colgin was presented with a single scallop. Only partly joking, the host explained that this was her allocation.

When bribery fails, oenophiles turn to auctions and rare-wine dealers. Clark Gibson not only paid $600 for a $59 Sine Qua Non 1997 Imposter McCoy Syrah, he also drove from Chicago to pick it up. At the 20th annual Napa Valley Wine Auction for charity last month, collector Chase Bailey bid $500,000 for a single sixliter bottle of a 1992 Screaming Eagle Cabernet, the highest auction price ever paid for a bottle of wine. Under what circumstances do you imbibe a half-milliondollar bottle of wine? "I haven't the slightest idea," says Bailey. "Maybe well have a great party."

 By Lisa McLaughlin