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Monday, November 01, 2004

California's club of popular wines in Hotel Bel Air's cellars enjoy status without age

What drives a wine lover to pay a cool grand for a California wine with an original price tag of 50 a bottle? Such extravagance might be understandable for a rare old vintage of, say, Château Pétrus '61 or Haut Brion '59, but for a just released vintage of a wine with a name like Screaming Eagle?

Art of Darkness: Bottles slumber in Hotel Bel-Air's cellars.

Supply versus demand is only a small part of the answer, for wines like Screaming Eagle, a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon produced only since 1989 by vineyard owner Jean Phillips, who makes 6,000 bottles each year (Pétrus produces up to 48,000 bottles in an abundant year), with none sold at wine shops or at the winery; about half—a three bottle limit is sold exclusively to mailing list customers and one third to restaurants. Don't even think of begging your wine shop owner for a case: they simply don't exist. The only way to get your hands on a bottle, therefore, is either to find it on a restaurant wine list or to search the auction catalogs and be ready to pay up to ten times the winery's catalog price. Nor does mere novelty count that much since many of these so called California "cult wines" are from vineyards only a decade or so old.

There is certainly no official California wine appellation that bestows the term "cult wine" on any of the bottlings that have garnered such a name. So their astounding prices are due to two things: First, they are all very good, very well made wines; and then they have been given the very highest ratings, on a ten¬point scale, by authorities like Wine Spectator and Robert Parker's The Wine Advocate. After both gave the first vintage, 1992, of Screaming Eagle

What drives a wine lover to pay a cool grand for a California wine with an original price tag of $50 a bottle?

extremely high ratings when it was released in 1996, the wine became impossible to obtain, and is selling at auction for well over $1,000 a bottle.

While the names may change from one year to another, the current line up of cult wines includes in alphabetical order—Araujo Fisele Vineyard, Bryant Family Vineyard, Colgin, Dalla Valle Maya, Grace Family Vineyards, Harlan Estate, Screaming Eagle and Shafer Hillside Select all Cabernet Sauvignons—and Marcassin, a Chardonnay. Some are new kids on the block, while others have histories going back to the 1970s, like Araujo Eisele Vineyard, a vineyard designation of the well established Joseph Phelps company purchased by Daphne and Bart Araujo in 1990; Grace Family wines were originally made by Caymus.

To reach cult status, wineries have hired on some of the most illustrious winemakers in the business names like Tony Soter, who did work for Spottswoode and Dalla Valle; Helen Turley, who actually owns Marcassin, is a superstar among winemakers, having produced wines for Colgin and the fast rising star, Martinelli.

Some might also add to the list well¬known wines such as the Mondavi Rothschild joint venture, Opus One, and Christian Moueix's Dominus, both made in fairly large quantities (Opus is up to 30,000 cases). And the word is always out in the market about which wines may be the up and corners, and which current cult wineries have been lagging. To be sure, every one of the California cult Cabernets are very big wines, chewy with enormous plumy flavors and considerable tannins, which makes the idea of drinking them at a young age say, less than ten years after the vintage¬questionable, assuming their balance and structure will mature well after years of quiet, careful aging.

"guests coming from outside California rarely have the chance to taste these wines, and they cherish the memory"

Yet it is highly unlikely that those who buy such wines will keep them around for that long, and less likely they care very much about the techniques that produced them, such as trellising, drainage, vine clusters, cold¬soaking and skin contact.

According to Roland Venturini, wine buyer for Hotel Bel Air, "guests coming from outside California rarely have a chance to taste these wines, and they cherish the memory. For that reason we have worked very hard to get on the wineries' mailing lists and to get successive vintages. Also, even though we could, we do not mark up such wines very high usually about two and a half times what we pay for it."

Indeed, Hotel Bel Air's prices are remarkable; in some cases, well below current auction prices: Bryant 2000 k below $650 a bottle; Colgin 1999 is $475; Martinelli Pinot Noir, $85; Dalle Valle '97, $210; Dalla Valle Maya 2000, $375; and Grace Family Vineyard 1998 is $375.

While it is true that new cult wines seem to appear whenever the wine media pour their praise upon a new bottling, it is only consistency, year after year, that finally decides which wines are among the world's finest, as happened in Bordeaux way back in 1855, when the Bordeaux châteaux were classified according to how consistent prices were for such wines like Château Latour, Margaux, and Lafite Rothschild. Whether or not that happens in California remains to be seen. For now, it's probably a pretty good idea to drink them and make your own assessment with the pleasure of someone who has drunk something very rare.

 By John Mariani