California's New Stars
A Handful of Small Producers Are Creating Some of the Golden State's Greatest, and Most Elusive, Wines
Posted: August 1, 1999
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That's the unfortunate byproduct of the increased esteem the world's wine drinkers now hold for California wines, and evidence of what a 98-point rating from a wine critic can do. On the other hand, these wines are quite possibly the best ever produced on this continent. At least, many of those reviewers think so--as do auction bidders, who have made investing in top California Cabernets the oenophilic equivalent of holding Internet stocks.
"I think everybody has gotten too wrapped up in what these wines are worth," says Ann Colgin, a wine consultant at Sotheby's West Coast. A case of her Colgin Cellars Cabernet fetched an inconceivable $16,100 at Christie's All California auction in Los Angeles in 1997, and her worry is that these wines have become too valuable to drink. "If you're not going to eventually open these bottles," she says, "you should be chasing something else."
Colgin Cellars Cabernet, which by virtue of price alone heads the roll call of cult California wines, is made by Helen Turley, a Napa-based enologist and wine-growing consultant with a reputation for both Draconian wine making and the thrillingly drinkable product that results. Turley also is responsible for the cult Cabernet made by Bryant Family Vineyards, for Pahlmeyer Merlot, and for two famously unctuous vintages of Zinfandel at Turley Cellars, which is owned by her brother, Larry Turley. She has lately been growing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes for her own label, Marcassin, and the wines that emerge are fiercely coveted among retail buyers and at auction.
In Napa's upper valley, the Dalla Valle winery produces a proprietary red wine called Maya that wine writers have judged just about perfect. And the Grace Family Vineyards of Dick Grace produce small batches of legendary and quite expensive wine annually. (David Abreu, the vineyard manager for many of Napa's properties, and the man who deserves much of the credit for the quality of fruit now available in Napa, himself produces a few hundred cases of theoretically extraordinary Cabernet called Abreu. It is difficult to say how extraordinary because the wine is utterly unavailable, and Abreu, a skittish sort, chose not to be interviewed for this story.)
Many of these are established properties, meaning they extend back into the early 1980s, and some are newer. Most of the proprietors have roots in the business that push at least as far into the California soil as their vines. (Helen Turley, for example, has hands-on experience in Napa County vineyards since the late 1970s.)
That's not the case with Araujo, Screaming Eagle, Sine Qua Non or Harlan Estates, although Bill Harlan had owned Merryvale Winery from 1983 to 1996. This quartet of superstar properties represents, if you can bear the contradiction, the democratization of elitism. Krankl is a restaurateur with a background in hotel management. Harlan, creator of Napa's Meadowood Resort, is a developer and businessman who lived on houseboats for more than two decades. Neither Phillips nor Araujo had ever made a bottle of wine or owned a vine as of just a few years ago. Each set out with little more than the vision of making the best wine possible--and enough money to make it happen.
Almost always, making extraordinary wine means severe vine pruning, low grape yields and limited bottlings. Inherent in the purchase of any of these wines is the cachet of scarcity. While Bordeaux's first-growths can produce as many as 30,000 cases, or 360,000 bottles, of their best wine out of a given harvest, these California wines are made in minuscule quantities: 200 cases here, 400 cases there. The tiny volume of wine, combined with the intense interest, has rendered marketing rather unimportant. Neither Araujo, Screaming Eagle, Harlan Estate nor Sine Qua Non has ever failed to sell a bottle of wine it has produced for sale.
When you combine that scarcity with the quality of these wines, you get something akin to hysteria. Consumers show up at front doors unannounced, terrorize answering machines, offer to swap goods and services ranging from motorcycles to cosmetic surgery--all for the right to purchase the wine. Retail stores fortunate enough to score a few bottles mark up the prices, then sell the wines only to consumers who purchase at least a case of something else. Even then, the wines usually stay on display for only a matter of hours. Various newsletters now exist that tip off their readers to little-known sources for these magical bottles.
"One man called me up because he had seen my wine for sale at a store for $900 a bottle, and he asked me how I could permit that," says Phillips. She explained to him that, like a painter, she gets paid for her artistry only once; any future sales benefit only the speculator. "The wine is the wine, and the rest of it has a life of its own," she says. "It blows my mind that all of this has happened."
Phillips stands outside her house--which sits, nestled among the grape vines, down an unmarked driveway off Silverado Trail--and gestures toward the horizon. Around her, like points on a clock, are vineyards owned by Groth, Dalla Valle, Oakville Ranch, Turnbull, Vine Cliff and other familiar Napa properties. In each case, Phillips introduced the property to the eventual buyer, matching the land to a prospective winery owner's desire.
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