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Cabernet Cult

Napa Valley's forgotten classics still make outstanding acquisitions
Bruce Schoenfeld
From the Print Edition:
The Cuba Issue, May/Jun 01

With the chill of a Northern California January in the air, the customers start lining up at five in the morning. Coffee and donuts are distributed. Friends get reacquainted. At nine o'clock, the heavy redwood doors of the winery swing open, the new vintage of Silver Oak's Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon goes on sale, and the line of 500 begins to move.

Twice a year, Cabernets from Silver Oak, one of California's best and most consistent wineries, are made available to the public; the Napa Valley designation in the winter, the Alexander Valley in the summer. Purchases are strictly limited to six bottles per person on the first day, not including the occasional large-format bottle, older release or other collector's item, and fewer bottles thereafter. Still, the wine sells out.

Once it's gone, anyone wanting to buy a bottle of Silver Oak must order it from a restaurant wine list, find it at secondary markets such as auctions or get on the lengthy waiting list for the biannual mailings. Occasionally, a few bottles will find their way to select retail outlets, but their scarcity is likely to make the cost exorbitant. "By any definition you use, Silver Oak is a cult wine," says marketing manager Peter Carisetti.

Yet in the context of the California marketplace these days, it isn't. And despite their cultish followings, neither are highly regarded Cabernets such as Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, Dunn, Groth and Far Niente. These wines are allocated, but they're available to anyone who makes an effort to find them. They're expensive, sure, but the prices aren't prohibitive when compared to the best of Burgundy, Barolo and others.

And though they are made in small quantities relative to most California wines, not to mention the assembly-line numbers of Bordeaux, these releases are many times larger than those of the true cult labels. The annual production of Colgin, Bryant, Screaming Eagle and Harlan Estate combined, for example, doesn't equal a single vintage output of Silver Oak.

"It's one thing to release 250 [12-bottle] cases of wine and be sold out," says Silver Oak winemaker Daniel H. Baron. "We just released the 1996 Alexander Valley, which was 40,000 cases. Allocation at the winery is down to a bottle a person now, and we could have sold out every bottle in the first week if we'd wanted to."

Cabernet Sauvignons such as these are the forgotten classics of California¿forgotten in the sense that they fall between wine shop standards such as Beringer, Mondavi and Caymus and the rarified cult bottlings that few wine drinkers have ever seen, let alone tasted. Once the most exalted bottles California had to offer, the uncorking of a Cabernet from one of these classic Napa County wineries constituted a special occasion. You knew you'd be drinking a wine that balanced a seriousness of purpose with layered flavors of ripe California fruit. These were drinkable, collectible and age-worthy wines. And they still are.

But in today's wine world, that doesn't make them sexy. They're too familiar, at a time when unfamiliarity has become a virtue. Come across a Cabernet you've never heard of in a double-thick bottle? If it's more than $50 and only a few hundred cases were made, it must be terrific. Buy it now, before it gets too popular, and impress the crowd at dinner tonight. (And you'd better drink it tonight; most of these wines are built for speed, not longevity.)

Al Brounstein of Diamond Creek used to joke that he was going to allocate all his resources to produce only a single bottle a year of the best wine anybody had ever tasted, and he'd sell that bottle for $1 million. "But I might break it, so maybe I'd better make two," he'd add as a punch line, but the sentiment was real. The less you make of a wine, the better you can theoretically make it¿and the more you have to charge to recoup your investment. Of such mathematics are cult wines born.

"The recipe for success now is to make 100 cases of wine, charge $100 a bottle, get it into some key auctions, and have your friends buy it," says Randy Dunn, who has been making wine at his residence on Howell Mountain since 1979. "It's a slam-dunk. Because people have this unlimited money, and they're willing to pay."

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