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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

(continued from page 1)

That's good news for wine drinkers interested more in what's inside the bottle than in the buzz surrounding it. Let the silly money chase the cult wines; there's plenty of terrific California Cabernet to be consumed by everyone else. The profits born of a sustained economic boom in California and beyond are bound to go somewhere, so it might as well drive up the price of limited-edition commodities such as Araujo, Grace Family and Vineyard 29. Consider that if those wines didn't exist, the likes of Silver Oak would doubtless cost that much more.

The best of the cult bottlings have raised the standard of wine being produced in California today. They may ultimately be proven ineffective as investments, but they're made-to-order for today's fruit-loving American palate by talented enologists such as Helen Turley, Heidi Peterson Barrett, and the team of Tony Soter and Mia Klein.

And the cults raise the profile of California wine. The best of Domaine de la Romanee Conti's Burgundies sell for $500 and more upon release and Bordeaux's Petrus almost as much, so having a handful of California wines attracting that kind of money pulls up the U.S. wine industry to some sort of level¿if absurd¿economic plane. If they serve as a sort of expensive-wine starter kit for the newly affluent, that's not a bad role, either.

"These really luscious, flabby Cabernets, they're getting people to say, ¿Hey, this is a great bottle of California wine,'" says Dunn. "And maybe these wine drinkers will evolve into thinking there's something beyond that. That's what the rest of us keep hoping, anyway."

It's the sound of music in the Napa Valley these days: the beeps and rumbles of heavy machinery carving yet another building out of the rich soil. In this case, the structure is a new hillside wine cave for Stag's Leap Wine Cellars. And cult wines helped pay for it.

Stag's Leap Wine Cellars¿not to be confused with Stags' Leap Winery, a Beringer-owned estate dating to 1893, currently known for its Petite Sirah¿has for years released three redoubtable Cabernets: one from the Fay vineyard, one from the Stag's Leap vineyard and a reserve-level Cask 23 consisting of select lots of the two. Depending on the vintage, the wines range from quite drinkable to extraordinary.

With consumers paying into four figures for single bottles of California cult wine at auction, the idea of spending $25 for a Stag's Leap Fay -- or a Groth, a Far Niente or any of these wines -- began to seem ridiculous. As a result, many prices have doubled in recent years.

"You now have collectors who collect California wine as much as the traditional wines from France," says Stag's Leap owner Warren Winiarski. "That interest, coupled with the strong economy, makes the entire wine market favorable." He gestures to the construction around him and says, "We could not have done this without it."

A philosopher-poet of California wine who formerly lectured in the classics at the University of Chicago, Winiarski has been around long enough to understand the vicissitudes of the marketplace. Stag's Leap was one of the original California cult wines, earning that status when a bottle from its second vintage beat a range of classified growth Bordeaux at the Paris Tasting held in honor of the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976.

Like the current generation of cults, the '73 Stag's Leap that wine merchant Steven Spurrier entered into the blind tasting altered the wine world's perception of California. "The Paris Tasting wine was a deliberate effort at moderation," he says. "It was my goal to get a more balanced statement from the wine than California had been getting. And it worked."

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