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."
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."
Throughout the 1970s, California's Cabernets had been tannic monsters, produced as a reaction to earlier criticism that the New World could provide nothing more than immediate gratification. There seemed to be a certain status in making wines that weren't drinkable upon release, just like Bordeaux. Whether the wines ever came around to give pleasure seemed almost immaterial.
The emergence of drinkable but age-worthy wines like Stag's Leap and Silver Oak ushered in a new era. "What I try to do is have the palate actually perceive the relationship between the tannin and the fruit, the balance between hard and soft elements," Winiarski says. "In that sense, a little bit of work is required from the taster." He expresses it as the difference between a rectangle, in which unequal sides are perceived as harmonious, and a square, in which there can be no balanced relationship, and therefore no real beauty, because all sides are equal.
The analogy may be esoteric, but Stag's Leap brings it to life with Cabernets of unmistakable California lineage that even the staunchest Bordeaux advocate can appreciate. Shouldn't such successful wines sell for what the market will bear? The question has swept through Napa Valley and beyond, as the Fay and Stag's Leap vineyard releases have crept up to $50, and the Cask 23, of which about 2,000 cases are annually made, to $100.
Up Howell Mountain and past the town of Angwin, which feels like a piece of Middle America plunked down in the midst of the country's finest grape-growing land, the unpretentious Randy Dunn finds to his chagrin that he's selling his wines at nearly $50 on release, which means they might nudge $100 on a restaurant wine list. But the $10 increase from previous years has so far made only a handful of customers cut back on their annual allotment of his purple-black bottlings.
"There are something like 50 California wines out there for over 100 bucks, and certainly there are 100 wines for 50 bucks," he says. "So you get to thinking, maybe I should creep mine up a little bit and raise the money to buy the next piece of land."
As a response to the cult wines, Dunn is releasing mixed cases of his older wines. For years, he has been holding back close to 100 cases of his annual production, a significant number for a winery that only produces 4,000. Now, two bottles each of the 1987, 1988 and 1989 Howell and Napa releases -- each under $30 on release -- will cost $1,800 in a gift 12-pack. That's $150 a bottle, or about what Colgin fetches off its mailing list.
What a consumer gets for that money is well-aged, evolved Cabernet Sauvignon. If it doesn't have the fruit-filled flash of some of the cult wines, that's just as well to Dunn. "Some of those hard-to-get wines I've tasted, I say to myself, 'My God, how do they get the reviews they get?' They're flabby wines, and I don't think they're going to show very well in a few years."
Sitting in his backyard at a picnic table, with wind chimes making their sweet melody and three dogs asleep beside him, Dunn watches a gray heron alight on a tree limb. He seems eminently attuned to the sweep of time: earth time, and wine time, too. He pours a glass of his 1997 Howell Mountain Cabernet, which won't be released until later this year, a full vintage cycle after most California wineries. His wines spend two and a half years in oak barrels, yet they're anything but over-oaked.
The '97 is big and rich, rough on the mouth because of the young tannins. Despite the huge fruitiness of the 1997 vintage throughout Napa that made many wines instantly accessible, this is a wine that's still wearing pajamas, a wine that hasn't yet dressed for the party. "No different from any of my wines at that stage," Dunn says with a shrug. It requires a decade of cellaring, and that fact alone won't appeal to the seeker of instant gratification. But then, with such a limited amount of wine, Dunn doesn't have to appeal to everyone.
"In the long run, things will sort out," he says, swirling his glass as the wind chimes sing. "When the cult wines are 20 years old, if they're still around, I think the differences in what we're doing and they're doing will have long become evident."
Sitting in the living room of her new Napa Valley home, Judy Groth leans forward. "The wine business," she says, "has been harder on us than we thought it would be."
In the early 1980s, her husband, Dennis, was working as the chief financial officer at Atari, the electronic games company, and fell into a sum of money. Judy hoped it would buy them a beach house somewhere. "But Dennis said we needed a tax shelter," she says. "He had some ideas¿barges on the Mississippi, greenhouses in Mexico¿but I wanted something we could at least use as a getaway."
They compromised on one of the more picturesque patches of the Napa Valley floor, grape-growing land across from Silver Oak. When the sinking ship that was Atari cut Dennis loose in the mid-1980s, he was 42. He had some money saved, and he put it all into the Napa property to make a winery happen.
It wasn't easy. He recalls walking into one of their favorite Northern California restaurants and announcing his plans. "They looked at us and said, ¿Oh, no, not another California winery.'"
Like Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, however, this one came from a special place. "To me, the valley floor means elegance," says Michael Weis, Groth's winemaker, as he sips from a glass of 1994 Groth Estate Cabernet. "There's a restrained elegance, a balance to the wines that come off this particular valley floor."
Such elegance wasn't always appreciated. When Dennis Groth made his first vintage in 1983, he was told by the California wine community that it wasn't big enough to be taken seriously. He had no name, no history other than his connection to a failed electronics firm, and no track record, and evidently the news of Winiarski's Paris success hadn't yet reached the U.S. retail level. Consumers understood, however, for Groth soon had its own small but devoted following.
Small meant that the Groths had to raise their children in a geodesic dome of a house that had come with the property. Dennis promised Judy that they'd live there a year or two at the most; 16 years later, they were finally secure enough to build their own house. By then, the price of a bottle of Groth had escalated to $42, and the reserve was marked at $125. Though the cult wines helped the prices get there, the Groths can't help harboring at least some resentment toward proprietors who have come into the business lately and have known nothing but financial success with wines that are, many of them, nothing extraordinary.
In the wine cellar of his new house, Groth pours a vertical tasting from four vintages. Wines such as the 1985 Groth Reserve taste as rich and beefy as the sirloin they're typically partnered with. There's a profundity to these wines, a leather-and-earth richness that mere fruit, no matter how thrilling on first sip, can't match. "Let's see them make good wines for 10 years," Groth says, just as others once said to him.
Not far away from the Groths, at Bistro Don Giovanni on Highway 29, there had been another tasting earlier in the day, another table groaning with bottles of dark, deep California Cabernet. Presiding was Gil Nickel of Far Niente, which has made one of the finest Cabernets in America for 15 years. But these weren't Far Niente wines.
Nickel has invented a 3,000-case winery called Nickel & Nickel that stands apart from his traditional California winery, but benefits from the association. The wines show the wisdom of the idea. At least three of the four 1997 Nickel & Nickel Cabernets (there's also a Merlot and a Zinfandel) taste like a hybrid of a wine like Harlan Estate and Far Niente, offering ready drinkability but also plenty of structure. Because each came from a single vineyard, they show the personality of a specific place.
Cult wines didn't just help pay for these small-batch, single-vineyard releases. "The whole craze for cult wines has done the missionary work for us," Nickel acknowledges. "We can fill a niche now instead of having to create one. Without them, we'd be plowing new ground."
Like the cults, these new Cabernets -- designated Stelling, Rock Cairn, John C. Sullenger and Carpenter after their vineyards -- are all made in small quantities. And they're expensive: as much as $95 a bottle for the Stelling, the best of the four. But that's less than half the $225 for a new release of Harlan Estate, and about the same as Far Niente.
Nickel made his money in the nursery business in Oklahoma. In 1979, he bought a disused winery in Oakville and retrofitted it with up-to-date equipment. He started making Chardonnay, and the Cabernet started to get attention with the formidable 1985 vintage. "We didn't know about cult wines when we started, though in hindsight we were one," he says. "Until we started growing a little larger, we had a cult following. It has been a challenge to keep riding the wave. I thought I got here too late in 1979, and now people act like I was a pioneer."
Today, Far Niente produces 35,000 to 40,000 cases a year of a wine modeled after Bordeaux's Haut Brion. It was one of the first wineries to seek not to produce a flawless wine but a consistent wine, in the Bordeaux style. Like Haut Brion, which tends to taste like a Haut Brion in all but the quirkiest vintages, Nickel wants his wines to taste like themselves. Tell him you picked out Far Niente in a blind tasting and you'll make his day.
By comparison, the Nickel & Nickel wines will be whatever the land makes them. "The last thing we want," Nickel says, "is Far Niente Jr."
"I need to make a wine that is special, that's not only a good wine but shows the characteristics unique to individual vineyard sites," says winemaker Darice Spinelli, who works only for Nickel & Nickel. "With Far Niente, they have the opportunity to fill in the holes with blending. With single-vineyard, we realize that there will be strengths and weaknesses. Each wine will reflect the characteristics of a given year."
Nickel ultimately hopes to create wines as profound as Far Niente with all the Nickel & Nickel releases, though he realizes that's a tall order for any cult wine, even his own. "But you have to have a long-term plan in the wine business, generally lasting beyond your lifetime; it's kind of like building the pyramids," he says. Toward that end, he has made his college-age son a partner, and already expanded the range of single vineyard sources for coming Nickel & Nickel releases.
For now, though, when he seeks a representation of what a complex, ever-evolving classic California Cabernet should taste like, he opens a bottle of his Far Niente. "We try to be the real thing here, in this modern world where everything tends to be phony," he says. He's referring at once to his business philosophy and his winery, but above all to his wine. And then he drinks it.
Bruce Schoenfeld is a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado.