The Tragedy of Napa’s Cult Wines

screaming eagle 2Esther Mobley’s article on Napa cult wines pretty much nails the tragedy of these beauties:

Perhaps it’s too easy to hate these wines. And rejecting them categorically would be a mistake. For they are damn good — and not all the same….

But of course, almost no one can taste the wine.

And that’s a shame, I think to myself as I drive away from Harlan. Because not only do these wines give pleasure, but I believe they’re important. I’d venture you can’t understand the arc of Napa Valley wine — indeed, of California wine — without understanding the cults.

To be honest, among all the various categories of wine, Napa Cabs are not at the top of my list. Most are overripe, over-oaked, and overpriced. But that emphatically does not include the so-called “cult” wines, at least those that I’ve tasted—Screaming Eagle and Harlan. They are indeed ripe (and of course overpriced) but all that power comes with so much elegance and finesse their quality far outstrips the run-of-the-mill $100 Cabernet’s that are widely available.

These are great wines to be savored with the same delight as the other storied wines of the wine world, mostly from Europe. Unfortunately, most wine lovers will never have the opportunity to taste the cult wines. At prices around $1000 per bottle upon release and case production in the hundreds they are now collector’s trophies just like Premier Cru from Bordeaux.

The tragedy is compounded because as Mobley points out, these wines are not only inaccessible but have lost their cachet.

“Sometime around the mid-2000s, the sommelier community started losing interest,” Parr recalls. “The cult wines became too expensive. They are fantastic wines, and for a collector they are totally worth it. But they are inaccessible to a normal person.”

At the same time, other regions of California had begun to generate buzz. Pinot Noir happened. Low alcohol wines came into vogue. “Ripe” became a dirty word. The cults, with their mailing lists secure and their prices continuing to mount, were no longer the hot, new, exciting things….Now, these wineries have become easy targets for stone-throwing, representing to some people everything that’s wrong with Napa.

This is the real tragedy. These are unique wines that demonstrate what Napa Cabernet is capable of. You really can’t understand California wine without having some acquaintance with them. And so the whole region declines in the estimation of the wine world when what you do well is no longer on display.

I’m not sure what the solution is. In the art world we work around the expense and rarity of great works by funding museums where art lovers can view them for a reasonable fee.  But wine is a vanishing object, destroyed in the process of appreciating it. Tasting museums would work only if the entire case production of these wineries were doled out in plastic cups to lines of tourists snaking through the vineyards—a dispiriting thought.

The great wine houses of Napa are closer to mausoleums than museums, cloistered, silent, deserted, a mute testimony to greatness that must remain unappreciated.


  1. Napa Cabs are also not at the top of my list. While I am periodically gifted one, I have not purchasd one in over twenty years. Ditto Napa Chards. Is anyone paying attention how they REALLY taste ?? Heedless drinking prevails!,

  2. I once enjoyed a glass of Screaming Eagle in a restaurant as a gift, and I wrote about it. I can say that I had it once, as I am sure that I will never have any of the cult wines in my cellar, but I would never turn one down.

  3. I agree, I live in Napa Valley and I am on several lists and waiting. Most are Pinot Noir like Kosta Browne, Capiaux, and Pisoni. My friend did bring me a bottle a Scarecrow, not knowing it was a 600$ bottle. I enjoyed it blindly. It was wonderful, -The Wine Ho

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