Screaming Eagle is rare, hard to get a taste of without mortgaging the house, and not open to the public. It has no showy tasting room; doesn’t give lavish parties for wine club members; and its winemaker isn’t a public figure filling up your Twitter feed. For ordinary wine mortals its inaccessibility puts it off the wine map, outside the conversation, as if it is not part of the same wine world. But that makes Elaine Chukan Brown’s in depth report on her visit to Screaming Eagle fascinating—it’s a rare look behind the curtain to discover what makes Napa’s most famous wine tick.
The history is of course interesting, but what I came away with after reading the article is their obsession with particularity, the distinctiveness of each individual section of their vineyard:
The vineyard is divided into 50 distinct blocks. More than half is planted to Cabernet Sauvignon; the remainder is an even split between Cab Franc and Merlot. Each of the blocks is farmed according to the specific characteristics and needs of that section – and that complexity of soils yields a distinctive signature. At harvest, the individual blocks are picked and vinified separately. The method of vinification also varies, with the cellar housing tanks of stainless steel, oak and concrete, and the different vessels serving the unique characteristics of a particular block. ‘Concrete can be useful in more floral wines,’ Gislason says. ‘There is something about the interaction of the vessel with the fruit that brings out those characteristics. Oak seems to do well to help manage and round out the fruit tannin in some Cabernet. Stainless steel works well with many things; it’s very versatile.’ After fermentation, the wines are moved to barrel for ageing, with vineyard blocks remaining separate until blending. ‘It’s all about recognizing symbiotic relationships in a blend. How different blocks interact can be magic.’
All of this for an annual production under 1000 cases. Recognizing those symbiotic relationships between elements is the essence of creativity—there are no rules for it, history often isn’t a guide, and it can’t be taught.
The result is a wine utterly unique among California Cabernets:
The ultimate goal of such rigour? ‘We want elegant space inside the wine,’ says Gislason. It’s a notion that runs counter to most people’s view of cult wines, where heft and density are de rigueur.
I’ve had the opportunity to taste Screaming Eagle twice. Each time I was struck by how ethereal and finely etched they were. These are not big, powerful wines. They defy all the stereotypes about California Cabs. Yet, they clearly show the influence of California sunshine—bright, glowing, perfumed, a ghostlike intensity more felt than tasted.
As usual when I taste a wine of such stature I feel regret that it is not more available. Wine and cuisine are the only arts in which the finest examples are largely inaccessible to devotees. That is a shame for which there is no solution.