The true believers
Muck and mud cover the floor of the doughnut-shaped cave under construction below Jayson Woodbridge’s Napa Valley home, the freshly carved walls still weeping groundwater. Near the entrance, Woodbridge plans to install a winery to make his Hundred Acre Cabernet Sauvignon. Wine barrels will line the back walls.
And to ensure that conditions below ground are in sync with the weather outside -- a key, he believes, to balanced wine and happy workers -- Woodbridge is installing an air-circulation system that can be cranked up to the equivalent of hurricane force winds.
A little extreme? Not if you are intent on producing one of the highly sought-after Napa Valley boutique wines known as cult Cabs.
Spending fortunes on madcap innovations in hopes of realizing infinitesimal flavor enhancements has become routine, as a rush of ambitious winemakers enters the race to produce a new generation of top-flight Napa Valley wines. Meticulously hand-pruning closely planted vines, tenderly hand-sorting grapes -- not once but twice -- and building elaborately engineered multimillion-dollar wineries are now the rule.
The first generation of cult Cabs (some of which are 100% Cabernet Sauvignon and some of which are Cabernet-based Bordeaux-style blends) started out as an elite club of limited production, highly extracted wines built to deliver powerful flavors. Wines such as Screaming Eagle, Colgin Cellars, Harlan Estate, Bryant Family and a handful of others were overnight successes in the 1990s, dazzling critics and quickly becoming an obsession among well-heeled wine collectors. They were sold almost exclusively through tightly controlled mailing lists.
It’s been 10 years, and thousands of wine collectors still line up for a slot on the waiting lists, hoping for the opportunity to fork over $200 or more to buy the wines directly from the vintner. Impatient? The wines can be bought at auction -- for two to six times the mailing list price or more. Or ordered at restaurants such as Patina, Spago and Valentino, where a 2001 Screaming Eagle fetches $2,900 (which is a bargain, because at Melisse it’s $3,200). Only the extremely wealthy can afford these wines, and many collectors never pop the cork, preferring the bragging rights of owning to drinking.
With the recent Supreme Court decision striking down certain state laws prohibiting direct shipments from California wineries to consumers in several states including New York, along with an overall explosion in demand for high-end wines, the cult Cabs are expected to become even harder to find, and much more expensive. The number of winemakers attempting to make these wines is exploding.
The idiosyncratic and fiercely independent producers of cult Cabs are the American wine industry’s leading innovators as well as the industry’s most profitable winemakers, according to wine consultant Vic Motto. “On every front, they set the tone for everyone else,” he says.
The challenge is to take winemaking even further, says Woodbridge, a former oil and gas industry investment banker from Vancouver, Canada. Like most of the new arrivals, he came to Napa with the money to do things exactly the way he wants.
While throughout the valley, workers hoist overflowing bins of grapes into open-bed trucks, Woodbridge works alongside his harvest crews to make sure grapes are gently placed in shallow ventilated boxes, one layer of grape bunches per box, “so nothing gets crushed,” he says. The boxes are whisked into refrigerated trucks where they are stored at just above freezing temperatures until they get to the winery. Sorted twice, grape by grape, before going into the fermenter, “my grapes look like caviar,” says Woodbridge.
Although his state-of-the-art oak fermentation tanks are designed to last 10 years, Woodbridge uses them for only two vintages. “I think it makes better wine to do it this way,” he says. With no formal training as an oenologist, Woodbridge shares the title of co-winemaker with Phillip Melka, who has worked at Chateau Haut-Brion and Chateau Petrus before coming to Dominus in Napa.
Woodbridge is shopping for a forest in France so that he can control the wood used to make his oak barrels from sapling to cooperage. “It’s not extreme,” he says. “There are just a few of us who will go the distance.”
Woodbridge has a $175 price tag on his 2002 Hundred Acre -- his third vintage.
Not everyone comes to Napa with such deep pockets, yet they all know they have to push the envelope. Paul Frank, a marketing executive in Los Angeles’ jewelry industry for 35 years, and his wife, Suzie, sold their home in Encino to try their hands at making a cult Cab.
So how does someone like Woodbridge or the Franks go about creating a cult Cab? First, you need the right vineyards.
In 1992, the Franks bought 17 1/2 acres on the west side of the Silverado Trail in the Yountville district that, Paul Frank believed, had the gravel soils over sandstone that were perfect for the Bordeaux-style wine of his dreams.
Doing it right meant ripping up the existing vines and collecting cuttings from neighboring vineyards that had already proven themselves, meticulously matching vine stock to soil type in 15 micro-blocks (the latest fashion in terroir management).
Then you pamper your vines.
Frank manicures his grape clusters by hand during the summer growing season, believing that only the heart of the cluster produces great wine. A solar-powered weather station using in-ground probes tracks vineyard conditions, recommending precisely what steps to take and what products to buy to avoid fungus and other pests.
Once a week, Frank pressure-tests his grape leaves to measure vine stress, adjusting the tiny drips of irrigation water accordingly.
Next, you hire the right winemaker. After trying a couple of folks, Frank also hired Melka.
Five years later, Frank had his first vintage -- 1,500 cases of his premium Gemstone and 1,500 cases of his second label, Facets. “Gemstone’s $75 price bore no relationship to our costs,” says Frank. This year, with some initial critical acclaim, he’s charging $95.
For more than a few wannabe cult Cab makers, the right winemaker is Heidi Peterson Barrett. She put Screaming Eagle on the map when the 1992 vintage was released in 1995. She’s also the winemaker at Paradigm, Revana, Barbour, Amuse Bouche, Jones Family, Lamborn Family and Showket; and she has her own label, La Sirena, available in stores for $125.
Screaming Eagle’s owner, Jean Phillips, a Napa-based real estate agent for two decades, had sold most of the vineyards in the valley at least once before buying one herself: a 55-acre Oakville plot along the Silverado Trail.
When Phillips ripped up the existing old Riesling vines and replanted the vineyard with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot, her practicality prevented her from joining the dense planting craze; instead she set her vine rows far enough apart to drive her Subaru through the vineyard. “We were just trying to make the best wine we could,” says Barrett. “There wasn’t any thought beyond that.”
A singular approach
Barrett’s ideas about winemaking are 180 degrees apart from many of the people who want to imitate her success. “We sort once, then crush and de-stem the grapes,” she says, “pumping them into an open-top bin or one of our little stainless steel fermentation tanks. It’s just me, Jean and one guy who helps part time.”
The art, says Barrett, is in small lot fermentation and barrel selection. Each corner of Phillips’ vineyard, every slight roll of that section of the valley floor, has its own flavor profile, she says. Barrett selects the grapes for Screaming Eagle -- roughly half of the grapes in the vineyard -- handling each lot separately.
She doesn’t have her own forest in France, but she does match each lot of grapes with a particular oak barrel. “Different coopers use different woods and make barrels in different styles with different toasts,” she explains. “New oak reacts with the wine differently than used barrels.” After the wine spends two years in barrel, Barrett filters it.
“People think [wine critic Robert] Parker likes unfiltered wine. But you get the same full flavors and aromas with a year of bottle aging after filtration,” says Barrett. “Unfiltered wine is a disaster waiting to happen.”
If you want a cult Cab, you don’t market it. Or don’t appear to.
When Phillips released the first vintage of Screaming Eagle, she gave much of it away to friends and neighbors, says Barrett.
By 1998, a bottle of the 1994 vintage was selling for $600 at auction. The 1994 vintage of Screaming Eagle fetched $1,450 in 2000. “The perception of the wine, compounded with the small production, turned it into a status symbol,” says Sotheby’s North American wine specialist Jamie Ritchie.
Forget your high school economics lessons. In the case of cult Cabs, competition is sending prices soaring, as these limited production wineries define their status by the ability to top each other’s prices, says Motto.
As more new ambitious wines are released, the upward pressure increases. The chain reaction is lifting prices all the way down the Napa Cabernet pyramid.
Finally, once the wine is in bottle and ready for release, you get it to the critics, confident that your wine is exactly what they’re looking for.
This year, California vintners will sell three times as much $60-and-up wine than they sold five years ago, most of it from Napa Valley. In another five years, says Motto, that amount is expected to triple again.
With twice as many wineries as existed there in 1990, Napa Valley vineyards are being carved up into smaller and smaller plots to supply these boutique wineries. Two-thirds of Napa’s 704 vineyards now contain fewer than 25 acres.
Not every winery owner is contributing to price inflation. Barrett makes Paradigm much the same way she makes Screaming Eagle, she says. The vineyards, on the opposite side of Oakville, have more uniform soils but the root stocks and Cabernet clones are more diverse.
The big difference, however, is that Paradigm is easy to find for $50 a bottle. Owner Ren Harris, who has had the vineyards since the 1960s, “won’t charge more,” she says. “It’s just who he is.”
The new kids in Napa wear their ambitions more openly, and that can be dangerous. “Right now they are hard to distinguish from one another,” says Scott Torrence, the wine specialist with Christie’s in Los Angeles. But, he says, if this pending high-end wine boom is anything like the last one during the dot-com craze, eventually things will shake out.
Sotheby’s Ritchie recalls that the single stellar 1985 vintage of Groth elevated that wine to cult status for several years, but the price came back to earth.
When the dot-com bubble burst in 2000, Screaming Eagle continued to sell for huge premiums, but only Colgin, Harlan, Bryant, David Abreu and the best wines of Shafer and Dalla Valle generated serious excitement at auction, says Torrence.
The old guard of Napa Cabernets -- Grace Family Vineyards, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Diamond Creek Vineyards, Dunn Vineyards, Caymus Vineyards, and Heitz Cellars -- were the rare Calfornia wines that continued to sell at any kind of a premium.
The ocean of simply expensive Napa Cabs just sat there, says Torrence. That is until this past year. The auction market for California wines has rebounded.
Not everyone in Napa has caught the cult Cab fever. To some, these wines are too powerful, too alcoholic, too much of everything. It’s not clear whether they will improve with age like the first growths of Bordeaux that the cult Cab vintners often cite as their benchmark wines.
Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars founder Warren Winiarski recalls his aims when he started making wine in the 1960s. “We had deliberately set the goal of being different than the California late-harvest Zinfandels that were popular,” he says. “We were making wine of understatement and restraint.” In 1976 his Cabernet made headlines by besting France’s storied Bordeaux in a now-famous Paris tasting.
The new Cabernets, Winiarski believes, are a throwback to Napa’s earlier overripe wines. “The cult wines are of extreme character,” he says. “When you are guided by the principle of being the most powerful, you distort the character of the place where you grew the grapes. The ‘best’ is never an extreme.”
Of Napa’s early stars, Winiarski is one of a handful to stay on top of the game with collectible wines such as Cask 23 Cabernet. Like most vintners, Winiarski credits his vineyards: a combination of volcanic soils on sloping vineyards and the loamy clay soils of flatland vineyards, both on the east side of the Silverado Trail in lower Napa Valley.
But more than anything, he says he was lucky. Napa soils and climate were shrouded in mystery when he plotted out his first vineyards.
“The valley is still a mystery,” says Winiarski. “We’re out here with flashlights in the dark. There is plenty of room for new people. I hope they are guided by considerations of beauty, to make wines distinctively related to their soils.”
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So you want to make a cult wine ...
How to create an instant cult Cab hit
* Build your own high-tech winery, using no pumps, only gravity.
* Burrow into the side of a hillside to create caves.
* Hire Heidi Peterson Barrett or Phillip Melka as winemaker.
* Claim extraordinary characteristics for your soils.
* Plant vines so close together that they “struggle.”
* Harvest only perfect grapes and sort twice to make sure.
* Harvest as late as your nerves will allow.
* Ferment your wine in micro lots.
* Sell less than 1,000 cases of wine per vintage.
* Charge more than $100 a bottle for the first vintage.
* Offer the wines for sale only through mailing lists and at ritzy restaurants.
* Pretend you’ve never marketed your wine.