Understanding ‘cult’ wines
You may have heard the phrase “Cult Wine” or “Cult Cabernet” and wondered what exactly it meant. Well, fear not, for there is no exact meaning. Rather, it is a term that is sometimes used to describe a label, a wine, or even a region that has acquired a limited but very distinct following.
There are certain wines that may gain favor with certain groups of people, say sommeliers or collectors or, yes, even wine writers, for a period of time. These preferences can take on a life, or an aura, of their own. They can become the “hot” wine desired by only those in the know. And, of course, they can be used by wine snobs who like to play the “I know and you don’t” game.
A few years back sommeliers adopted the white grüner veltliner wines of Austria for themselves. These dry, but rich wines, became known to those who poured at the finest restaurants as “Groovy,” a play on the name Grüner. Nothing was hipper at the time than ordering a glass of Groovy in a great restaurant and then listening to the somm tell you how transcendent the wine was. Not that he was wrong. A chilled grüner veltliner can indeed make for a great wine experience. But there was a hint of being a part of the in-crowd that made the experience just a little juicier.
Wine writers, and I consider myself guilty, have a propensity for attaching their allegiances to various winemakers and/or regions. For a time the wines of Slovenia and winemaker Aleš Kristancic became the darlings of the world wine press. Then there is the fascination with the extreme Sonoma Coast. It seems that these people and places are often “discovered” at the same time by writers, perhaps, on occasion, due to stealthy promotion by public relations folks. In both of those examples the wines and the “cult” that grew around them are rewarded by the authenticity of the regions and the wines that come from them.
For collectors the game is a little different. There are those who collect the wines they truly love and who will seek them out exclusively because of their affection for the grape, the location and/or the winemaker. But there are also those who collect wines because it can be lucrative. They, above all others, helped to make the market in California Cult Cabernet.
You may have heard of, but never tasted, wines from Napa Valley’s Harlan, Screaming Eagle, Araujo, Bryant Family or Colgin, but for those who collect wines they represent investments and personal treasures. All make wines that sell in the high three or even four figures per bottle and are produced in very short supply. Most are sold only via a mailing list and if you are not on them the chances of getting on are about as likely as getting 50-yard line season seats at Lambeau Field. Perhaps even less so. Established in the 1990s, these are the wines that first inspired the Cult Cabernet moniker.
Today, there are many other California wines that command top dollar as well and could be defined as having attained cult status. Scarecrow, Schrader Cellars and Realm are all wines that have become valuable to collectors in recent vintages.
But the all-time “cult wine” may be one that reportedly garnered the highest price ever paid for a single bottle. At Emeril Lagasse’s Carnival Du Vin Charity wine auction this past November, a bottle dubbed “The Setting” sold for a mind boggling $350,000. This 2015 vintage cabernet sauvignon, from the Alexander Valley, was donated to the auction by “Supermensch” talent agent Shep Gordon, who has represented music, film and chef personalities over the years. The “cult” in this case was a Mississippi-based collector who partnered with some friends. It should be noted that the list price for this wine on release was $85. So something else may have been at work here.
“The Setting” was made by rising star winemaker Jesse Katz. Katz is the walking definition of a “cult winemaker.” In addition to the Devil Proof Vineyards label (yes, it has a mailing list), he has made wines for stars, including the Denver Broncos’ Von Miller and entertainers Jessica Biel and Justin Timberlake.
Just because a wine becomes a cult wine does not necessarily make it a great wine, or one that you should seek out. Rather, it can be like an obscure book or an underground band, something that only appeals to a small demographic. By definition it may not be appropriate, or affordable, for the masses.
But, as is the case with an art film or under-the-radar artist, new discoveries are part of what makes life worth living.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass. He can be reached at email@example.com.