I’d like to relate a story about a phone call I received at work a while back. The call came on a Saturday night around 8:30pm, right in the heart of the evening when I’m busiest.
The restaurant where I used to work generally serves between 700-1000 covers a night. Diners are permitted to take guided tours of the kitchen and wine cellar after their meals, therefore this space is often teeming. The counterpoint between heavily-laden, zigzagging servers mingling with hundreds of half-drunk, wide-eyed customers is fascinating to behold. I once thought of filming this lava-flow of humanity, then playing it back at varying speeds and putting it to music. Perhaps the prelude from Verdi’s “Rigoletto” would have been appropriate.
So some guy is calling me in the midst of this cacophony, whilst the flames from dozens of thirsty clients are licking at my very heels. It’s difficult to hear someone standing in front of me, let alone a distant voice on the phone, and I have to cup my hand over my free ear in order to ascertain what’s being said. It went something like this:
“Yes,” I bellow.
“We’re coming to dine in a few weeks. How much is your Screaming Eagle cabernet?”
(Right from the start, I have a pretty good idea where the conversation is heading).
“I’m sorry, but we don’t carry Screaming Eagle, although we have many other high-end American cabernets.”
“Geez, I thought you had the world’s largest wine list! (Obvious angst combines with a muffled anguished sigh). We’re coming all the way from Barrow, Alaska?! Maybe he’s saying Fargo or Vero?) and we really wanted to try that wine. I guess you’re not all you’re cracked up to be.”
(This is just what I need. Telephone abuse from a Cult Wine Trophy Hunter in the middle of Saturday night service. I remain unflappable).
“Well, I think you’ll find
we have a few bottles that might suffice as replacements. I don’t have much
time to chat at the moment, but just ask for me when you come in.”
“We’ll do that. In the
meantime, think of something we’d like, and try to keep us around $150, OK?”
(The comedic side of our
repartee has now hit its crescendo. Doesn’t this sharpster know that Screaming
Eagle costs over $1,000 a bottle?)
“Will do, sir. Bah-bye.”
The crazed pursuit of cult wines isn’t really a new concept. Collectors have always sought after rare Bordeaux and Burgundies. But it’s only been in the last 15 years or so that the prices of certain American cabernet-based wines have left gravitational pull and forced Lafite and Latour to eat dust. Whether this remains the case in the future is open to conjecture.
There’s an A-list and a B-list of cult cabs and meritage. The top names include (alphabetically) Araujo, Bond, Bryant Family, Colgin, Dalla Valle, Grace Family, Harlan Estate, Leonetti, Lokoya, Screaming Eagle and Shafer Hillside Select. Others such as Constant, Jarvis and Pahlmeyer make up a second tier. Marcassin, Peter Michael and Williams Selyem produce chardonnay and pinot noir that fit that bill as well.
I’ve tasted the majority of the offerings from these wineries and have found them to be generally excellent, made and then marketed with loving care. My displeasure has never been with the wines themselves, but with the hype that accompanies them. Too much emphasis is placed on these wines, both by the media and the consumers they influence. The wines are highly allocated are offered at such elevated prices that they’ve become apparitions, ghosts to chase after or tell stories about. Lauded and revered, but rarely consumed. To me, that’s not what wine is about.
I’ve reached a point in my professional career where famous labels seldom faze me. I find myself leaning in the opposite direction, stalking small wines with little or no notoriety. I love being thrilled by a $10-20 bottle from Nowheresville. I’ll devote a post soon to these jewels. We’ll call it Cult Wines for the Common Man.