Californian Cult Wines – The Icons

This week of wine icons all hail from the beautiful state of California. A region that in the last 25 years has seen its reputation soar to the highest echelons of fine wine production, producing some of the most acclaimed and collectible wines on the planet. Cabernet Sauvignon and the Napa Valley have paved the way, however, wineries such as Sine Qua Non, offering Southern Californian Rhône-style blends, have proven that world class wines from the region no longer solely rely on the Napa Valley nor Cabernet Sauvignon for their success. Regions such as Santa Barbara and Sonoma are offering a huge, diverse range of both variety and climate.

California was not only the birthplace of ‘cult wine’, but the thriving region has proven that fine wine production is no longer restricted to the historically established fine wine regions of Europe. The top iconic estates from California are undoubtedly equal to the fine wines of Europe. 

Screaming Eagle

Screaming Eagle is the ultimate Californian cult wine coming from a 57 acre vineyard based in the Oakville AVA of Napa Valley. Founded in 1986, the first bottling under the Screaming Eagle label was the 1992 vintage (released in 1995) taken from just one acre of the land (made up of 80 individual Cabernet Sauvignon vines). The winery shot to fame when this inaugural 1992 vintage received a 99-point score from Robert Parker, describing the wine as “one of the greatest young Cabernets I have ever tasted”. First released at just $75 direct from the winery via their mailing list, years later, one Silicon Valley bidder paid half a million dollars for an Imperial of the 1992 at the charitable 2000 Napa Valley Wine Auction. These days production levels are closer to 750 cases and the wine now retails on the secondary market at over $3500 a bottle. 

With a reputation – and prices – on a par with those of Pétrusand Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. This exclusivity makes Screaming Eagle one of the rarest and most desirable wines on either side of the Atlantic.

The History

In 1986 former real estate agent Jean Phillips, bought the 57 acre Oakville vineyard, striking up a business from selling her grapes to various Napa wineries. The exception was a single acre that she kept aside to try her hand at producing her own wine. In the absence of any winemaking equipment, this was – as legend has it – made in a plastic bin. Phillips took the result to her neighbours at Robert Mondavi Winery to gauge their opinions on the quality of her wine. Their response was positive and before long Screaming Eagle was born. 

Jean Philips sold the winery in 2006 to Stan Kroenke and Charles Banks for an estimated $30 million. Under the new ownership, winemaking duties was taken on by Napa superstar Andy Erickson who had previously worked at Harlan as head winemaker and David Abreu was hired to manage the vineyards. In 2011 Nick Giaslon took over Andy Erickson and became the head winemaker at just 29 years of age. 

The Terroir

The soil is made up of a complex mix of igneous rocks, gravel, silica, clay and iron rich soils. The vineyard, following in-depth soil mapping, has today been split into 50 separate parcels allowing for intraplot vinification depending on the varying ripening times of each plot. The vineyard is predominantly west facing and is said to have cooling winds that promote acidity and brightness despite capturing the power of the vineyard which is one of the earlier ripening vineyards in the AVA. 

In 2006 there was a major replanting of the vineyard with 30 acres replanted under the guidance of David Abreu. Today the vineyards are made up predominantly by Cabernet Sauvignon but with also plots of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and just over 2 acres of Sauvignon Blanc. It is in fact Screaming Eagle’s Sauvignon Blanc that is the most expensive wine on the market selling for an average price of $6000 per bottle! Just one barrel is produced each year and sold privately. These days there are 48 acres under vine of which roughly around 23 acres of vines go to produce Screaming Eagle. 

The winery continues to produce remarkable wines scoring maximum 100 point scores from the Wine Advocate in 2016, 2015, 2012 and 2010.

Sine Qua Non

Self-penned Rhone rangers Sine Qua Non in just 25 years have become one of California’s most collectible and acclaimed wineries. They have few peers producing wines of such high quality and the critical acclaim has helped make the wines of Sine Qua Non some of the most desirable and collected in the world.

Their approach to release single bottlings under different names each vintage, means every release is unique. Each one is individually and idiosyncratically named, receiving new and unique label designs every time. The range is therefore diverse and extensive and the labels are works of art in their own right. These wines produced in such small quantities that once released become highly prized in collectors circles. Thankfully the quality of the wines lives up to hype with a staggering 22 separate cuvées receiving 100 point scores from the Wine Advocate!    

The History

Born in Austria, Manfred Krankl moved to Los Angeles in California where he met Elaine, his now wife. The pair began to dabble (experiment, immerse, engage?) in winemaking, supported by Bryan Babcock and John Alban in the early years, with the idea of making wines for their restaurant. But in the end the winemaking consumed all. Their winery was established in 1994 and the first official release, Queen of Spades 1994, has become highly collectable and vastly expensive. The rest of their wines have followed suit.

Sine Qua Non’s winemaking facility is located in Ventura County, not far from the Santa Barbara vineyards. Manfred Krankl’s winemaking techniques has been compared to Etienne Guigal’s, opting for small volume, natural yeasts, extended lees ageing for whites, repeat racking for reds and new oak. Sweet wines were produced with help from legendary Austrian winemaker Alois Kracher, hence their name: Mr K.

The Terroir

What started as 4 barrels of wine of bought fruit, has now turned into a state of the art winery and four eclectically named vineyards: Eleven Confessions in Santa Rita Hills, Cumulus in Oak View, The Third Twin in Los Alamos, Molly Aïda in Tepusquet Canyon. These days all of the fruit comes from their own vineyards apart from one plot of Chardonnay bought from the Bien Nacido vineyard in Santa Maria. 

Staple Rhône varietals are grown: Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Roussanne, Viognier as well as Chardonnay and more esoteric varieties such as Touriga Nacional and Petite Manseng – but Sine Qua Non believe that each vintage is unique, they therefore produce different cuvées each year in tiny quantities.

Key elements according to Manfred that are the secret behind the success of SQN is producing wines from high density planted vines with very low yields (just 1.5 tonnes per acre). Growing in a moderately cool climate means very long ripening times and grapes picked very late (October, sometimes even November) which accounts for a very long hang time and grapes that have full phenolic maturity.

Schrader

Fred “Ol Sparky” Schrader is a real character of the Californian wine scene who initially made his fortune in art and antique dealing before falling in love with the world of Californian wine.

Since its inception in 1998 Schrader Cellars has gone on to garner the highest critical acclaim in the history of American Cabernet Sauvignon production, consistently producing some of the best expressions of Cabernet Sauvignon coming from the Napa region. At present, The Wine Advocate has awarded 19 separate 100 point scores for Schrader’s, Beckstoffer’s To Kalon Cabernet Sauvignons.

When not in the Vineyards, Ol’ Sparky can be found zooming around the Napa Valley in one of his vintage automobiles, scouring the globe for antique treasures!

The History

Fred Schrader initially thought up the idea to start a winery when he attended the Napa Valley Wine Auction in 1988. A few years later, the Colgin-Schrader Cellars was born, a partnership between Schrader and his then wife Ann Colgin (who since went on to set up Colgin Cellars). In 1992, they produced their first wine. After the dissolution of their marriage, Fred Schrader founded Schrader Cellars in 1998 and hired famed winemaker Thomas Rivers Brown as winemaker and consultant, who has worked at the estate ever since. 

The Terroir

The purpose of the wines created at this estate, is to showcase different clones of Cabernet Sauvignon, displaying both the character of each clone with as little human intervention as possible and how different clones can perform within a single vineyard site. Some of their wines are also made up of fruit from single blocks within single vineyards which highlights the variety that can exist even within clones.

Schrader sources his grapes from a long relationship with Beckstoffer vineyards. The To Kalon vineyard, which Beckstoffer bought from Beaulieu Vineyards in 1993, is synonymous with some of the finest wines ever made in Napa and has garnered more 100 points wines made on one site than any other vineyard in Napa, possibly the world. Its reputation makes its grapes some of the most expensive in the world.  

Schrader Estate produces several different bottlings of Cabernet Sauvignon including the RBS made from a single clone (Clone 337), the CCS, a blend of two clones (Clone 337 and 4) and the T6 made up of a single clone (Clone 6), 

The most prominent of these is Old Sparky Cabernet Sauvignon, which owner Fred Schrader considers his top cuvée. The Old Sparky is made of a blend of two clones of Cabernet Sauvignon (Clones 6 and 337) and aged in 100% new French oak for approximately 20 months and only produced in magnum format. It has received multiple 100 point ratings from Robert Parker, and no vintage rated by him has received fewer than 95 points, a remarkable achievement in consistency.

Harlan Estate

The Harlan Estate is based in the Western Hills of Oakville, California, in the heart of the Napa Valley. This 40 acres (17 hectare) site has been producing some of California’s top Bordeaux blend wines in the last 30 years and remains today one of the most collectable wines in the world.

Ever since the first vintage, the Harlan Estate Proprietary Red has had praise consistently heaped upon it, and out of the limited vintages released thus far, seven have received a perfect 100 points from the Wine Advocate. Robert Parker states the “Harlan Estate might be the single most profound red wine made not just in California, but in the world.”

The History

Founded by real estate entrepreneur Bill Harlan in 1984, the Harlan Estate was born with the singular vision of creating a California “First Growth”. William Harlan was first inspired to create Harlan Estate when he attended the opening of the Mondavi Winery in 1966, and a trip to Bordeaux and Burgundy cemented this vision in his mind. Harlan began his search for land in 1972, and in 1984 purchased the first forty acres of land and began planting vines shortly afterwards. Alongside the Harlan Estate vineyard and Napa Valley Reserve, Bill Harlan also owns the vineyards of Bond and Promontory.

The first vintage produced at the Estate was in 1987 but Bill Harlan admits that it wasn’t until the 1990 vintage that he felt that his vision could become a reality. Since then he hasn’t looked back. Today Harlan’s proprietary Red is one of the most prized wines in the world and matches the First Growths of Bordeaux for both quality, price and collectability.

The Terroir

Bill Harlan outlines when looking for the perfect place to plant vines he knew that planting on a slope would be beneficial. He also knew the best vines in the 1800s were historically planted on the Rutherford – Oakville bench, so he concluded he should plant vines on the slopes above the bench. The property benefits from a varied biodiversity surrounded by woodland and wild terrain. 

Consisting of 40 acres of vines, the estate is planted with Cabernet Sauvignon (70%), Merlot (20%), Cabernet Franc (8%), and Petit Verdot (2%). The land elevation ranges from 225 to 1225 feet above sea level and Harlan Estate contains a huge range of varied terroirs from both volcanic to sedimentary which all contribute to the stunning complexity and depth in the final wine.

Set in the western hills of Oakville in Napa Valley, California, Ever since the first vintage, the Harlan Estate Proprietary Red has had praise consistently heaped upon it, and out of the limited vintages released thus far, seven have received a perfect 100 points from the Wine Advocate.

Colgin Cellars

One of the most spectacular winemaking properties in California, Colgin sits atop Pritchard Hill in the St Helena AVA, affording stunning views of Lake Hennessey and the surrounding mountains. Founded in 1992, Colgin has rapidly established its reputation for Cabernet-based blends. For years the estate remained a virtual winery neither owning vineyards or winemaking facilities. Their first winemaker was the pioneering Helen Turley who now manages her own Sonoma icon: Marcassin winery.

Today Colgin produce 3 separate Bordeaux blend offerings – the Tychson Hill, the IX and the Cariad – all of which have, at various points, scored perfect 100 point scores with Robert Parker.

The History 

Colgin was founded in 1992 and has rapidly established its reputation for Cabernet-based blends.

Tychson Hill was the first estate cuvée to be made at Colgin Cellars. Ann Colgin began restoring the original holdings in 1997 under the guidance of master agriculturalist David Abreu. The property consists of approximately four acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, with several vine rows of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot and is named after the first female vintner in Napa – Josephine Tychson, who managed the original vineyard from the 1880s and lived at the property until 1939.  

The Terroir 

Ann Colgin describes this distinctive terroir as a rocky east-facing slope containing some of the rarest volcanic soil in Napa Valley, known as Aiken Very Stony Loam, which imparts distinctive floral, earthy, ethereal notes to a wine exemplary of Colgin Cellars’ offerings. The Tychson Hill is the most elegant and floral of the Colgin wines. 

IX: The IX vineyard is a 20-acre vineyard with rocky volcanic soils on a secluded mountain top next to the winery on Pritchard’s Hill. Robert Parker described the vineyard “as close to a viticultural nirvana as I’ve ever seen.”

Cariad – is a wine made from old Cabernet vines from 3 separate vineyards from David Abreu’s Mandrona Ranch and tends to be the most spicey of the Colgin Cabernets. 

There is also a fourth wine, the IX Estate Syrah, which today remains the US’s most expensive and collectable Syrahs. 

Compared to the other US icons, the Colgin wines are less powerful and opulent than Ann Colgin’s late husband’s wines at Schrader Estate and the wines of Harlan with a more tannic and savoury edged profile. 

The estate maintains an unusual distribution policy, selling small bottle allocations to restaurants and private customers on the wildly oversubscribed mailing list rather than to retailers. This, combined with the estate’s outstanding reputation, makes availability on the secondary market consistently scarce and the wines worth snapping up wherever you find them. In 2017 LVMH (home of Krug and Dom Perignon) bought the controlling shares of the property.