People have a tendency to want what they can’t have, and wine is no exception. The more rare and exotic a wine—the more expensive, the harder to obtain—the more connoisseurs will want it.
That was the marketing strategy behind the original wave of California cult Cabernets that exploded in the 1980s and early 1990s. Low-production Cabs such as Araujo, Harlan Estate, Screaming Eagle, Grace Family, and Bryant Family were sold to consumers through private mailing lists. And some of those consumers made a nice profit. The inaugural 1992 vintage of Screaming Eagle was offered to mailing list buyers at $75; today, it sells for more than $7,000.
Most of these cult Cabs are spectacular wines, as well. Harlan Estate received a 100-point score from Robert Parker five times, as did the Colgin IX Proprietary Red Blend. The current retail price for those five perfect vintages of Harlan hovers around $1,100 per bottle, though mailing-list customers paid a fraction. For many collectors who prefer California Cabernet to Bordeaux, wines such as these are trophies and badges of honor.
The economic boom of the late 1990s spawned a second generation of cult wines. Properties such as Hundred Acre, Buccella, Merus, Arietta, and Behrens & Hitchcock all vied for the title of “the new Harlan.” For that group, prices are more reasonable. Vintages of Buccella and Merus average $160 on the retail shelf, and even the 2001 Hundred Acre Kayli Morgan Vineyard Cabernet, which also received a 100-point score, can be snagged for $400.
When the Great Recession hit in the late 2000s, it was widely assumed cult wines would drop off the radar. Far from it. We’re now experiencing the third wave, and many of them are not even Cabernets. Here are a few of the highlights:
Ultramarine: This sparkling wine from Sonoma’s Charles Heintz Vineyard is one of California’s hottest commodities. A bottle costs $150 but they’re hard to come by—production is tiny, you can’t buy it, and you probably won’t find it on many wine lists.
Ceritas: Thankfully, you can actually purchase Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from this small producer located in the Sonoma Coast and Santa Cruz Mountains. A bottle of its Martin Ray Chardonnay is $75 and the Costalina Pinot averages $65 retail.
Arnot-Roberts: Established in 2001 by two childhood friends, Arnot-Roberts makes Chardonnay, Cabernet, and a handful of Rhone Valley varietals. The Trout Gulch Vineyard Chardonnay from Santa Cruz sells for $50, while the North Coast Syrah is a mere $40.
Scarecrow: This property is a legitimate piece of Napa history. The vines were planted in 1945 on the J.J. Cohn Estate, which borders the mythic vineyard of Inglenook founder Gustav Niebaum. The inside word is that mailing list customers pay $150 for a bottle of Cabernet, which sells for $600-$700 on the open market.
Futo: Tom and Kyle Futo immigrated to Napa from Kansas. Their 13 acres of vineyards turn out an impressive trio of Bordeaux-style red blends that begin around $150 and top out at $350.
Ironically, “the next Harlan” may turn out to be a wine made by Harlan Estate itself. Bond, produced by the Harlan winemaking team from five carefully chosen vineyard sites, ranges in price from $300 -$400, depending on the vintage. It is the essence of California Cabernet: powerful and concentrated, yet simultaneously graceful and seamless.