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Gulf & Main Magazine

California’s Cult Wines - These rare wines have a passionate following

Jun 25, 2015 08:42AM ● By Kevin

If you enjoy wine, sooner or later you’ll come across a discussion of California’s so-called cult wines. Despite the way it sounds, these are not the wines you and your fellow believers drink while waiting in your jungle commune for the mothership to come and take you back to your home planet. They are, however, so rare and desirable that almost nobody can get any.

Held in worshipful awe by a worldwide community of enthusiasts, these wines are revered partly because of their consistently stunning quality. But so are a lot of other wines, so what’s all the buzz about these particular objects of desire?

Let’s list them. In no particular order, the major cult wines are Screaming Eagle (at the top of everyone’s list), Harlan Estate, Colgin Cellars, Bryant Family, Grace and probably one or two others. What qualifies them for this special status?

Grapes for these wines grow in tiny vineyards. Harlan Estate has only 36 acres under vine, and at this level the goal is not to grow the most grapes but to grow the fewest. Overproduction weakens the wine, so growers prune bunches off the vines, concentrating more flavor in fewer grapes. Rarity is another issue. Screaming Eagle makes 500 cases, with only three bottles in each. That’s 1,500 bottles for the entire world, and everybody wants some—not only private collectors, but also amusingly expensive restaurants. Demand is, to put it mildly, frenzied and desperate.

Taking all this into account, how do people get their hands on these cult wines? The first way is to get on the wineries’ mailing lists, but that’s practically impossible. There are waiting lists for those limited allocations, and waiting lists for the waiting lists.

The other way is to buy them on the secondary market, through live or online auctions. This can be a bit costly. The fortunates on the Screaming Eagle mailing list pay $2,550 for a three-bottle case of the current vintage. As of this writing, the 2012 vintage of Screaming Eagle, which was released in March, is selling for $2,000 a bottle on Internet wine-auction sites.

Here’s the good news: dozens, maybe hundreds, of high-quality wines just as good as the cult offerings are available for thousands of dollars less. You can always find a good Bordeaux, especially those designated Bordeaux Superieur and Cru Bourgeois. There are sumptuous cabernets from California, such as Scarecrow, Hundred Acre, Switchback Ridge and Phelps Insignia. Inexpensive they’re not, but for splurges and special occasions, they may be just what you want in your glass.

Writtenby Jerry Greenfield, the Wine Whisperer. He serves as creative director for a Florida-based advertising agency and is former wine director of the Southwest Florida Wine and Food Festival. Read more at