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Articles, Sept./Oct., 2000

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A sucker's bet

Too often it seems, we do not really drink the most famous wines any more. We taste. Even for those who have the seemingly limitless resources to buy things like Screaming Eagle (probably the most collectible of the cult wines, which hit a mind-boggling auction high recently of over $3,500 a bottle for the 1994), it is still a daunting prospect to consume a wine so rare at a simple dinner. If nothing else, it is no doubt difficult for those who buy status symbol wines for thousands of dollars a bottle to consume any without lots of people around to provide the appropriate ooohs and aaaahs.  After all, only a few hundred people a year, give or take, get to buy Screaming Eagle, for one example,  from the winery, and most get only 3 bottle "cases."  In fact, I wonder sometimes if any of these wines get drunk at all. Sometimes, I think they are just commodities to be traded for status. 

More often than not, when these wines are opened,  not to mention pricey wines in general, it becomes an "event," not a dinner,   with lots of  people and lots of other famous wines, at which time a feeding frenzy ensues and everyone gets tasting portions, quickly knocked back, and not always at the best moment for the wine.  If this result is understandable for the rich and famous, it is even more comprehensible for everyone else.  The only way most people, even most serious collectors, are going to get to taste any of these wines on a regular basis, or in a peer group setting, is by combining resources. The irony of this, of course, is that the most serious wines are not wines to sample and taste, but wines to sit with and reflect upon throughout a long evening. They change in the glass, and reveal their secrets only with air and time. 

Given that the California cult wines are basically from young wineries--"old guard" in this context means ten years--it seemed that they would most benefit from a change in tactic.  We decided to drink, not taste for a change. To be sure, we had some constraints. We wanted a reasonable quantity of wine. So this wasn't going to be one bottle for four people.  But we also wanted to drink, not taste.  We  brought an amount of wine limited to what could be consumed. We kept the numbers of people down (seven, for eight and a half bottles, including dessert wine) so that the pours were reasonable, and we drank up. We poured everything at the outset, lined them up and held the wines in the glass for hours, tasting and sniffing on opening, and then drinking up before leaving some three and a half hours later. We were going to treat these wines as they should be treated--as something to sit with and sample through a long evening.

The wines were all California cult cabs, the usual suspects: 1996 Screaming Eagle, 1995 & 1996 Colgin "Herb Lamb Vineyard," 1995 & 1996 Araujo "Eisele Vineyard," 1996 Harlan Estate, 1995 Bryant Family.  We started with some 1993 Chardonnay "Lorenzo Vineyard" from Marcassin and finished with some 1995 Monbazillac "Cuvée Madame" from Chateau Tirecul. Detailed tasting notes in the tasting notes section.

The results: very mixed feelings. I have thought these things before. Now,  having accorded these wines all the respect I could,  I'm sure:   they are not worth the hullabaloo.  To be sure,  there was no wine here that was not superb. The cult folks are trying hard to make fine wine, and they are succeeding. Every single wine was excellent.  But I have to say that while these are all world class wines, they are not necessarily head and shoulders above countless other wines that could be purchased for a fraction of the cost.  "Cost,"  meaning what? With the cult wines, there is always that caveat. Just a couple of vintages ago, at the winery, the cost on release was reasonable. 1994 Colgin "Herb Lamb" sold for $40 a bottle. Frankly, that's where I think these wines should be, more or less. The release prices have constantly and quickly escalated. By the 1997 vintage, they are closer to $125 a bottle, which is too high, frankly.  But who can blame them?  The people doing the work may as well make some money,  because if they do not, the speculators will.  The auction market,  fueled by collectors with too much money and too little sense, has driven the value of these wines to absurd levels. Most of them wind up selling in the $400 to $600 range per bottle, depending on vintage. Sometimes, the pricing becomes truly absurd, given the occasional, aberrant auction bid. As indicated above, moreover, there is also a "next level," and Screaming Eagle in particular seems to be the darling of the auction crowd, consistently outpacing the rest and hitting four digits. 

To which I can only say, "ridiculous."  Utterly, completely ridiculous.  The wines are very good,  but at this point, it seems to me that they struggle mightily even to justify their current release prices. Their ability as a group to age gracefully for, say, twenty years is in some question. Some will, some won't.  Most of the 1995s were drinking perfectly already. They were tasty and often flamboyant,  sometimes interesting and finely crafted. But they were not the pinnacle of achievement in the wine world, unmatched by anything from anywhere. It was impossible to divorce their performance from expectations created by their hype and hysteria. It left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth, figuratively speaking.  These wines just didn't do anything to justify their supposed "special" nature. I'm not sure what they could do, considering how out of control the hoopla has gotten.

As I sat drinking--and tremendously enjoying--these wines, I was also wondering if I would be getting any less enjoyment from a lineup of, say, 1997 Ateo (Ciacci Piccolimini), or 1998 L'Aigulière specialty cuvées like Cote Rousse, or Clavel's 1998 "Copa Santa," or if you prefer that flamboyant New World style, maybe Clarendon's Blewitt Springs "Old Vines Grenache."   I have to say, I think it would be pretty close, although obviously the styles are very different, as well as the varietals.  Clarendon is under  $40, Ateo and Cote Rousse are around $30 a bottle and Copa Santa closer to $20.  If you are willing to pay more, there are wines like 1990 Pichon Baron and 1995 Lafon Rochet and a million others I could mention that are, while not cheap, of comparable quality levels yet way cheaper than these cult wines.  Or, let's put it this way: according to two recent auction results, you could have traded a single bottle of 1994 Screaming Eagle for an entire case of 1970 Chateau Latour.  Put that way, this is getting pretty silly, isn't it? Just for the record, whatever you consider to be the relative merits of 70 Latour vs. 94 Screaming Eagle to be,  there is no rational argument that the 94 Screaming Eagle is 12 times better.  (Actually, nothing is 12 times better than 70 Latour,  or even twice as good; it is one of the great Bordeaux of modern times.)

So, if you asked me my ultimate opinion it would be this: these wines are not worth their auction prices. It is hard to know what they could do to justify their auction prices, of course, given the absurd pricing levels.  They are not even worth their current release prices.  They provide very little value for the money. They are not unique. They do not provide some amazing quality level that no one else in the world can match.  They are sucker bets.

You would be better off selling rather than drinking them.  You cannot really forget that these wines can be turned into something else. If 1990 Pichon Baron at auction and 1997 Colgin on release sell for similar prices (although I think the Pichon Baron can be had cheaper), you would still have to consider that the sale of the Colgin might get you half a case of the Pichon Baron. Debate if you will which is better in a one-to-one comparison, but six for one?

Let me say that I truly hate suggesting this because (a) I enjoyed these wines very much and would much prefer to keep and drink them;  and (b) it is not their owners' fault that the auction prices have gone berserk.  Still, I have to say that nothing these wines do justifies their prices. They are not the greatest thing since sliced bread.  You are not immediately rendered speechless on drinking them. It's easy to think of other wines just as good for a lot less money.    The cults are just rare and collectible. Do you want to drink wine or trophies?  If you don't have unlimited resources, you would be best served by treating these wines as the commodities that they have become. There are plenty of other things out there to drink every bit as good at a tiny fraction of the price. That's the unfortunate truth. Unfortunate because I loved them, but the truth because they do nothing to justify the surrounding hype and hysteria.



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