Oxford Town Wines

John JuergensCult wines: America's devotion to the iconic and expensive

America truly is a bountiful land, but from a foreign perspective we Americans justifiably often are viewed as conspicuous consumers of just about everything. Not only does it show in things like energy, food, and automobiles, it applies to wine as well. Where else in the world would there emerge the notion of "cult wines?"

While not limited to the U.S., the fascination with cult wines is largely an American phenomenon. Most European wine drinkers focus on finding the most exquisite combinations of wine and food rather than rating scores. But let's back up a bit and try to come up with some sort of working definition for just what constitutes a cult wine.

Going to my trusty American Heritage Dictionary, a cult can be defined as, "Obsessive devotion or veneration for a person, principle, or ideal, or the object of such devotion." I ran this by several of my friends who are in the wine business to get their opinions about what constitutes a cult wine. Robin Garr of The Wine Lover's Page gave me this definition: "It's a wine that creates a fanatical, almost religious devotion in its followers, which may be based as much on emotion as rationality."

Anna Maria Knapp of Celebrations Wine Club suggested other factors that contribute to raising an individual wine or even a winery to the level of possibly irrational devotion. These include limited quantity or scarcity, and an initial high price that is driven to unrealistically high levels because of attention from the press and the wine media. According to Anna Maria, the press is crucial in first bringing attention to a wine or winery, and for continuing to fan the flames of popularity and exclusivity.

For regular wine drinkers and readers of the wine press, some of the more notable cult wines include names such as Opus One, Penfolds Grange, Screaming Eagle, and Cristal Champagne, which might be considered a double cult wine because it is the preferred wine of drug dealers and gangsta rappers. All of these wines are very expensive and made in relatively small quantities, that is, less than about 1,000 cases - 12,000 bottles.

Many cult wines are fairly obscure because they are limited to just a few hundred cases, which usually are sold even before the wine is made. When I did a Google search on cult wines I got pages and pages of wines from wineries in California I had never heard of.

From what I understand, there is a group of wineries in California that actually focus on making just one or two cult wines, or what some wine writers call "formula wines." These manufactured wines are highly extracted, that is, every bit of color, fruit flavor, and tannin is pulled out of the grapes, they have high alcohol content, and low acidity to make them velvety smooth to drink. However, this is a formula for wines that do not age. All of their charm is right up front and it quickly fades after about 5 to 8 years or so. This is analogous to day old catfish and French fries.

But what about something like Dom Perignon Champagne, which is the clichéd icon wine for toasting success and great events? The total production levels of Dom are a closely guarded trade secret, but it has been estimated that several millions of bottles are produced at each vintage. I wouldn't call that a limited production, but the wine still has something of a cult-like reputation. Other examples might include legendary wines such Lafite Rothschild, Chateau Latour, Romanee-Conti, La Tasche, and Chateau d' Yquem.

The part I struggle with is when does a wine cross over from being "just" an excellent wine, usually of limited production and high price (maybe starting around $40 or more) to something that has people camping out in front of the winery overnight to get a single bottle as if it were the latest generation of Play Station or the Wii machine?

Garr suggests that when a wine grabs the attention of wine collectors and investors the press takes notice and the wine can be catapulted quickly into a position where its value is driven into those irrationally high prices because of high demand and small supply. This only helps to fuel the wine's mystique and the buying frenzy, never mind that the wine might be just a pretty good wine, but not that much better than others in the $20 to $30 price range. And, as I mentioned above, these wines usually don't age well, so the collectors and investors frequently never intend to drink the wines, but just trade on their notoriety.

I know I will get a lot of hate mail for saying this, but as I have mentioned in the past, I don't believe any wine is really worth more than about $30. That is, thirty dollars can cover the extra expense of making a truly handcrafted wine where only the best quality fruit is used and each grape is selected for consistent ripeness, along other special handling techniques to produce a superbly complex wine.

In many ways it is the same as making a fine watch. It is possible to get only a certain level of accuracy in a wristwatch, which you would think is the most important function of the watch. However, a $5 digital watch from WalMart can keep better time than an analog watch made by Rolex, which definitely qualifies as a cult item. In other words, after a certain point in quality, the rest of the price of a watch, a car, or a wine is just hype.

Cult wines appeal particularly to wine snobs who might know a little something about wines, but have more money than wine sense. These Nouveau Richenecks don't want to miss out on any opportunity to accumulate bragging rights for being among the privileged who have tried such wines or have a bottle or two in the wine cabinet. Never mind that they probably wouldn't know the difference between a cult wine and one of those fruity critter wines from Australia if they tasted them blind.

Sometimes people like this can drive an entire grape type into at least temporary cult status. This happened to Pinot Noir when the movie "Sideways" came out. Millions fans devoted to overpriced Merlot flocked to Pinot, even though they had no idea what to expect from the grape.

So, what constitutes a cult wine? Hell, I don't know. If I did, I probably would be writing this from my chateau in Burgundy. I've been lucky to taste some cult wines, and while most of them were really good, I still didn't think they were worth more than $30, and certainly not the going prices of $100 to $1000.

For those of us who came of age in the 1960s, Lancers and Mateus seemed to have a sort of cult status in those days, as did things like Blue Nun, and maybe even Boone's Farm Strawberry Hill. So don't be intimidated by what you read and hear from the media. Go ahead and create your own cult wine if you really like White Zinfandel.

January 2007

To contact John Juergens, write him at wineguy@vista-express.com

Back to Oxford Town Wines