Monday, 29 October 2012

Galloni: Screaming Eagle phenomenon unhealthy

All powerful US wine critic Robert Parker’s California taster Antonio Galloni has spoken out about the trading of cult wine Screaming Eagle on the secondary market, dubbing it  “unhealthy.” While researching a feature on cult wines for the drinks business, Galloni, who rates Californian wines for Parker’s bi-monthly publication The Wine Advocate, told me: “The Screaming Eagle phenomenon is not healthy. Very few people buy Screaming Eagle to drink it. It has become a pure instrument of speculation, which is sad, as it’s a great wine.”

The San Francisco Chronicle’s wine critic Jon Bonné had similarly strong views on Screaming Eagle, agreeing that the wine, made in Oakville in the Napa Valley, has become too mythical for its own good. “Screaming Eagle has become a unicorn that isn’t worth chasing anymore,” he told me. First released in 1995, Screaming Eagle continues to command high prices at auction, with a 75cl bottle of the 1997 vintage selling for £2,267 at Christie’s New York this April.

New releases of the wine quickly double on resale – Elin McCoy of Bloomberg believes that at least a third of Screaming Eagle’s mailing list customers immediately “flip” their bottles on the secondary market. Bonné meanwhile, is cynical about the pricing of Screaming Eagle and California’s other so-called “cult” wines. “To justify stratospheric pricing based on points and scarcity, and to claim that California is a bargain by Bordeaux standards is a big does of hubris that doesn’t do anyone any good,” he said.

Despite or perhaps because of their high price tags, both Screaming Eagle and Harlan Estate are doing well in China, favoured in wealthy circles for their rarity. “The combination of money and early curve interest that drives cult wines has migrated to Asia. “China wants Screaming Eagle, Harlan and Colgin as much as they once wanted Lafite and Latour,” believes Bonné.

While Chinese consumers are catching on to California Cabernet, there are signs that other grape varieties are being welcomed into the cult wine fold. “It’s not all about Cabernet anymore. Californian Syrah is starting to have its moment in the spotlight through the likes of Sine Qua Non and Saxum,” Mark Andrew of London fine wine merchant Roberson told me over the phone. Londoners are developing a thirst for Sine Qua Non, small parcels of which are selling well at Wolfgang Puck’s Park Lane steak venture CUT, and at auction.

Though despite this interest, competition is becoming increasingly tough at California’s top end. “Consumers have become much more discerning and value-conscious as a result of the financial meltdown. There will always be room for niche, high-end wines, but the competition is fierce,” says Galloni. Bonné agrees: “Look at wines that have traded hands, like Sloan or Merus; Napa just isn’t big enough for all the rich folk hoping to create the next must-have wine. It was a ludicrous model from the outset, and it’s just playing through the endgame now.”

The lifespan of a cult wine is decreasing, as access to the wines via Facebook, Twitter, blogs and bulletin boards is speeding up their democratisation. “Cult wines are just getting started, but the journey from embryonic cult to washed up has-been is getting shorter,” says Andrew. Love them or loathe them, cult wines are here to stay. 

Friday, 26 October 2012

Dom Pérignon Oenothèque dinner at Les Crayères

Last week, I was lucky enough to be invited to take part in an intriguing experiment. The brainchild of Dom Pérignon’s ebullient chef de cave Richard Geoffroy, having entered the “space ship,” as he called it, we were about to shoot into orbit. Every word Geoffroy utters has a touch of the cosmic about it. He speaks in long, often impenetrable sentences, occasionally exciting himself with his own brilliance. He’s a wonderful showman and hugely entertaining company.

Our space ship turned out to be the sprawling, 19th century 5* château hotel Les Crayères in Reims, set in a 17-acre landscaped park. My expansive room was exquisite, prettified with toile wallpaper, white orchids, scarlet tassels and an ornate gold mirror above the writing desk. Luxuriating in the opulence of it all, I flicked though a book on Titian and Tintoretto left on the coffee table, nibbled the trio of chocolates left out by the maid, then quickly changed for dinner.

Beginning in the tartan clad bar with a palate cleansing glass of DP 2003 – a rich, powerful vintage I’m growing ever fonder of, proceedings quickly moved to the two Michelin-starred Les Crayères restaurant, a magnificent, chandelier-filled room boasting verdant tapestries, swagged curtains and a grand dining table cutting through it. Taking my seat, Geoffroy sprung into action. “I believe temperature has a profound effect on the flavour profile of Champagne,” he offered.

In order to test this theory out, we were to be guinea pigs in a temperature control experiment with the 1996 vintage of DP Oenothèque – one of the best Champagne vintages in recent history. Titled IV-VIII-XVI, the experiment would explore the effect temperature has on the expression and characteristics of Oenothèque ‘96, degree by degree, by slowing down the maturation process of the Champagne and suspending it in its various states for as long as possible.

 The roman numerals refer to the number of glasses used (4), the different temperature stages (8), and the end temperature of the wine (16 degrees). “I chose the 1996 Oenothèque because I needed a vintage with a broad range of expressions, and a wine with concentration and depth. It has the capacity to open out in a range of aromas and tastes, making it a wine that truly breathes. I’m convinced it will lead us to the heart of this journey,” Geoffroy explained excitedly.

Over the course of two hours, eight different dishes, from bracing saline oysters in a seawater granita, and rich, creamy mussel soup, to tea smoked basmati rice with mushroom tobacco, and an almond-flecked lamb tagine, were served to compliment the aroma and flavour differences in the wine at each of the eight stages. With the room temperature set at 20 degrees, we were poured a bottle of Oenothèque ‘96 (disgorged in 2008) into four glasses set in an open topped box with chilled panels to slow down the temperature increase of the wine.

The wines were then tasted every 15 minutes, from left to right and then right to left, with the wine raising in temperature from eight to 15/16 degrees by the end of the night, revealing eight different 15-minute aromatic sequences. Fascinatingly, there were perceptible differences in the wine at each of the eight stages, moving from mineral at 8º, honeyed at 9º, zesty at 10º, buttery at 11º, earthy at 12º, truffly at 13º, smoky at 14º, and nutty at 15/16º.

During the dinner, I made the comparison between the different stages of seduction. At its coldest, the wine was shy and tight – fully clothed if you will. But as the evening drew on and the temperature increased, it began to reveal itself, opening up and becoming more confident and expressive at every stage, moving from steely and mineral, through a wonderful citrus stage and an earthy autumnal period, and finally emerging into its full nutty, honeyed glory.

“I decided to do this because I wanted to push the boundaries of experimentation to lead me to a new understanding of the mysteries of the wine,” Geoffroy revealed at the end of the night, amid declarations that he’s moving into the world of fine and rare tea and is working on a high profile celebrity hook-up that he can’t reveal yet. Which did he think was the ultimate temperature to enjoy Dom Pérignon at its fullest expression? “12 degrees; there’s truth in that temperature.”

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Napa’s first “dog winery” launched by Boisset

Pampered pooches prick up your ears – the ever-flamboyant Jean Charles Boisset has launched Napa Valley’s first “dog winery” featuring kennel spaces and wine-barrel dog beds in an ode to his beloved French bulldog. As reported on, Frenchie Winery, named after the bulldog he gave to wife Gina Gallo (above), forms part of Raymond Vineyards; a St Helena winery Boisset bought three years ago.

Housed in a large white shed at the back of Raymond’s biodynamic garden, the winery boasts an enclosed play area for visiting hounds, and five individual kennel spaces for them to sleep, complete with luxurious wine-barrel beds. Above the kennels hang paintings of Frenchie in various historical guises, from Napoleon to Louis XIV, and even cross-dressing as Marie Antoinette.

The thoughtful Boisset has also installed a “Frenchie cam” in the shed, so owners can keep a watchful eye on their dogs while they’re in the Raymond Vineyards tasting room. “It’s like daycare, it’s awesome,” dog owner Elizabeth Schroeter said after a recent visit. “We treat the dogs the same as humans. I want to create tasting paces where people – and dogs – can have a blast,” Boisset added.

The Frenchie range comprises three wines: Marie Antoinette Chardonnay ($18), Louis XIV Cabernet Sauvignon ($30), and Napoleon ($30) – a red blend. The labels feature paintings of Frenchie dressed up as the three historical figures. Boisset’s move is shrewd, aiming to attract a portion of America’s 46 million dog owners that don’t want to leave their canines at home when they go wine tasting.

Dog-friendly wineries are already popular in California, with Napa Valley boasting 96 that welcome four-legged friends. Burgundy born Boisset looks after the American arm of Burgundy-based wine empire Boisset Famille des Grands Vins, founded by his father in 1961. In 2009, he married Gallo’s chief winemaker Gina Gallo, cementing one of the most powerful wine family unions in history. The pair have one-year-old twin girls. 

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Rude wine label causing outrage in US

Hundred Acre enfant terrible Jayson Woodbridge has been ruffling the feathers of New Hampshire councillors with a controversially titled Italian red. As reported on, the wine, If You See Kay 2010, a Cabernet-based red blend from the central Italian region of Lazio, when said aloud sounds like the spelling of a four-letter expletive.
Two executive councilors have questioned the State Liquor Commission's judgment in allowing the wine to be sold at state stores in New Hampshire. “This isn't the welcome mat New Hampshire should display for tourists. We need to set a higher standard for sales and marketing – the label violates community standards” councillor David Wheeler told local newspaper The Union Leader.

The wine, priced at $19.99, is selling very well on the back of the controversy. “We sold 10 cases last week. We don’t want to offend anyone, but we also don’t want to miss an opportunity,” Joseph Mollica, chairman of the State Liquor Commission told The Union Leader 

 Officials have agreed to move the wine to the back of the stores to appease opponents’ complaints that children may be exposed to the labels. Woodbridge is best known for producing cult California wine Hundred Acre, which sells on release for around $250 a bottle. Wine critic Robert Parker has described his wines as “among the most individualistic in California.”

He also owns the mid-level Layer Cake and Cherry Pie wine brands. “Jayson doesn't care what anybody thinks. He searches out the best vineyards and makes uncompromised wine,” says a quote on boutique wines website, which sells If You See Kay, Layer Cake and Cherry Pie.