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.