Defining California Cult Wines

While attending an event at Techmart the other evening, I met a gentleman and we began the typical “what do you do” conversation.  When I told him that I work in the wine industry, he smiled broadly and began to tell me that he is a wine lover.  When I asked him what type of wines he preferred, he replied, “California cult wines.”  I laughed and asked him what methodology he uses to distinguish particular wines as “cult wines.”

For those fluent in wine-speak, this is an ubiquitous statement.  It usually applies to a certain subset of wines that are expensive, scarce and have a loyal following of brand enthusiasts.  The top twelve cult wines from Napa Valley include:

  1. Screaming Eagle
  2. Scarecrow
  3. Harlan Estate
  4. Bryant Family
  5. Colgin
  6. Switchback Ridge
  7. Sloan
  8. Araujo Estate
  9. Schrader
  10. Abreu
  11. Marcassin
  12. Hourglass

So, how was the “cult wine” distinction created and how does a wine achieve cult status?  The answer begins with, none other the premier wine critic of all time, Robert Parker. Maryland-born Robert Parker began exploiting the term around the Millennium.  The wines that fit into this category tend to be full, lush, highly concentrated cabernet sauvignons.  Not all cult wines are cabs, but the pinots and syrahs are few and far between.  Other factors that contribute to a wine reaching epic “cult” status include a score of 95 or above from Parker, the degree of quality and scarcity, the winemaker and vineyard manager, and finally, the appellation.

Although he is now retired, Robert Parker’s influence is all encompassing to the wine industry and this subset of wines.  If he gave one of these beauties a score of 100 points, it would be an overnight success and unavailable to commoners for years.   In other words, you could get on the waiting list to be on the waiting list.  If he rated an established cult wine with a score of less than 95 points, that winery will quickly lose its sacred cult status (and could actually shrivel up and die like a lonely star in our vast solar system.)

If you are interested in purchasing a few cult wines for your collection, you must first get on “the list.”  Second, be prepared to spend from $250 and up per bottle.  And remember, cult wines are ready to be consumed now, so don’t plan on saving them in your cellar.  Cheers!

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3 Responses to Defining California Cult Wines

  1. Jim says:

    I have never been quite able to put a definition on what a cult wine. Your post is very helpful in dispelling some of that. Recently I have noticed that while it is a coveted achievment to be on the mailing list of these cult wines it has taken some time for the price of the wine to appreciate to the list price in the retail market. So the question for me is whether it is worth it to by the wine on the retail market given that it typically sells for about $50 less or is it worth it to have the security of being on the mailling list?

    • admin says:

      I agree. I think it depends on the wine. If the cult wine can be purchased in retail outlets, I would do that. It saves on shipping expenses, too. : )

  2. Thanks for sharing this one. I enjoyed reading it. Great job. Cheers!

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