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From Screaming Eagle to Sine Qua Non, The History of Cult Wines in the U.S.

Twice a year, California winery Sine Qua Non sends out a note to its substantial waitlist.

“If there is ever a task that I, good old Manfred, don’t like to perform, it is writing and sending this note,” wrote co-owner Manfred Krankl in a 2019 missive. “Communicating about wines we sadly don’t have enough to offer to everyone interested is clearly a miserable task… Thank you so much for your patience and kindness. It is greatly appreciated. We are so happy you are there and can’t wait to get some juice to you.”

Sine Qua Non isn’t the only winery for which demand outpaces supply. Waitlists are the norm for cult wines.

But what is a “cult wine,” exactly?

While some winemakers dislike the term, it has come to encapsulate three main things: scarcity, high prices and quality. Many consider Napa Valley the birthplace of the cult wine phenomenon, and so its most famous grape, Cabernet Sauvignon, comprises many of the world’s most sought-after cult wines. However, there are cult wines made from other grapes and in other regions around the world.

As U.S. wine drinkers developed their palates in the latter half of the 20th century, reviewers played a large part in establishing the reputation of many of the country’s enduring cult wines. Now, cult bottlings are generally only available to purchase if you’re on the allocation list or via the secondary market.

Napa’s Cult-Like Following

In 2008, a billionaire purchased six magnums of Screaming Eagle’s 1992 Cabernet Sauvignon for $500,000. Only 225 cases of the wine were ever made and it’s among the most coveted brands worldwide.

But Screaming Eagle’s team never set out to make a cult wine.

According to Heidi Barrett, Screaming Eagle’s original winemaker, the brand didn’t really exist in its current form when she began working there. She’d been making wine down the hill at Dalla Valle and the owners gave her a directive: “Go help Jean [Phillips, the founder of Screaming Eagle] make wine,” she says. “It was a no-frills, pay-by-the-hour situation.”

In 1992, Barrett made 175 cases of Screaming Eagle. Phillips sold that Cabernet blend at Napa’s famed Oakville Grocery, and it was on the list at Bistro Don Giovanni.

But they also gave a lot of it away.

When the owners of Screaming Eagle began entering the wine in local competitions, however, the kudos began to roll in.

As whispers of how good Screaming Eagle was grew in volume, Phillips priced the wine at $75, an unprecedented move at a time when high-end domestic wines often maxed out at about $50. That led a friend, unbeknownst to Phillips and Barrett, to give the wine to Robert Parker to review. He initially gave it 99 points. However, after sitting with it for a while, he rescinded the score and re-scored it at 100 points.

Some wondered if this sudden success was a fluke. But Screaming Eagle became globally renowned, and its success catapulted Heidi Barrett into the spotlight as one of the most respected consulting winemakers in the world.

Around the same time, another winery producing a sought-after Cabernet blend, Harlan Estate, was emerging in Napa. Unlike Phillips, Harlan Estate founder Bill Harlan deliberately set out to create a notable wine, one that he calls a “California First Growth” of grand cru quality.

“Rhône wines always felt non-arrogant.” —Manfred Krankl, founder, Sine Qua Non

According to Brett Anderson, director of culture and communication at Harlan Family Wines, Harlan had a rather fortuitous call with Robert Mondavi in 1979 that persuaded him that he needed to make high quality wine. Mondavi promised that he would introduce Harlan to some of France’s greatest winemakers.

A subsequent trip through Europe to meet with Mondavi’s wine contacts convinced Harlan of Napa’s potential for greatness. He used Burgundy and Bordeaux as models for his Napa site selection, viticulture and winemaking processes.

Will Harlan in a vineyard
Will Harlan / Photo Courtesy Harlan Estate

In 1984, Harlan bought 240 acres in the western hills of Napa Valley, on east-facing slopes. Thus began the rise of what would become a near-mythical wine: Harlan Estate.

Using his same rigorous criteria for site selection, Harlan created single-vineyard, single variety wines in Napa Valley, all modeled after Burgundy’s grand crus. That model would ultimately become BOND, Harlan’s other cult classic label.

Other Napa wineries included in the cult producer category include Bryant Family, Colgin, Dalla Valle, Dominus Estate, Eisele Vineyard Estate (formerly Araujo Winery), Hundred Acre, Scarecrow and Schrader. All of these wineries have long wait times for a spot on the allocation list, limited production, high prices, and most of the wineries themselves are closed to the public.

​Cult Expansion

Cult wines aren’t exclusive to Napa. In Santa Barbara County, on California’s Central Coast, Sine Qua Non is aptly named. In Latin, the phrase roughly translates to “indispensable.” While some may not believe that it’s worth it to wait years to purchase a three, four or even five- figure wine, hardcore fans of the wine do exactly that.

Co-owner Manfred Krankl previously helmed hot Los Angeles restaurant, Campanile.

“As managing partner, I always loved wine, and always thought that being the ‘wine guy’ wasn’t really a job,” he says. “I allotted the job to myself because I always liked talking about wine…I always thought we should have a house wine. But restaurants always have house wine and it’s always the worst wine.”

And so, he set out to create the antithesis of a lackluster “house wine.”

He tapped Bryan Babcock of Babcock Winery to help create Campanile’s House Wine. Babcock readily agreed and the two decided that selling the house wine would be a one-time collaboration.

Campanile’s House Wine turned out to be a smash hit. Even Jim Dine, famed contemporary artist known for his graffiti-esque heart paintings, was smitten, and told Krankl that he’d let him use one of his paintings as a label in exchange for a few cases.

Restaurant guests asked for more of the wine, and asked Krankl, “What’s next?”

But there was a slight problem.

“Nothing was next,” says Krankl. He had anticipated that his wine would only be made once. After some thought, however, he decided to try for round two and collaborated with a winemaker from Piedmont, Italy, and then from other regions. In 1994, Krankl thought, well I can do this myself, now.

That was his first vintage.

He made a Syrah from the highly regarded Bien Nacido Vineyard and then took it to Robert Parker. He told Parker, “I hope you like it.” And Robert Parker did indeed.

“Robert Parker called my wife and said he wanted a case and gave [the wine] 95 points,” says Krankl.

It sold out in one day.

At the time, the Krankls were giving out their home phone number for wine orders, but Parker discouraged them from doing that since he saw the blow-up potential of the wine.

“We were instantly set up,” says Krankl regarding Parker’s influence. “I never thought that it would be my livelihood or business per se; it was just a hobby. I had no idea what was coming down the pike.”

bottles of Promontory
Promontory bottles / Photo Credit Promontory Wine

Parker and influential critic Stephen Tanzer would come to dinner with the Krankls every year to taste the newest vintages.

The momentum never slowed.

Sine Qua Non’s Rhône-style wines now feature grapes grown in its own vineyards, which are mostly planted on their own rootstocks.

“Rhône wines always felt non-arrogant,” says Krankl. “[They] always seemed fruity and juicy and fresh, and as I drank more and more and visited people over there [in the Rhône Valley], I liked them better and better.”

Beyond California, the concept of cult wine has also migrated to places like Walla Walla, Washington, home of Chris Figgins’ Leonetti Cellar.

Like many of Napa’s cult bottlings, Leonetti Cellar’s flagship bottling is also based on Cabernet Sauvignon. Leonetti became Walla Walla Valley’s first commercially bonded winery in 1977, and it wasted no time making an impression.

The 1978 Cabernet vintage was a “big deal and launching point [for the winery],” says Figgins. “In the early ‘90s, high Parker scores and a Wine Spectator cover changed the nature of our business [to the point] where we weren’t growing enough to meet demand.”

Michael Cruse in his cellar
Michael Cruse / Photo by Demetrius Fordham

The New Guard

In recent years, the idea of a cult wine has evolved in the hands of some of America’s young, maverick winemakers. Though the new guard’s wines can cost hundreds of dollars, they are a far cry from the astronomical sums that plague the majority of predecessors like Screaming Eagle and Sine Qua Non. Some have open waitlists, too, so procuring wine is not out of the question.

“It feels wrong for me to make a wine that’s expensive,” says Michael Cruse, founder of California’s Ultramarine sparkling wines. Ultramarine is only about $80 on release, but the waitlist to get an allocation is about two years.

“It was never [my] intention or thought to produce something that was hard to get,” says Cruse. “The idea was to make something unique and special, and it’s more of a fluke than anything else that it became so high in demand. For my part, I would like all my wines to be available because I want folks to taste them.”

He credits Champagne luminaries like Fred Savart, and producers like Vilmart et Cie, Chartogne-Taillet and Marie Noëlle Ledru as inspirations.

But there’s a reason there isn’t much to go around.

“It’s so limited because we never wanted to make more until we knew we could sell it,” says Cruse. “We have a waitlist because we have to have one.”

Like many of the wines on this list, Ultramarine can be procured on the secondary market from places like Verve Wine for around $200.

“The secondary market is surprising to me, but I feel like if I can take care of my customers… then I don’t really need to pay attention to the secondary market,” says Cruse.

Down in Santa Barbara County, a winery with built-in pedigree continues to thrive. Under the same ownership as Screaming Eagle, Jonata Winemaker Matt Dees creates acclaimed wine from Bordeaux and Rhône varieties. Dees and team employ biodynamic farming practices in the vineyard, where great wine starts, and use unusual blends to showcase the merits of each grape of the blend. Jonata only seems to be known by a select few of in-the-know people, and its wines command prices in the hundreds of dollars.

“It feels wrong for me to make a wine that’s expensive.” —Michael Cruse, founder, Ultramarine

In Napa, Promontory, the most recent of Bill Harlan’s projects, commands around $800 per bottle, but it is the only one of his wineries that offers tasting experiences by appointment, while Harlan and BOND are closed to the public. Founded in 2008, Promontory is helmed by Bill’s son Will, and ushers in a slightly younger demographic than Harlan’s original labels.

Carlo and Dante Mondavi and Raen bottles
Left: Bottles of Raen; Right: Dante and Carlo Mondavi / Photo Credit Raen Winery

Brothers Carlo and Dante Mondavi decided to join their famous family’s wine business but put their own spin on the cult category with their label, Raen. They source from three reputable vineyards in Sonoma County that sit at elevations ranging from 650 feet to nearly 1,300 feet above sea level.

Though the mailing list for Raen is open right now, the consistently high scores, high quality and familial pedigree will propel Raen into the ranks of the top cult wines in the future.

While the culture of cult wines has changed in tandem with U.S. and global tastes, the clamor for them, either from a multi-year waitlist or secondary market, show no signs of slowing down.