Wine Rating: 95
I have waited a long time to bring you this review, to celebrate both wine and winemaker. There is much I wish to tell you about both, and at the risk of seeming overly enthused (which I am), I’m keeping this usual narrative and personal intro a bit more succinct. But know this: this wine, by far, is one you must try.
It is the best of wines. It is the worst of wines. The year was 1992 in Oakville, California. A real estate broker planted a small 54-acre vineyard of Cabernet Sauvignon with the help of a well-respected and very well-known winemaker. Three years later, history was made when a mere 200 cases were bottled and Napa Valley would never be the same again. It was then that a wine legend was born, and it’s also considered to be when one of California’s first cult wines was discovered. The term “cult wine” started in the mid-‘90s and refers to highly rated wines, usually a 96 point or above, by the likes of Robert Parker and Wine Spectator, and which are limited in production to 600 – 1000 cases a year or less.
The Best of Wines
In 1995, when this 1992 vintage was released, Robert Parker gave the inaugural bottle of wine a rating of 99 points. The wine was Screaming Eagle. Jean Phillips purchased a small parcel of land in 1986 and it expanded over the next few years. Before the first bottling of Screaming Eagle, the grapes that were grown on the land were sold to various wineries in the area. Famed Napa Valley winemaker Richard Peterson was one of the first wine consultants hired by Jean Philips. Subsequently, Phillips met and hired Peterson’s daughter, who helped the new wine owner and founder harvest the first allocation. This female winemaker was no stranger to the region or to growing grapes. Her name? Heidi Barrett. Today, that bottle of the 1992 Screaming Eagle, if you are lucky enough to get your hands on one, goes for about $7000. The controversy over the wine’s price and quality can be found online, in various wine magazines and blogs, as the winery has been written about, in varying degrees of accord, for the last 20 years.
When reclusive author J.D. Salinger was alive, fanatics wanted to know where they could meet the man who had forever changed their lives. After they’d read his book, A Catcher In The Rye, they would trek to Cornish, New Hampshire and try to find him. When these people would ask the locals where he lived, the locals would just say, “Down the road a bit.” Or “Is he still alive?” The seclusion of his whereabouts became the town’s resolve. Keep the tourists away and let the man enjoy his privacy, was their motto. I bring this up because if you venture into the Napa Valley, particularly in Oakville, and go to the local gas station or dinner and ask someone—“Hey, do you know where Screaming Eagle Winery is located?”–you will most likely get a Salinger response “Yeah, down the road about 1 mile.”
After the success of Screaming Eagle’s high ratings, everyone wanted to get their hands on a bottle. It was quickly determined that Jean Philips’ passion for her small winery, coupled with the talented Heidi Barrett being at the helm, had created something wine aficionados craved. The problem was the winery made such a small quantity that demand far exceeded volume. The wine was only available to buy if you were a member of the winery and it went for $75.00. After just a short while, it was only available via their mailing list and even that was on a “first come – first serve” basis. Having received the remarkable rating, combined with the undeniable demand for her wine, Philips applied the economics concept of Veblon Good (demand is proportional to price) to the wine and raised the price to $125, making it, at the time, one of if not the most expensive wine in California, which it still is. Today, the wait time to be offered an allocation from the mailing list is rumored to be about 7 – 10 years. I’ve been on the wait list for six years.
There is no doubt that Jean Philips was (and is) a master. But the real question was, “Who was this winemaker she’d hired, who was so instrumental in creating a wine that, right out of the gate, received the kind of rating it did?” It was, as I already mentioned, Heidi Barrett. She grew up in Napa Valley and her father was scientist and winemaker who focused on the actual science of viticulture, and her mother, naturally, was an artist. Suddenly, it all made sense. The combination of the two worlds she was born into carved the perfect path for her. As a young girl, during the summer she worked in various wineries and vineyards doing everything from pruning vines to bottling wine. They say to achieve a high level of success in a given field, to be an outlier, you need a minimum of 10,000 hours of practice on a specific task. I have no doubt that Barrett achieved that and certainly more, given her time at UC Davis, where she graduated from in 1980 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Fermentation Science.
She left college with a new sense of wine knowledge and began her work at various wineries all over the world. At the age of 25, she became head winemaker for Buehler Vineyards. The year was 1983. For the next five years, she increased Buehler’s wine production from 6,000 cases to 20,000 cases per year.
In 1988, after a wide variety of experience and feeling she had earned the status of winemaker, she went out on her own as a freelance wine consultant, to help smaller wineries get off the ground. Within a few weeks of her independence, she was hired as head winemaker by a new winery in Napa called Dalla Valle. There, she helped create another cult status wine, Maya. In 1996, after eight years, Barrett left the winery and still to this day, Dalla Valle is considered one of the best New World producers of Cabernet Franc.
For the past 35+ years, Heidi Barrett has worked with some of the best wineries in Napa Valley, Germany, and Australia, just to name a few regions. Today she is winemaker for over seven premium California wineries and also has her own label, La Sirena, which she started in 1994. She is considered by many to be one of the best winemakers in the world. Her passion and devotion to the grape are inspiring. I try to follow and drink all the wines from the places she consults or collaborates with. She, as Robert Parker has said, is “The first lady of wine.”
The Worst of Wines
Screaming Eagles’ success over the past 20 years has not slowed down. In fact, the cult status it garnered in the beginning, that many wine experts thought would surely dissolve, has actually helped other small wineries create limited edition wines of their own, which by the way have also received high praise from critics. A few who have been recognized as top cult wines include the aforementioned Dalla Valle Vineyards as well as Colgin Cellars, Grace Family Vineyards, Harlan Estate, and Schrader Cellars. And that’s just in California. Cult wine status is not exclusive to California and also includes Italy, France, and Australia.
In 2006, Jean Phillips was presented with an offer that, as she puts it, “she could not refuse.” The offer remains undisclosed, although many have speculated. The impossible to refuse proposal was made by business magnates Charles Banks and Stanley Kroenke. The deal was struck, the purchase of Screaming Eagle was made and Jean Phillips was no longer the heart and soul of the winery. Many thought this would change everything and not in a good way. In order to calm the understandable dismay of her longtime clients, Phillips wrote a letter to her mailing list. In this letter, she said, “They will renovate old structures or build new ones and replant the vineyard. The new owners have exciting plans to keep it small but raise the bar on quality.” Some people were convinced that with Phillips leaving Screaming Eagle, and by her selling to billionaire entrepreneurs, this would surely be the end of a legend. Well, as it is with most things, only time would tell. In 2009, just three years after the purchase of the winery, Charles Banks left Screaming Eagle, leaving Stan Kroenke as the sole owner.
What I have researched about Stan Kroenke has been refreshing. It turns out he’s not just some businessman looking to make a few bucks on a famous wine that he knows or cares little about. On the contrary, he is genuinely passionate about the history of Screaming Eagle and he’s committed to preserving its legacy. Since the new ownership, Screaming Eagle still enjoys high wine ratings and their production remains small, only increasing their year production by 500 to 850 cases. However, the price per bottle, for those who are on their mailing list allocation, has gone up to $850 per bottle or $2500 for a three pack.
In 2006, 30 acres of Screaming Eagle Vineyards were replanted and new vines were added. When these vines reach the quality that “is” Screaming Eagle, production will increase to 1,000 cases, keeping it still within a cult status. The varietals Screaming Eagle grows today are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Sauvignon Blanc.
Yes, I said Sauvignon Blanc. A small, limited production of one barrel of their white will be available soon, to their mailing list customers only, for $250 per bottle. How much wine will one barrel produce? A single barrel of wine contains about 60 gallons, 25 cases or 300 bottles.
In 2012, there was another variation in production when Screaming Eagle began producing a new wine called “Second Flight.” The grapes used for Second Flight came from their younger vines, those that had been considered “not up to the traditional quality” that Screaming Eagle is known for. This wine is also only available to their mailing list customers at the modest price of $225 per bottle. Second Flights’ debut included a vertical from 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009–two bottles from each vintage sold in separate sets.
The featured wine review for this month is from the Second Flight offering. I was lucky enough to acquire a vertical of the 2008 and 2009. I cannot reveal my source for this purchase, because if the seller were to be discovered, they could be removed from the Screaming Eagle mailing list and allocation. I do have a 2006 and a 2009 original Screaming Eagle, but I’m not yet ready to open then. So until then, I will review for you the 2008 Second Flight.
If you start looking online at various fine wine retailers or wine auction sites, you will definitely find Screaming Eagle in various vintages. The cheapest price I could find for this review was at an auction for the 2004 vintage with a starting bid of $1750. It appears that if you are selected to receive a Screaming Eagle allocation, you could nearly double your investment per bottle. This does not happen very often in the wine world, in such a short period of time.
The controversy comes from people who look down on wineries selling their wines for such an absurd price and to the people who are willing to buy them. The Screaming Eagle reviews, year after year, range from 93 points to 99 points, as do many other wines of the same varietal, at a much more economical value. So who would pay so much for a wine? I could also say who would pay so much for a Louis Vuitton handbag, a Ferrari, or a Roger Dubuis watch? Well, if you believe what 18th-century economist Thorstein Veblen theorized as Conspicuous Consumption, we may have a very good idea about the desire to not really drink Screaming Eagle, but just to own it.
Veblen conceived that “Conspicuous Consumption is the spending of money on luxury goods and services to publicly display one’s economic status of wealth. The deliberate and conspicuous consumption of goods and services purchased brings about envy of other people and is used as a means of displaying the buyer’s perceived level of class and sophistication.”
One must congratulate Jean Phillips on realizing this early on when she nearly doubled her prices after her first bottling. For the next 15 years, she helped create an ongoing demand for her wine by simply slowing raising the price year after year, keeping the desire to acquire even just one bottle very high and yet, just out of reach.
Second Flight, 2008
Produced by: Screaming Eagle
Winemaker: Nick Gislason
Winery: Screaming Eagle
Label: Second Flight
Region: Napa Valley
Varietal: Red Blend (Cabernet Franc – Merlot)
Appearance (Color): Dark ruby
Aroma (Complexity): fig, cherry, raspberry
Body (Texture and Weight): medium-heavy
Taste (Balance of Flavor): Raspberry, plum, cinnamon, cherry
Finish (What lingers): Raisin, tobacco, black currant
Food Pairing: Red Meat, Dark Chocolate, Heavy Cheese
Serving Temperature: 64°
Drink now through 2018+