The Definition of "Cult Wine" We Can Agree Upon
And no...it has nothing to do with pornography
It’s tempting to give in to cliche and envy and declare about “cult” wines that, “like pornography, you know it when you see it” then declare those chasing these wines as nothing more than seekers of ego validation.
But that would be lazy and dismissive.
Lately, I was involved in a little project that sought to identify California’s “Cult Wines”. This is a project that has been undertaken before by others for either commercial or editorial purposes. But in the case of this project, issues of commerce, marketing, and an intensely interested and educated set of consumers were involved. It all meant that identifying which California wines actually qualified as “cult” took on real urgency and held the possibility of receiving consequential pushback.
It was easy to start the list by quickly jotting down the obvious: Screaming Eagle, Harlan, Colgin, Sine Qua Non, etc. But the list needs to be defensible. It needs to have criteria backing it up. The porno approach wouldn’t suffice, particularly in the face of pushback.
First, I wanted to lay out a selection of factors that apply to all those wines that nearly anyone would agree fall into the cult wine category. What do, for example, Screaming Eagle, Colgin, Harlan, Sine Qua Non have in common?
1. They are wines that have consistently received very high ratings from wine critics
2. They are sold first primarily from the producer directly to the consumer
3. The winery maintains a waiting list of significant length for people who have indicated they want to be offered wine to purchase
4. The wines commonly appear for sale on the secondary market at higher prices than they originally sold from the winery.
5. The current vintage also is commonly sold on the secondary market for prices higher than the winery sold to consumers.
6. All of the above criteria have been satisfied for multiple vintages.
The original list or wines I put together for this project was created without reference to the above criteria. I used the pornography approach. And that approach worked fairly well. But when I looked at the list I created, I stopped at one winery that I placed upon it in almost an automatic fashion: Diamond Creek.
Diamond Creek’s wines have been coveted by collectors for decades and have been largely sold via a mailing list for most of that time. Its four single-vineyard wines were the first Napa Valley wines to hit the $100 price on release. The wines, particularly older vintages, are regularly traded on the secondary market.
And yet, Diamond Creek wines seem like a very different animal from Screaming Eagle, Colgin, Harlan, etc. Part of the reason I automatically put Diamond Creek on the list of Cult Wines has to do with my age. I’m old enough to remember when Diamond Creek wines were in fact in the very upper echelon of California wines. They were the Cults of their time. And as far as I knew, they had not taken a fall from that pedestal.
But it turns out Diamond Creek doesn’t meet the 5th criteria. Although these beautiful wines often show up on the secondary (auction) market soon after release, they rarely sell for more than their release price, and sometimes lower. Being on the mailing list guarantees you get your beloved Diamond Creek, but it doesn’t guarantee you can flip it for enough to make it worth the time.
So, what is Diamond Creek if not a Cult Wine? I think a good description is a “Classic California Collectible”. And Diamond Creek is in good company too: Shafer, Spottswoode, Corison, Heitz, Caymus, Montelena, Mayacamus, Phelps, Quintessa, Dunn are all examples.
These wines are always high quality and they are even likely to increase in value over time. But what they don’t possess, and what largely defines the “Cult” wines, is a certain velocity behind the demand for them that results in a clear indication the wines are significantly underpriced by the winery on release.
My current list of “cult wines” identified for the project I’d undertaken has risen to nearly 40 wines from California. The vast majority of them hail from Napa Valley, which shouldn’t be a surprise. All of them match the criteria laid out above. The fact is, if you were on the mailing list for all of these wines and if you purchased your total allocation offered each year, you could immediately turn around and sell them at auction and produce thousands of dollars in profit. Of course, you’d need to spend thousands of dollars upfront.
One more thing about California cult wines. There are many folks who disparage others who regularly purchase these wines that go for upwards of $200, $300, $500 or more on release from the wineries. These folks are called “label sniffers” and worse. This is called envy. Ignore it.
But there is another derogatory and disparaging way people who buy cult wines are referred to and it comes in the form of the definition often given to Cult Wine: “a cult wine is one that has a small production and is in such demand that the prices for it get inflated (especially in the secondary market) beyond all rational levels.”
This definition of “cult wine” assails their buyers with the label of “unreasonable” and “illogical” for paying what they do for the wines. Choosing to buy these wines at their very high prices is not a display of either of these qualities. The reason is that the price paid is not a measure of the pleasure the wines will give the buyer. The price is a measure of supply and demand. And if you look at the list of the criteria for a wine to be considered a cult wine listed above, you’ll note it all has to do with simple supply and demand.