Vintage California | Top 5 Cult California Wines What makes them…

Top 5 Cult California Wines What makes them "cult wines", and why do wine drinkers love them?

Cult California wines. Those three words are enough to get most wine lovers excited about these ultra exclusive, high priced, luxury wines.

Wine drinkers are drawn to these difficult to acquire California wines for a few reasons. Some purchase cult wines because they can. After all, there’s a certain pleasure in having special bottles of cult wine that not everyone can get their hands on. Some purchase cult California wines because, well, they just really love wine. And, there are others that buy cult wines for the investment opportunity.

No matter their reason, cult California wines have legendary status in the wine world. Personal collectors, and those cellar masters whose clientele demand a certain caliber of wine, compete for the opportunity to buy cult California wines.

Some wineries on this cult California wine list set out to leave their mark on the California wine landscape, while others acquired their cult status somewhat accidentally.

What is a cult wine?

A cult wine is a wine of exceptional quality, with low production (aka a small supply), and a high level of demand.


There’s a mystique around cult wines because not only are they hard to buy, some cult wines have years-long wait lists, and if you do get on the list, you’re not guaranteed bottles from each vintage. Who purchases the wine is completely left to the winemaker’s discretion. Some give preference to those with list seniority, while others keep their criteria shrouded in mystery. Which, naturally, adds to the demand!

If you’ve ever wondered which wine producers make cult wines, take a look at this list of top five cult California wine producers.

Screaming Eagle

If you do an internet search on ‘Screaming Eagle wine’, one of the first questions that appears is ‘why is Screaming Eagle wine so expensive’. This question probably has something to do with a 1992 Methuselah (a 6L bottle) of Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon that sold for $500,000 at the Napa Valley Wine Auction in 2000.

Screaming Eagle offers roughly 500 cases of wine a year made from grapes on 57 acres of vines. Like almost all of the other cult California wines on this list, Robert Parker has given each vintage of Screaming Eagle scores in the high 90s, with 1997, 2007, 2010, and 2012 vintages receiving an unbelievable 100 point score.

In an interview with Wine Enthusiast, Screaming Eagle’s original winemaker, Heidi Barrett explains how the owners of Dalla Valle, where she was the winemaker at the time, asked her to assist Screaming Eagle’s founder, Jean Philips make wine.

Some of the wines from the inaugural 1992 vintage ended up at Napa’s Oakville Grocery, and at Bistro Don Giovanni, but the rest were simply given away.

Soon after that, Screaming Eagles wines began winning wine competitions, and, the rest, they say, is history. Today, Screaming Eagle wines are so coveted - bottles purchased on the secondary market run into the mid-four figures - that the winery now includes a bubble-coded authenticity seal between the foil and the bottle. Buyers can enter this number into the Screaming Eagle website to verify the authenticity of their wine.

Today, Screaming Eagle wines are so coveted - bottles purchased on the secondary market run into the mid-four figures

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Harlan Estate

Few wineries evoke the idea of Napa Valley luxury like Harlan Estate. According to the Harlan Estate Website Bill Harlan set out to “produce a California "First Growth" from the hills of Oakville”, when he founded Harlan Estate in 1984.

With guidance from Napa Valley pioneer Robert Mondavi, Harlan traveled to France where he met with some of Bordeaux and Burgundy’s most respected winemakers. With Burgundy’s grand crus as the inspiration for his vineyards, and his wines, Harlan purchased 240 acres in Napa Valley’s western hills, and planted his vineyards on the east-facing slopes.

Vintages of Harlan Estate Cabernet are limited to between 1,200 and 2,000 cases a year, and these are offered exclusively to members on the Harlan Estate wine list. At roughly $500 per bottle when they are released, Harlan Cabernet Sauvignons are one of California’s most expensive red wines on the market.

Bill Harlan set out to “produce a California "First Growth" from the hills of Oakville”

Harlan Estate Website
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Scarecrow Wine

It’s only fitting that Scarecrow Wine, and the J.J. Cohn Estate vineyard, have fabled histories; after all, the vineyard’s founder, J.J. Cohn had a hand in creating legendary Hollywood movies like The Wizard of Oz and Ben Hur during his time as Head of Production at MGM.

The grapes from the J.J. Cohn vineyard were planted on something of lark. In 1945, Cohn’s neighbor convinced him to plant 80 acres of what was then a 180 acre vacation property to Cabernet Sauvignon, with the promise that he would purchase the grapes from Cohn.

In what was later seen as a fortuitous decision, Cohn did not graft AxR#I hybrid Cabernet grapes onto his rootstock, which were popular at the time. Instead, he stuck with the vines planted on his St. George rootstock. Ultimately, these hybrid vines that were en vogue at the time were shown to be extremely vulnerable to phylloxera, but the 1945 J.J. Cohn vines survived the outbreak, and the demand for these grapes grew and grew.

Like the other California cult wines on this list, Scarecrow wines aren’t acquired via an allocation list, rather prospective buyers may only purchase the wine if they are invited to do so.

Scarecrow wine is managed on an invitation basis, subject to a combination of time on the mailing list (generally 3 years) and vintage size.

Scarecrow website
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Once you have received your invitation and made your first Scarecrow purchase, you will be offered the next vintage each and every year, given continuity of purchase. If you decide not to buy any of the Scarecrow that is offered, your name will be moved to the bottom of the list, and it will take another 3-4 years for you to move back up into a Scarecrow offer.The website further explains that if an invitation is extended, that is not a guarantee that wine will be available to purchase, as all wine is offered on a first come, first served basis.

When it comes to California cult wines, Scarecrow wines might just be the most difficult list to be invited to, and once you’re behind that proverbial velvet rope, staying on the list can be a little tricky if you skip purchasing a shipment. And yet, for all of that, Scarecrow wines remain in high demand for those lucky enough to be invited to the party!

Sine Qua Non

Sine Qua Non is the lone California cult wine not located in Napa Valley. Owned by Elaine & Manfred Krankl, the owners of Sine Qua Non didn’t set out to make a cult California wine, or to even become full-time winemakers.

Sine Qua Non was born out of a one-time restaurant wine release when Manfred Krankl was a managing partner of Campanile, a trendy Los Angeles restaurant. Manfred commissioned winemaker Bryan Babcock of Babcock Winery to make a Campanile house wine to serve to the restaurant’s guests as a one-off novelty experience.

The thought was to create a single vintage and that was that. In an interesting turn of events, however, the wine was so popular that it sold out quickly, and guests asked Manfred to produce more.

Fast forward several years, and the Krankls decide to try their own hand at winemaking. Using Syrah grapes from Bien Nacido, Manfred gifts a bottle to esteemed wine critic Robert Parker, who scores the wine 95 points, and sales skyrocketed. The rest, as they say, is history.

"the wines that emerge from this site are often profound. The sheer drive for perfection and attention to detail at Sine Qua Non is something I have rarely witnessed anywhere else in the world."

Antonio Galloni

Sine Qua Non is located in the town of Oak View, California, just south of Santa Barbara. Grapes for their world famous wines are sourced from vineyards in and around the Santa Barbara area including: the Santa Rita Hills, Los Alamos, Santa Maria, and Tepusquet Canyon.

Unlike their Napa counterparts, Sine Qua Non wines are inspired by Rhone, not Bordeaux.

Colgin Cellars

Ann Colgin fell in love with Napa Valley in 1988 while attending the Napa Valley Wine Auction, and founded Colgin Cellars a few years later in 1992.

Colgin Cellars crafts small production Bordeaux-style red blends and single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. With an annual production of just over 2,500 cases per year, and a 3,000+ person wait list, Colgin wines are in high demand.

Ann sources grapes for Colgin wines from three vineyards in Napa Valley: Tychson Hill, Cariad, and IX Estate.

If you recognise the Tychson name, that’s because Colgin’s Tychson vineyard was planted by Josephine Tychson, the first woman in Napa Valley to build a winery.

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According to the Colgin Cellar’s website, these 19th century vines were pulled out during Prohibition, and replanted with heritage clones of Cabernet Sauvignon in the 1990s by Ann

In 2005, Robert Parker included Colgin in his 50 Greatest Wineries in the World list, and propelled this Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon to cult status.

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