California Cult Wines - explain them to me like I was a dummy.

Or, in classic Rocky & Bullwinkle alternate title fashion… What makes brands like Harlan Estate, Shafer HSS, Schrader, and that ilk cost SOOOOO much?

Maybe I am just a stupid neophyte. Maybe I’m a purple dranking cretin. Maybe both.

…or maybe there are a few of you who feel the same way.

Finally had a chance to sample Harlan Estate last night at our wine club dinner. It was a 2005 - a pretty good year. Sorry to say I just don’t see it being a $550+ bottle. If served blind to me and asked what I think it cost, I might have said $75 - $125. Was it a good wine? Sure! Was it worth 6 bottles of my favorite California wine (1995 Arrowood Reserve Speciale)? NO WAY! There are a myriad of brands / vintages I’d buy before forking out my hard earned cash for Harlan. I’d take '07 Match Butterdragon Hill over it as well, and you could buy an entire case of Randy’s wine for the same money.

The same goes for Shafer HSS. Seeing how highly touted the HSS was, I bought from '97, '99, '00, '01, '02, and '04 as a nice semi-vertical of decently aged bottles. The cost was anywhere from $240 a bottle up to $370, and all were purchased from retailers / resellers with great reputations (Hart Davis Hart, Cellaraiders, Mission Fine Wines). The best of the lot was the '02 - but that didn’t even impress me as being worth the money. As a matter of fact, I enjoyed Shafer’s regular Napa Cab from '01 and their One Point Five from '12 much more than any HSS.

In the interest of transparency, I do like Lokoya quite a lot. I don’t know if they qualify as a full blown Cult wine though.

So what is it that drives the price of these super hyped wines? Inflated scores from our buddy RP? Marketing? Ego (either the winery or the buyer)? Some combination of those 3?

… or is it something I’m missing?

Thank in advance for your views - even the (expected) snarky ones. [cheers.gif]

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain…

I’d answer your questions with inflated score, ego, and limited production (although not so much so with HSS).

But regarding your comparison to '95 Arrowood Reserve, I’d guess it was priced more or less in line with the '95 Harlan on release. The question then becomes which wine would you rather drink? It was on or around that release that Harlan pricing went nuts.

Definitely not a finite answer here, but I would argue that some of the wines prices are driven by supply and demand, and the willingness of people to plunk down 4 figures for a bottle of wine.

FWIW, I think there is a whole batch of up and comers making better wine for a lot less.

The argument that I would make on the ones you’ve tried so far is that they are NOT ready. Especially the Shafer, I usually don’t like it until it hits age 20, and more like age 25. I had 2004 or 2005 Harlan (forgetting the vintage now) back in December, and the bottle had been decanted for like 12 hours, it was still a baby. I also had 2005 Maiden the same night, also massive and not really ready.

Do you feel this pricing model is different than other regions? I think that at the high end, you pay exponentially more money for incrementally better quality.

Not just other wine regions, but many consumer products. Parker is/can be an aggregator of perceived quality, but then it is up to the producer to decide how far they can go with their pricing. The typical base of buyers for these wines likely doesn’t view them as prohibitively expensive any more than I may not view a $40 bottle as expensive. The Secondary Market also has an effect. If the winery sees their $200 bottle going on auction sites for $700, it won’t be $200 for long.

To the OP- my opinion is that the quality between these wines and your Arrowood is minimal if at all. Arrowood hasn’t experienced the same market conditions as the wines you listed though.

It’s a very simple answer: the fact that people will pay that much for them. Nothing more. They are all “well made wines” from high quality vineyards, but there are hundreds of other wines out there just as good or better (in this style) at much, much lower prices. If you like this style of wine, find those, unless you just have to have the label and scores for whatever reason.

[scratch.gif] What does that mean? If this is sarcastic, then [tease.gif] back atcha! If not, please explain.

Okay, I didn’t count on production numbers but that makes sense for some - but as you point out, HSS is by no means limited.

I’d rather drink the Arrowood, and not just from '95 - but that’s me. Apparently a few people in my wine club too.

So that’s when it was indoctrinated into the Cult, eh?

Okay, I get the supply & demand part - but what drives the demand? Is it reputation and marketing? I just don’t see the actual product being worth that much more. I know, I know… that’s subjective and only my opinion. I guess there are enough people who believe the hype.

PM me or post them - I’d like to know a few. I’m already a fan of quite a few brands in the $50 to $100 price point like Chappellet, Hill Family Estate, and Jean Edwards Cellars (thanks to Berserker Day), but they’re mostly already known to some extent.

That’s probably the most logical counter so far. [worship.gif]

Another good explanation. Being in retail, I already understand veblen goods. However, in most industries the product has a story and reputation for quality that somewhat merits the expense. Wine prices seem to be driven by critical recognition and demand from people who take those scores as gospel which seems silly to me. Ah, what do I know? I’m just a purple dranking cretin with the palate of a yak.

Very simple:



From Schrader to Screaming Eagle, Harlan to Maya, Insignia to Special Select, etc., I have yet to be wowed by them as a group. Well, I do have to admit being wowed by Dalle Valle’s basic cabernet and Some Mayas from '91 and '92. I have been more wowed, however, by some amazing cabs by Dunn, Togni, Montelena, Mayacamas, BV PR, and Ridge, all at a fraction of the cost. Actually, I’ve bought perfectly mature ones, including some from the '60s and '70s, for less than the cost of a new release of the so-called cults. These are wines with long histories of performance.

I am not a buyer.

Point taken. It’s all relative. If people will pay it, retailers will charge it.

Yep, another good response - and I’ve seen that happen with Lokoya recently.

If only… I’d be sitting on a gold mine. [snort.gif] I’d part with one or two of the mags of '95 if I could get a grand for them! [wow.gif]

Occam’s Razor, eh?

My favorite post so far. [winner.gif]

if 95 arrowwood is your favorite, maybe the cults mentioned just don’t have enough bottle age.
i bought almost all the cults back in the day, but when the prices skyrocketed, the love affair was over.

As long as there is someone willing to pay $550 a bottle there will be a market for $550 bottles.

I can certainly agree with you that there are immensely better, or at least ‘as goods’ in the 1/4, 1/5 and YIKES 1/6 prices range, but remember, I am not that guy willing to pay and let’s face it, the cachet does not exists in the $75 range for the deep-pocketed know-nothings (not that any of those guys post here mind you).

Most of the quote/unquote California Cults have bad qpr, it it is not for value that people turn to them, I think people turn to them for a) status, b) a sense of loyalty, since they purchased Harlan at $45 in 1992 and the only other thing they have done for 25 years they are unable to speak of publicly… and finally… c) status. It is the partly same reason people drink DP and Crystal and heaven forbid I mention, Mouton at $900 per bottle because has not time taught us the Duhart-Milon is quite a nice Bordeaux? I guess if you have to ask, you really can’t afford it.

Now, I don’t want to be so negative on this topic and if I were financially secured in the stratospheric zone I myself would make Shafer Hillside my house wine and Sunspot my weekend poolside drop , after I get a pool, but all things being equal, and they never are, some blame will always rests on the Robert Parkers of the world who rely on many whom happen to have either no confidence in their own palate or maybe just no palate at all and to them, all things have been equalized since hey, ‘I am drinking well, I must be doing well…”

One thing I want to add is that not all Cult wines fall into this category; I believe there is a certain level of quality associated with most, I personally fail to really find it when I go ‘a-looking’, and I have been greatly blessed to be able to tip my toe into that world from time to time. I am the best drinking civil servant you will ever meet. So after all that is said, it is probably just me. Never mind and move along and I promise some brilliance on the topic will come in the very next post……

Oh, and if I spelled Crystal wong, who cares.

It is only a cult winery if you have a friend that wants to land a helicopter there, otherwise it is just some off brand wine.

1 Like

A fair response echoing what Ian said above.

For more backround, I’ve had '97 Lokoya Diamond Mountain and Howell Mountain as well as '97 HSS and found the Lokoya to be in a better spot. Maybe the HSS does need more time then.

Besides '95 Arrowood, their '01 and '05 aren’t far behind on my scale - and still more suited to my palate than the Harlan was. Guess I need to be reeducated.


There’s a pool and a pond. The pond would be good for you. [whistle.gif] [bye.gif]


New leader in the clubhouse! [welldone.gif] … and thought it was a friend of a friend.

  1. For SOOOOO long, a lot of these wines were wholly unattainable except on the mailing list and top restaurants. You had to pay big ticket prices in the secondary market to get the wines, and that really created the frenzy and excitement. There was no marketing, they were essentially “anointed” by the VERY few critics that existed at the time. I think that’s what’s made it harder these days to be anointed, too many differing opinions.

  2. Sure.

I think the reason they cost so much is because people are willing to pay that for whatever reason - points chaser, they love the wine, investment.

Of the producers you mentioned, there are only 2 bottles that have given me the feeling of drinking something really great and they are '94/'97 Harlan. IMO those are really special wines. The next best CA wine I have had is '91 Ridge MB.

As Yogi Berra said about cult wines: If they were cheaper, they wouldn’t sell as many.


Two of the top five wines from CA that I’ve ever had. 1994 Harlan is genuinely special, but I suspect that it wasn’t as great as it is right now 10, 15 years ago or on release. I’m going with Ian’s argument that these wines need time (at least Harlan, don’t know about aged Shafer, and Schrader doesn’t have anything old yet).

IMHO, there’s a qualitative increase up to around 200 bucks (talking Napa cab). I know Pobega will disagree, but to me, the killer QPR that is RM Panek still does not reach the heights of most Schraders. A lot of the value plays are becoming less so as well (RM comes out next month, Anyone want to wager we break the 100 mark this year?).

Again, for me, I don’t notice a particular increase in quality as we surpass the 200 dollar mark. At that point, I think you start paying for singularity. You pay for site/terroir expressions that are unique to a particular producer or piece of land. For those with the means, I think they start to value the unique experience over a particular price point.

I don’t see how this is any different from Burgundy/Bordeaux.

For the better cults, you can also throw in superior sites and superior standards. For example HSS always comes from the same parcels beside the winery, and they have the option/ability to declassify lots from the HSS program into the Napa/One Point Five (which I believe is the exact same wine that just went through a name change at some point). In really good vintages like 01 and 12 were, the 1.5 produces great wine without a doubt, but can also be merely very good, and may not make for terribly good aging. The standard for HSS is always the very best the winery can produce, and the volume of production can varry from vitage to vintage depending on what they felt was up to that standard.
Many cult wines aren’t terribly transparent about where they are from or what their standard is, and seem to be more about the slick marketing scheme, fancy digs or hotshot winemaker. Ther are more than a few names that became popular in the 80s and 90s whose wines come from very different vineyard sources now because they were leased or sold vineyards, and the quality has slipped, yet they will continue to connect their current wine to what they did back then.