The red brigade

The agony and the ecstasy of procuring California's most desired wines

There’s only one real test for a cult wine.

“It’s the lack of rationality people will exhibit to obtain it,” says Randy Clement, partner at Silver Lake Wine.

If that’s the case, Steve Elzer, senior VP of media relations at Columbia Pictures, admits to being guilty as charged.

To get a coveted spot on the Screaming Eagle Winery mailing list — the only way to obtain its much-vaunted Cabernet Sauvignon — Elzer traveled to the Napa Valley vineyard with camera in hand.

“I went to the vineyard and I took a picture of myself praying beside their sign,” he says.

The photo was the final touch in what had been a four-year campaign, comprised of a dozen pleading letters to the vineyard’s owner. (Elzer’s own description of his correspondence: “Crazy.”)

Like a fox. In 1996, three months after Elzer sent the snapshot, he received an offer to join the winery’s distribution list. Like all of its members, this gave him the right to purchase no more than three bottles, at a cost of $500 each.

There’s no official measure for cult wines. Most are California Cabernets, produced in limited quantities. They also receive high marks from wine critics. After that, however, there’s a quantum leap between a fine wine to the ranks of Screaming Eagle, Colgin Cellars, Harlan Estate and Bryant Family Vineyard — producers that inspire wine drinkers to take leave of their senses.

Even if prestige is what you’re after, these wines can make first-growth Bordeaux seem downright sensible. The 2000 Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, rated by Robert Parker at 100 points, can be had for as little as $500. (For what it’s worth, the 2003 Screaming Eagle, which sells for more than $1,000, got a 96.)

How did all this craziness start? Karen MacNeil, author of “The Wine Bible,” believes that cults were created with the Silicon Valley boom.

“People in the dot-com world loved to artificially create markets for products,” she says. “They also loved to quickly copy one another. So once one of them paid $10,000 for a bottle of Screaming Eagle, everyone else couldn’t wait to pay money for Screaming Eagle — despite the fact that probably none of them had never even tasted it before and had no idea if they’d even like it.”

Which begs the question: Is it worth it?

Elzer’s still very happy to be a member of the Screaming Eagle list. But even he admits that if you have to ask, the answer is, “No.”

” ‘Yes’ if you are a trophy hunter and it means something to you,” says Elzer. “And ‘not a chance’ when there are plenty of wines that deliver the pure satisfaction for hundreds and hundreds of dollars less.”

All of this got us wondering: Could we identify the next cult? Variety Weekend sat down with a slew of low-production, cultish bottles, including some strong up-and-comers and one established cult classic. Tasters included Clement, Elzer and Campanile general manager/wine director Jay Perrin.

2002 Husic Cabernet Sauvignon, $95
The current subject of debate in cult circles, this Stag’s Leap district Cab has a thick, jamy body and a green pepper aroma that might put some people off. Elzer called it “so green, it’s Variety.”

2003 Buccella Cabernet Sauvignon, $140
Typifies what some love and others hate about California Cabernets. High alcohol and tremendously dense with sweet fruit, it’s a wine that drinks like a meal. Clement called it a “pizza wine,” — not to pair, but because you’ll be very full before you finish the whole thing.

2002 Revana Cabernet Sauvignon, $90
From Screaming Eagle winemaker Heidi Barrett, this Cab provoked some dissonance at our table. Some felt it was distinctly two-note, while others argued that those were two terrific notes: “Raspberry cream,” said Perrin. Elzer called it “a cut above.”

2001 Abreu Thorevilos Cabernet Sauvignon, $500
A Parker 99, this was the one true cult we tasted. Perrin called it “expansive,” saying it had the inimitable texture of a great wine. Elzer was suspicious that the bottle may have been slightly off, owing to some stewy aromas. All agreed that it was too young to drink.

2003 Behrens & Hitchcock Cemetery, $65
The only wine we tasted that might pass for Bordeaux, this balanced blend has a pleasant sort of greenness that evokes Pomerol. Subtle chocolate and spice notes made this a winner by consensus.

Also tasted: 2003 Tor Cabernet Sauvignon, 2002 Kelly Flemming Cabernet Sauvignon, 2002 Lewelling Cabernet Sauvignon, 2004 Samsara Syrah, 2004 Martinelli Pinot Noir, 2002 Winston Hill, 2003 Sean Thackrey Orion.