When it comes to cult wines, Napa Valley is the most lauded region in the world. This area of northern California is where the term “cult wine” originated and it’s home to some of the most praised and valuable cult wine labels in history. You may be wondering why exactly these wines have such recognition among critics and collectors. The answer is simple: they are rare, valuable, age-worthy, high in quality, and consistently rank near the top of the most traded wines on the market. However, it’s worth looking into these reasons more deeply, as this is only part of the story. When you learn just how valuable the cult wines of Napa are and the incredible influence they’ve had on the fine wine market, not only will you grow a greater appreciation for these wines, but you’ll also gain essential knowledge that will help you build a stellar wine collection of your own.
How Napa Valley Became the Top Destination for Fine Cult Wines
Napa Valley has been synonymous with fine cult wines for decades, however, this wasn’t always the case. How did this small California region come to dominate the competitive New World wine market and go head-to-head with the legendary wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy? To understand just how much influence cult wines have had on the modern wine market, it’s important to look at how cult wines came to be.
The Early Days of Napa Valley
At first, it might seem unlikely that a 30-mile stretch of land in northern California would be responsible for introducing so many iconic wines to the world. Compared to the ancient vineyards of Europe, Napa Valley didn’t see its first grapevines until 1839. While its vineyards quickly started expanding, it all nearly came to a halt when a devastating phylloxera outbreak hit in the 1900s. Then came Prohibition, which prevented most wineries from operating for 14 years before the ban on alcohol was repealed. Despite these early hiccups, winemakers knew the land was promising, especially for the Cabernet Sauvignon grape.
Napa’s warm Mediterranean climate is fairly rare — only about two percent of the Earth’s surface has it. The thick-skinned Cabernet Sauvignon grape thrives under this particular climate. The sunny summer days allow it to grow slowly on the vine, developing the complex layers of ripe fruit that California wine enthusiasts know so well. Napa Valley also has many hills, and vines growing in this steep, rocky terrain have to dig their roots in deep to get nutrients. As a result, the fruit is smaller than usual and has less access to water. This, coupled with cooling winds, means the grapes develop an ideal balance of tannins, fruit, and herbal flavors. This makes them bold and well-suited to long aging.
Winemakers in Napa Valley could see this potential, and starting in the 1930s, they focused on cultivating the highest quality grapes possible. The region’s true breakthrough came in the 1970s, during the Judgment of Paris. The 1976 competition tested several Napa Valley wines against some of the best wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy in a blind tasting. The top wine was Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, which received higher scores than even the most renowned French wines of the time. Since this moment, Napa Valley has had the attention of the fine wine market. Its growing reputation over the next two decades set the stage for the cult wine boom of the 1990s.
The Rise of Cult Wines in Napa
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Napa Valley winemakers continued to refine their Cabernet Sauvignon. Winemaker Robert Mondavi was especially insistent on crafting small batches of exceptionally fine Cabernet grapes, with a focus on quality over quantity. He helped get many future cult wine brands started by offering advice to fellow winemakers who would later form top cult wine labels, including Harlan Estate and Screaming Eagle.
It was Napa Valley’s small size and lack of extensive winemaking history that made it the perfect place for cult wines to take shape. With no terroir reputation to fall back on, ambitious winemakers had to carve their own paths and put these new vineyards on the map. This tenacity paid off in 1992. That year, Screaming Eagle made and released just 175 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon. One of those bottles wound up in the hands of legendary wine critic Robert Parker, and when he tried it, he was so impressed that he gave it 99 points — an unheard-of score for such a small, unknown producer. Later, Parker tried the wine again and awarded it a perfect 100 points.
Wine enthusiasts didn’t know it at the time, but this was the world’s first cult wine. Throughout the 1990s, more producers like Screaming Eagle released extremely small batches of Cabernet Sauvignon that won over critics. Word soon spread that Napa Valley was the next “it” region. Critics started calling these wines “cult” wines, named after the loyal cult following they amassed over the years.
Why We Still Talk About the Cult Wines of Napa
Cult wines in Napa still dominate the fine wine market today because they’ve never lost the two characteristics that made them popular in the first place: rarity and quality. While Screaming Eagle has increased production from its first 175-case run in 1992, it still doesn’t release that much more wine than it did during its first year of operation. Screaming Eagle limits production to about 500 to 850 cases annually. The quality of cult wines has also remained high, as the 2018 vintage proves. The 2018 Harlan Estate vintage, for example, has received perfect and near-perfect scores from the likes of Jeb Dunnuck and Robert Parker, showing that these wines still live up to their hype.
Rare Cult Wines Make Napa a Market Titan
Quality is just one factor that sets a cult wine of Napa apart from other wines made around the world. After all, there are plenty of concentrated and balanced wines that also earn perfect scores from critics. One of the greatest reasons why collectors still choose these cult wines is because they are some of the rarest in the world, and they retain their value more reliably than nearly any other wine.
Not only do producers limit their releases (typically capping production below 600 cases per year), but the few wines that are released can also be difficult to locate. Most of the top cult producers exclusively sell wine through their mailing lists and it can take years for someone to clear the waitlist to sign up. Many collectors find this aspect of cult wines exciting. There’s a certain challenge in finding the best vintages and finding retailers with access to the most sought-after allocations. Napa Valley producers have been able to maintain fervor for their wines by making each bottle feel truly special, exclusive, and desirable.
This rarity, in turn, increases the average price per bottle, since the wines generally balloon in value each time they’re traded among collectors. It’s not unusual for a high-quality wine to garner a high price to match, but in the case of cult wines, Napa Valley’s top labels take this to a new level. Demand for the wines is much higher than the supply, and collectors use this to their advantage by purchasing new vintages as early as possible, then reselling them for a profit years later.
The Top Napa Valley Cult Wines
Now that you understand why collectors seek out the cult wines of Napa, it’s important to know which subregions and producers are the most sought-after. Cult wines are evolving just as the rest of the wine market is, and every year brings new labels to the forefront. Here are just a few Napa Valley subregions and producers that every collector should know about.
The Top Subregions for Cult Wines
The following AVAs within Napa are famous for producing the highest number of cult wine labels:
- Howell Mountain
- Stags Leap
The Top Cult Wine Producers of Napa
These producers craft the highest-quality and rarest cult wines on the market:
If you’re looking to build a collection of cult wines from Napa, starting with these subregions and producers is a great option. However, to build the best collection, it’s important to know where to buy rare labels with excellent provenance. Trusted wine retailers like Vinfolio have access to exclusive allocations, meaning you can find some of the rarest wines for sale on the Vinfolio marketplace (without waiting years to clear a waitlist). With this resource, you can build a collection of these exclusive fine wines and see the immense value Napa Valley cult wines can offer.
Whether you are starting your high-end wine collection or adding to an established portfolio, Vinfolio is your partner in buying, selling, and professional storage. Contact us today to get access to the world’s finest wine.