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Oxford defines the term cult as a small group of people with extreme religious beliefs that are not part of an established religion. Over time the term has been corrupted to include pretty much any small group that worships specific products or practices. Goat yoga (goats seem to come up frequently in cult references), audiophiles, vegans, Phish fans, could all be considered cults or cultish, and if you’re creating any of these things and they appeal to a small group of devotees, then congratulations, you have a cult following. People don’t always realize they’ve joined a cult; it can sneak up on you. One minute you’re listening to the band Phish, likely on CJSW (radio with a cult following), and the next day you’re buying their albums, on vinyl of course, which also has a cult following. There’s a point when cults cease to be recognized as such once the mainstream populace gets ahold of them. Cultists aren’t looking for new members (unless religion is involved); mass acceptance tends to weaken the brand.
In the wine world, the term “cult wine” is generally credited to a group of rare, small production wines that were created in California’s Napa Valley. In 1986, former real estate agent Jean Phillips purchased a 23-hectare vineyard in Oakville and eventually sold all but a half-hectare plot which she kept for herself. There were 80 cabernet sauvignon vines planted on her parcel at the time, and some were pulled to include merlot and cabernet franc, the holy trinity of Bordeaux fame. She contracted Dalle Valle winemaker Heidi Barrett to make a wine from the small plot and, in 1995, the inaugural 1992 vintage was released locally, selling at the Oakville Grocery for $75 a bottle. Highly influential (at that time) wine critic Robert Parker was smitten with these small production wines and awarded Screaming Eagle 99 points; needless to say, it sold out instantly. Screaming Eagle is now owned by billionaire Stan Kroenke and sells for about $3,000 Cdn a bottle, if you can find it.
While few cult wines achieved the lofty heights of Screaming Eagle, the notion of small production, high-quality wines became a thing, spreading well beyond Napa Valley. In Bordeaux, they were known as garagistes, a term that implied the wines were made in a garage, although that was rarely the case. In the 1970s, a now-famous Pomerol wine, Chateau Le Pin, was produced in the basement of a farmhouse, and although the term garagistes did not exist in the wine realm, the two owners may well have been setting a trend. In 1989, two winemakers – Jean-Luc Thunevin and Murielle Andraud – began making a wine literally in their garage. The wine, Château Valandraud, would go on to outscore the illustrious Chateau Petrus (one of the world’s most expensive wines) a few years later. Each November, the California town of Paso Robles hosts the Garagistes Wine Festival. To participate, wineries must produce less than 1,500 cases per year and the profits are used to provide scholarships for future generations of winemakers. It now draws a large crowd every year and has been called “one of the top nine incredible epicurean vacations in the world” by ABC news. It would seem the phrase “small business is big business” applies to the cult wine movement.
Recently, Napa Valley winemaker Douglas Danielak was in town to host a winemaker’s dinner at Teatro restaurant. When I first met him many years ago he was the winemaker for Jade Mountain, a Napa winery that specialized in Rhone varietals. Owner Jim Paras sold Jade Mountain to the Chalone Group (which in turn was sold to Treasury Wine Estates for $552 million) but kept some of his vineyards and continued to produce wines under his name until fire destroyed the winery. Douglas began his wine education in Burgundy and classmates included Frederick Mugnier and Dominique Lafon, pretty good company in the rarefied air of Burgundy. Fast forward to 2006 when he signed on as the director of winemaking for Knights Bridge, a spare-no-expense winery at the edge of the Knights Valley AVA, effectively across the road from the illustrious Peter Michael winery. That part of the equation is history, but he also serves as a consultant, in both California and Burgundy, and produces a range of his own wines; Juicy Rebound (focusing on Napa Valley cabernets and pinot noir) and Pont Neuf, a small range of Burgundian-styled chardonnays and pinot noirs. The latter is a devout passion; the vineyards are situated in the cooler climes of Sonoma’s Russian River Valley and are propagated from clones sourced from some of the most prestigious names in Burgundy, such as Le Montrachet, for example. The project is about as close to the Burgundian model as you can find in the new world and the quantities produced are tiny, even by Burgundian standards. Quantities on some of these bottlings have been as little as 50 cases, and in that regard, you could call them cult wines, although he didn’t seem comfortable with that moniker.
I had the opportunity to try these wines during his visit (they are brought into Calgary by Market Wines), and they are nothing short of remarkable, as fine an example of Burgundy-meets-the-new-world as you are likely to find. Pont Neuf is a labour of love, motivated by history and the Burgundian model that personifies the concept of terroir. In other words, wines that speak volumes about where they are from and why people dedicate their lives to the craft of winemaking. If these are cult wines, then sign me up. I’ve been assured no goats or pentangles will come into play, just great wines made with the utmost care and passion. I think I’ll have a glass while I listen to my David Bowie records, on vinyl, of course. Cheers!
Geoff Last is a long-time Calgary wine merchant writer, instructor, and broadcaster. He can be heard on occasion on CJSW’s Road Pops program on Fridays at 4 p.m. He was awarded a fellowship at Napa Valley’s Symposium of Professional Wine Writers for articles that have appeared in this column. Media inquiries can be directed to email@example.com