Work of Art
The Making of a Cult Wine
A few years ago, I met with two wanna be winery owners up north. They had just raked in beaucoup bucks from several real estate deals, and decided they’d jump into the wine business. When I asked them why they chose the wine business I knew that my idealized response from them—“because we love nature,” “it’s something we’ve always wanted to do,” “we love farming”—wasn’t going to come. Instead, they said, “Well, we love the lifestyle. You know, the winemaker dinners. We love to go to New York too, and this would give us an excuse to travel there, to sell our wares.” So, I asked them what kind of wine they were going to make. I was expecting them to say a cabernet, or a pinot. Instead, they answered that they’d like to make an expensive wine. “You know, a cult wine. Something that scores real high and costs more than a hundred bucks. We’re going to hire a consulting winemaker with a name.”
I could tell from our first conversation that their journey through the wine business was going to be a tough one. They were getting in it for all the wrong reasons, and their expectations of what their wines would become were misguided and unrealistic. There’s nothing wrong with loving the lifestyle that comes with having a winery, but you also have to like the other aspects of it—keeping a clean cellar, finding the right cellar and winemaking crew that shares in your vision, finding the right people to distribute and sell your wine, patiently building your brand over time. If you’re looking for overnight success, the wine business is not for you. And, if you’re dream is to make a cult wine, well, you may as well just hang up those trellising wires right now.
As for the aforementioned couple, well, their wines are selling at a snail’s pace. They were too over-priced from the get-go and their approach to marketing their wines was deemed inauthentic by some of the best sommeliers and wine writers in the country. Now they’re sitting on a couple of vintages worth of back-product. In other words, they’re not making a cult wine. Not even close. A real cult wine is a wine that is nearly impossible to find. Once you are able to acquire a bottle, it truly delivers upon your expectations. It is often a brilliantly realized wine, both properly farmed and soundly made. Even after the first taste, it continues to deliver layers upon layers of complexity and distinction. It is generally agreed upon, by many discerning palates, to be something transcendent. The auction circuit and the collector circuit both cause its price to soar, due simply to a wild, unbridled demand. Though a winery may release a cult wine at $200 a bottle, on the auction circuit that same bottle can fetch as much as $1,500 or more. This is all driven by the tastemakers, the critics, journalists, sommeliers, chefs, and even other winemakers—not the winery that created the wine.
The brand Sine Qua Non is a perfect case-study for a true “cult wine.” The “cult wine” designate was attached to the wines of Sine Qua Non not because of a coy, deliberate marketing plan that was hatched within its winery cubicles by marketing professionals. Instead, the passion with which the wines were grown and made, the level of excellence with which each wine was executed, the manner in which the labels were created (each a rare work of art by the winemaker himself, Manfred Krankl), and the quality of the finished product all caused a buzz about this brand almost from its inception in 1994. Owners Manfred and Elaine Krankl were careful to source their fruit from some of the best vineyards in the country, including Bien Nacido and the Alban Vineyard. They then set about making their wines meticulously, completely by hand, and very deliberately. To this day, their barrels remain only one-high in the cellar, allowing them daily and easy access to their wines, which they watch over with an almost obsessive passion. Despite the overwhelming success of their brand, they have not grown it dramatically throughout the years. Each individual release is still very small, and the quality level only increases with time. This results in an exceedingly high demand for their wine. Combine that with low case numbers and a very loyal audience, and, voilà, you have yourself a genuine cult wine.
If it sounds easy, it isn’t. The indefinable elements that are hardest to achieve are consistency and intention. Can you produce a wine, year in and year out, that is a brilliant effort? Are your intentions, with respect to your chosen vocation, based in passion and not the bottom line? When producing enological works of art, these two questions must be raised. Only a few are able to answer in the affirmative.