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.