Screaming Eagle: The Original California Cult Wine
Napa Valley’s Screaming Eagle produces less than 850 cases each year and has only been producing wine since the 1992 vintage, yet the wines command a price often reserved for classified growth Bordeaux and premier cru Burgundy. The scarcity and quality of the wine are part of the narrative, but there’s more to the story. It all started with a beautiful property, a rising star winemaker, and two women inspired to make a distinctive bottle of wine.
Real estate agent Jean Phillips purchased the 57 acres of Oakville vineyard that now make up Screaming Eagle in 1986. She knew nothing about winemaking, but thanks to her real estate career she rubbed elbows with influential people in the industry and knew where to find the hot properties in Napa Valley. The vineyard was a patchwork of varietals that didn’t make sense for the land, so Phillips had the vineyard replanted to Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot. Phillips initially sold the grapes to local wineries until she was encouraged by Robert Mondavi to use the grapes to make her own wine. She hired her first winemaker, the talented Heidi Barrett, to produce 200 cases of the debut 1992 vintage, which was made from just a few of Phillips’ favorite blocks on the property. Heidi Barret was establishing a reputation for making high quality wine for exclusive wineries in Napa, and Screaming Eagle was soon to further her prestige. When the wine was released, at $50 per bottle, it scored 99 points from wine critic Robert Parker and was on its way to cult status.
Screaming Eagle was, in fact, one of the original California cult wines, a term used to describe California’s most elite and coveted wineries. Extremely limited production, ultra-premium prices, excellent quality, and top scores from critics are what these cult wines had, and still have, in common. Dalla Valle, Araujo, Bryant Family, Colgin Cellars, Harlan Estate, and Schrader are among the other Napa Cabernets that hold this formidable status. The Screaming Eagle vineyard and stone winery are located in the Oakville area, in the middle of the Napa Valley. The Oakville AVA (American Viticultural Area) boasts many other well-known and cult Cabernet Sauvignon producers including Robert Mondavi, Heitz, Far Niente, Opus One, and Harlan Estate, among others. Oakville sits between the Vaca and Mayacamas Mountain ranges and is known for complex, well-draining soils, mid-day sunshine bookmarked by morning fog and cooling afternoon breezes, and very little rain during growing season. The daytime heat ripens the grapes, and the afternoon breezes provide a cooling effect that allows the vineyard to reach ideal ripeness and harvest sooner than many other Napa wineries. This accounts for a balance of boldness and elegance not usually associated with notoriously super-ripe Napa Cabernets.
Phillips and Barret produced enviable Cabernet year after year and by 2006, Screaming Eagle’s tiny stone winery in Oakville was too small to keep up with demand. Updates needed to be made and the vines needed replanting, prompting Jean Phillips to sell to international mogul Stan Kroenke and winery investor Charles Banks. Banks left Screaming Eagle just three years later, making Kroenke, who is also the owner of Jonata, the Hilt, Domaine Bonneau du Martray, and the soccer club Arsenal, the sole owner of Screaming Eagle. Andy Erickson, another reputable Napa winemaker, made Screaming Eagle for five vintages and then the reigns were handed to current winemaker, Nick Gislason, who was only 26 years old when he took over in 2011. Less than half of Screaming Eagle’s vineyard acreage is used to produce the namesake Screaming Eagle wine, which is always predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon. These special vineyard blocks have the ideal slopes, soils, and Western exposure it takes to make the very best age worthy Cabernets. The remaining acres provide grapes for two other Screaming Eagle wines, The Flight and Screaming Eagle Sauvignon Blanc. The Flight is a Merlot-based wine introduced in 2006 and the Sauvignon Blanc is a 30-50 case wine that is hand-sold to private clients with the understanding that it will not be resold. The Sauvignon Blanc vines were added during the 2006 replanting.
In the years following the first vintage, Screaming Eagle continued to receive high, even perfect, scores from critics like Robert Parker and publications, including Wine Spectator. The production went up, but only to a mere 500 - 800 cases per year, and prices continued to rise, first to $75 per bottle, then to $125 and $300; currently pricing direct from the winery is upwards of $1,000 per bottle. As the direct pricing went up, the secondary market continued to increase as well. Currently, buyers can expect to pay anywhere from $3,000 to $7,000 for a bottle of Screaming Eagle on the secondary market and the wines sell for even more with age. A 6-liter bottle, which is 8x a regular 750ml bottle of wine, of the inaugural 1992 vintage sold for a whopping $500,000 at the 2000 Napa Valley Wine Auction. Vintages that scored 100 points are difficult to find and costly to acquire, including 1997, 2007, 2010, 2012, 2015, and 2016.
Screaming Eagle is not only the most expensive, but the most elusive of the California cult wineries. There are no tours or wine tastings, and there’s very little information on the website except for how to join the waiting list. The only way to secure a spot on the waiting list for a chance to purchase the wines direct is if an active member drops off. This can take years, even decades, and then you are only offered three bottles per year, so the best opportunity to purchase Screaming Eagle is on the secondary market. As much as Screaming Eagle may now seem like an unattainable investment to most, it’s compelling to remember how this small project, started in the 90s by a female real estate broker and an enterprising female winemaker, could rise to perpetual stardom seemingly overnight.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
After graduating from Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications, Jennifer embarked on a career in advertising and marketing in New York City. Upon moving to New York, Jennifer became increasingly interested in wine and earned the Advanced Certificate with Merit from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust; she’s been working in the wine and spirits industry ever since. A published author (Wine at Your Fingertips, 2008), Jennifer has led wine tasting classes and events for both private clients and Fortune 500 companies. She has worked in various aspects of the wine business, including managing sales for notable California wineries, and owning and operating her own wine & spirits shop in Lower Manhattan for ten years. Jennifer was thrilled for the opportunity to merge her communications background with her passion for wine in accepting a position as Acker’s Director of Marketing & Communications in 2021. Wine is intriguing to Jennifer in large part because there’s always something new to master, and she’s currently busy learning the auction side of the business as part of the team at Acker. When she’s not holding a wine glass, Jennifer is lifting a barbell or planning her next travel adventure.