In Napa Valley, “cult” associations aren’t necessarily a negative thing—in regards to wines and wineries that is. The label of cult wineries is often thrown around in the Valley as an elite title reflecting a winery with limited production of high quality wines and a dedicated following. Many of these cult wineries sell out of their vintages in days and have years-long waiting lists for memberships. Oh, and because of these traits, high price points are a standard of cult wines.
As we said, cult isn’t necessarily a negative term here in the Valley, but there are some winemakers and vintners who shy away from it because of what the expression has come to encompass. On the other end of the spectrum, consumers revel in the term, especially if they’re able to access some of these cult wines. Regardless of your opinion, however, cult wineries exist and are very much a symbol of Napa Valley (though there are cult wineries around the world, too). Below are 10 cult wineries in Napa Valley you should know about, including a few rising stars quickly joining the cult ranks.
Lithology pays tribute to the study of Napa Valley’s unique geographic history lending itself to the region’s unmistakeable terroir. Most famed for their Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from their 13-acre vineyard under the Alejandro Bulgheroni Estate in St. Helena, Lithology also produces single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc sourced from the highly sought after plots of Beckstoffer Dr. Crane, Beckstoffer Las Piedras, and Beckstoffer To Kalon. The Estate recently added a tiny block of Sauvignon Blanc that is sure to be a cult hit of its own in seasons to come.
No list of cult wines would be complete without pointing to Screaming Eagle, a label that’s considered to pioneer the category in the late 90s. Though cult status wasn’t the intention of Jean Phillips, who founded the brand in 1986, the wine’s notoriety has only compounded since its first 100 points by Robert Parker in 1997 (rating their very first vintage from 1992). The flagship Cabernet Sauvignon is traditionally blended with tiny amounts of Merlot and Cabernet Franc. You may find a stray bottle on the market selling in the range of thousands of dollars (their 2019 vintage starts at $3,899), however, the winery openly discourages resale from its exclusive members’ list.
A minimalist label showcasing a household icon, Scarecrow pays homage to the original owner’s ranch where its ultra-premium Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are grown—JJ Cohn was Chief of Production at MGM during Hollywood’s ‘golden era’ and played an essential role in the production of The Wizard of Oz. While Scarecrow recognizes the eponymous, loveable character it’s also a symbol of prideful, American agriculture. The single-vineyard release sees no more than 2,000 cases bottled per vintage and is only available to mailing list members on a first-come, first-serve basis with no allocations.
In 1984, Bill Harlan founded Harlan Estate with the goal to create First Growth California wines—reminiscent of the best Grand Crus from Bordeaux. Now recognized as one of the original cult wineries in the Valley, the estate is known for its two top-tier labels, The Maiden, and its proprietary Red Blend, produced from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot grown on Harlan’s 240 acres that rises in elevation from 225 to 1,225 feet above sea level. The varying elevation of the vineyards provide distinct terroir for these first growth wines which has undoubtedly contributed to the estate’s global reputation.
One of three wineries under Domain H. William Harlan (the others include the aforementioned Harlan Estate as well as BOND), Promontory made a name for itself as a relative newcomer to the Valley. The Harlan family acquired the 860-acre property in 2008, and have maintained its ruggedness–a facet that makes both the wine so special and limited as less than 10% of the land is under vine. The first Cabernet Sauvignon-dominant blend to hit the market was in 2009 (though Promontory produced a 2008 vintage, the owners were not happy with the result and will not sell it). Promontory differs from many other cult wineries as it offers a tasting room (by appointment only) and allocation of wines.
This boutique label was founded by Michael Kennedy, former sommelier and wine director for chef Eric Ripert’s Blue at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman, with a mission to isolate specific parcels of vineyards from top sites throughout the Valley to hone in on the beauty of each single “component”—grapes that’re typically thrown into a blend. Component’s first wine from Napa was a 2013 Petit Verdot (only two barrels were produced). In 2014, they added Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc to their portfolio. Today, Component produces around 750 cases under the guidance of winemaker Marc Gagnon, the former assistant winemaker at Screaming Eagle and head winemaker at Bryant Family Vineyard, who joined the team in 2019.
In 2019—Bella Oaks’ latest release—only 430 cases were produced of their proprietary, single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. The vineyard sits in the foothills of the Mayacamas Mountains, in what’s known as the Rutherford Bench, and dates back to the mid-19th century. When Suzanne Deal Booth purchased the property in 2010, she enlisted some of the best in the industry to revitalize this historic plot and simultaneously emphasize biodynamic practices, including vineyard manager David Abreu, winemaker Nigel Kinsman, and master blender Michael Rolland. The estate achieved certified organic status in 2019, of which the same year’s vintage received 100 points by Antonio Galloni of Vinous Media.
This 47-acre estate was purchased in 2017 by Stephan Crétier and his wife Stéphany Maillery specifically for its world-class vineyard blocks of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Petit Verdot, which comprise their portfolio of wines today: Roy Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Roy Estate Mr. Evans Proprietary Red, and only released in exceptional vintages, Roy Estate La Rêveuse. Since then, Robert Parker, Jr. has described this Napa property as “a hidden gem and top under-the-radar wine estate” producing wines of elegance and length. Each vintage never exceeds 1,500 cases, but La Rêveuse typically caps out at 50 cases or fewer.
Founded in 2003 by Montreal-native Patrice Breton, Vice Versa Wines are predominantly sold as futures directly to consumers per their mailing list. That means many of these wines are sold before they’re even bottled, which is a nod to the label’s success in the Valley. For the 2019 vintage, Vice Versa released 13 wines—primarily Cabernet Sauvignon but two outliers included Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from Platt Vineyard—totaling 3,020 cases. Aside from Platt and their own estate vineyard, Vice Versa sources grapes across vineyards recognized for their exclusivity and excellence, including; Beckstoffer To Kalon (the 2019 single vineyard expression recently received a second 100 points from The Wine Advocate), Beckstoffer Dr. Crane, Beckstoffer Las Piedras, Beckstoffer George III, and Steltzner.
Though the label dates back to 2002, it wasn’t until 2012 that its modern resurrection began, when new owner Scott Becker took over and began reviving Realm from bankruptcy. The cellar now produces 15,000 cases across a portfolio of 12 wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy-dominant blends that they say are “inspired by the classics but rooted in the future.” The collection includes proprietary blends like their flagship Cabernet Sauvignon-forward The Bard, estate wines like Farella Cabernet Sauvignon, and single vineyard wines, sourced from the likes of Beckstoffer To Kalon and Beckstoffer Dr. Crane. At the beginning of 2022, Realm Cellars acquired Nine Suns and Houyi Vineyard in Pritchard Hill, one of Napa’s most exclusive zip codes, which brings Realm’s total acreage up to 200.