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At some point all oenophiles ask themselves this question? Is it worth it? Is that $100 bottle ten times better than a $10 bottle? What makes a $1,000 bottle cost a $1,000? Is it just marketing and hype or am I missing something?

Screaming Eagle. It’s like the holy grail of American wines. It is Napa’s most famous cult wine and sells for, if you can find a bottle, an average price of $2,960, and that’s just the average. In 2000, a six liter 1992 bottle of Screaming Eagle sold for $500,000. Yes, half a millllllllllion dollars (said in my best Dr. Evil voice), setting the record for the highest price ever paid for a single bottle of wine.

So what makes Screaming Eagle so special that it commands such jaw-dropping prices. Surprisingly, their website offers no additional information about the wine or the grapes used to make America’s most expensive wine. Most wineries offer you more information about their wine, their vineyards, and their winemaking process than you could ever want, but Screaming Eagle doesn’t even tell you on the bottle or site where their vineyard is located! Is this all part of their mystique? Is there something they don’t want us to know? Luckily for us, their neighbors are more than happy to let us know where those pricey little grapes are being grown.

1. Is the price of wine based on the location?

The Screaming Eagle vineyard is located in the eastern section of the Oakville Appellation (not the picture shown above) which is commonly referred to as Oakville East. The dirt is red and so are the rocks and stone that are easily visible in the rough, course soil. There are a dozen or so wineries whose estate vineyards contain the bright red soils of Oakville East, but only one commands prices in the thousands of dollars.

So where did this red dirt come from? The most widely supported theory is that millions of years ago a geologic event caused a massive earth collapse approximately 1,500 feet above the Oakville Valley in the Vaca Mountain range, which resulted in hundreds of feet of iron-rich earth being deposited onto the eastern edge of current day Oakville. This iron-rich earth eroded into red clay. Since Roman times, red dirt has been considered ideal growing soil for wine. That type of soil generally produces cabernets and blends with ripe fruit and tannins and a savory minerality. The red rocks and soil accentuate the extra heat the east side of the valley receives. The east side of the valley gets direct afternoon sunlight and gets the full brunt of late-day afternoon sun. The vineyards on the west side of the valley, including Harlan and Far Niente, are shaded by the Mayacamas mountain range in the late afternoon. But if it’s the soil and temperature that make Screaming Eagle the best Napa has to offer, as many will argue, other vineyards and wineries such as Nickel Nickel’s Tench vineyard and Dalla Valle share those same growing conditions. Why don’t they fetch the same record breaking prices?

2. Is it the grape varietal that make wine expensive?

Nickel & Nickel’s Tench Cabernet is grown in the vineyard adjacent to Screaming Eagle, yet sells for an average price of $90 per bottle. Tench vineyard is located in Oakville East and the soil is the same red, volcanic Vaca Mountain composition. However, true to Nickel & Nickel’s vision, their wine is made of 100% cabernet sauvignon grown exclusively from the Tench vineyard. In contrast, every vintage of Screaming Eagle is at least 75% Cabernet Sauvignon with the balance being made up of mostly Merlot and a small amount of Cabernet Franc. The exact percentages of each varietal change from year to year in order to achieve the result sought by the winemaker. Can the addition of 25% or less Merlot and Cabernet Franc account for the more than $2,800 price difference?

3. Maybe it’s the winemaker?

The Dalla Valle Vineyards estate consists of a 20-acre vineyard which resembles a crater, since three of its sides are composed of collapsed Vaca ramparts. It sits at about 400 feet above the Napa Valley floor above the Silverado Trail. Just like Screaming Eagle and Tench, the vineyard soil is made up of the same red volcanic material. Additionally, similar to Screaming Eagle, their flagship Cabernet Sauvignon is a blend of at least 75% Cabernet Sauvignon and less than 25% Merlot and/or Cabernet Franc. Dalla Valle and Screaming Eagle are grown in the same small area of Napa’s Oakville AVA, from the same soil type, and are blended with roughly the same percentages of Cabernet Sauvignon and other noble varietals, but Dalla Valle wines sell for an average price of $168. This represents a mere fraction of what Screaming Eagle is commanding online and at auction. Is it possible that a rock star winemaker is responsible for this price discrepancy?

Heidi Barrett was nicknamed the “first lady of wine” by Robert Parker, and her resume supports that accolade. She was the winemaker at Dalla Valle from 1988 until 1996 and received two perfect 100 point scores from Parker in 1992 and 1993. Additionally, in 1992 she became the wine maker for Screaming Eagle and also received two perfect 100 point scores from Parker in 1992 and 1997. Despite even having the same exact winemaker from 1992 until 1996, and receiving perfect scores by Parker, the prices for Dalla Valle and Screaming Eagle are not comparable. Is it just marketing and hype?

4. Maybe it was just really good timing?

Screaming Eagle released its first vintage in 1995. It was the perfect storm of intense new interest in California wine and the dot-com boom. Screaming Eagle, and other Napa cult favorites like Colgin and Harlan, took full advantage of the situation. Instead of selling through the tasting room and distributors, they sold almost exclusively by mailing list and most importantly they made wine in insanely low quantities and sold what little wine they made at market topping prices for the time. They created their own demand and since their customers were flush with new dot-com money, the stage was set for a buying frenzy. These circumstances culminated in the birth of the California “Cult” wine.

Maybe timing really is everything. I’ll let you know as soon as I get a chance to taste it! Feel free to invite me over the next time you want to pop open a Screaming Eagle. I’ll bring a Nickel & Nickel Tench and a Dalla Valle and we’ll have a good, old-fashioned taste test. I want to believe that Screaming Eagle is that much better, that it would be taste-bud exploding good, but for now, I have to think a little bit of luck and perfect timing is what really gave rise to the Napa Cult wine business. What are your thoughts? Have you tried it? Has anything before or after even been comparable?

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