ONE OF NAPA’S TRULY INTERESTING STORIES
The average price of a bottle of Screaming Eagle, according to Wine Searcher, is $2,872. Their Sauvignon Blanc averages $3,835. I have no idea why their Sauvignon Blanc is more expensive than their Cabernet Sauvignon—I should ask one of Napa Wine Club’s wine experts. Doesn’t matter though, my budget doesn’t allow for me to afford thousand-plus dollar bottles of wine. Nor does my wife.
In fact, I can’t help but think of what the Maitre D’ at L’Idiot (Mr. Perdue) said to Harris, “You think with a financial statement like this you can have the duck?” and the Chef chimed in, “He can have the chicken!”
I guess I’m destined to be a chicken kind-of-guy, which is why I write about value wines instead of thousand dollar bottles of wine.
The story of Screaming Eagle winery is an interesting one though, regardless of whether you’ve been relegated to being a chicken or duck kind-of-person.
How does a real estate agent turn into one of the most exclusive wine proprietors in the world? I don’t know. Jean Phillips did it though with Screaming Eagle. Not that real estate agents aren’t capable—clearly they are. I watch Million Dollar Listing, I get it. It’s just that you wouldn’t think a humble real estate agent—yes from what I’m told Phillips is humble—would do something this legendary.
In 1986, she found a deal on land that she couldn’t refuse as someone who knew real estate. She bought 57 acres in the Oakville region of Napa Valley.
At first, she sold most of her grapes to other wineries. Legend has it that she kept only one acre for herself—to have a go at making her own wine.
In 1986 wine was not nearly as popular as it is today. Sure it had gained popularity after 1976, when Jim Barrett (of Chateau Montelena) won the Judgement of Paris blind tasting contest that put Napa on the proverbial map, but it was before November of 1991. That was when 60 Minutes ran the French Paradox episode that truly changed the second derivative (faster acceleration) of the Wine industry.
Sometimes it is better to be lucky than it is be good, and Phillips buying her land before that 60 Minutes episode, and at such a good price (even for those days), was auspicious indeed.
Her decision to keep only a little of her wine production for herself was even more auspicious. And her luck didn’t end there.
She knew Napa well and Robert Mondavi was a big name, even back then, so she consulted with some employees from that winery. I mean, she was a real estate agent not a Winemaker. One thing led to another—yadda yadda yadda—Phillips meets Heidi Peterson. You might not initially recognize that name unless you knew her famous Winemaker father—Richard Peterson. You might, though, recognize her married name: Heidi Peterson Barrett. Bo Barrett is Heidi Peterson’s husband—and Bo is the son of Jim Barrett (see above) of famed Chateau Montelena.
When Phillips and Heidi Peterson Barrett started to work together, Peterson-Barrett was not a famous Winemaker in her own right. She was good but not famous (except through her father). But the union of Phillips and Peterson-Barrett was the perfect match that put them both on the map.
The two of them created a limited production wine release (one acre as the legend goes) of Cabernet Sauvignon. The first vintage (1992) released in 1995, was then evaluated by famed wine critic—Robert Parker. Parker gave the wine a 99 out of 100 score. 80 vines or about 175 cases of that wine existed, which is not a lot of wine production at all!
In 1995, simple supply and demand economics took-over and a frenzy for Screaming Eagle wine drove the prices way up. The current price of that 1992 bottle, if you can find it, is over $10,000.
In April of 2000, Wine Spectator (WS) put Phillips on the cover of their magazine. They named the article within, “California’s Cult Wines. Who they are and why they’re red-hot.” The article was about the frenzy that had been happening in California “cult wines”, of which WS defined nine—Screaming Eagle being the poster child of them all.
Another was Dalla Valle winery, which is where Peterson-Barrett got her first opportunity as a Winemaker. She was at the epicenter of these “cult wineries” and from that point forward, Peterson-Barrett was no longer regarded as the daughter of a famous Winemaker. She had earned her fantastic reputation as one of the premier Winemakers in Napa Valley based on her own merits.
Prior to all of this, in 1990, an ambitious Charles Banks graduated from college. Two years later he started working his way up the corporate ladder at a small investment management firm called CSI Capital Management (pro basketball players Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan invested some of their money there). Banks eventually became President of the investment management firm—making him a tidy sum of money each year and building out his contacts.
In 2006, Banks heard rumors that Jean Phillips might be interested in selling her Screaming Eagle. Banks had a passion for wine, and the industry in general, so he sought out a billionaire real estate and sports entrepreneur to partner with named Stan Kroenke, and together they tried to convince Phillips to sell her beloved and highly successful Screaming Eagle.
Screaming Eagle needed a major re-planting (a virus hit the vines there), so Banks successfully convinced Phillips to sell the winery for a reported $70 million. Not bad for a humble real estate broker. And not bad for Banks, the small money manager who wanted into the wine business and found himself owning one of the most exclusive wineries in Napa.
Banks and Stan Kroenke brought in distinguished winemaker, Andy Erickson, to take control of wine production and David Abreu to manage the vineyards. They changed a lot of the personnel and replanted 70% of the vineyard. What’s the saying, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it? Well, all the change worked out—the winery continued to flourish.
In 2010, Charles Banks and Stan Kroenke dissolved their partnership—not exactly amicably—and all their joint wine holdings. Screaming Eagle was at $250 a bottle when Banks bought it and $850 a bottle when he got out. In that time, production also went up from 500 cases to about 1,500. Banks, now 48, went on to build a $200 Million wine portfolio on his own. Although don’t talk to Tim Duncan about his success with portfolios.
Kroenke took over Screaming Eagle and several winemakers have come and gone since. The wine, however, remains exclusive and pricey.
So, is the wine worth the really high cost? That is for you to judge. All that I know is that it is located just below the Dalla Valle vineyard near the Oakville Cross. Heidi Peterson Barrett was the winemaker for Dalla Valle vineyard. In fact, Gustav Dalla Valle was the first to hire the talented young Winemaker. So the wineries had the same Winemaker and are located very near each other. Sure, there are still differences in soil and climate but they are close to one another in style and grounds.
Yet the average price of Screaming Eagle is six-times more than that of Dalla Valle wine, according Wine Searcher. The high price of Screaming Eagle, like that of a lot of other expensive wines, has as much to do with the story behind the wine as it does the taste of the wine itself. My guess is that Phillips would be the first to admit this. Supply and demand also plays a huge part in forming the story. Wineries get this, can you say Reserves?
For now, I will keep eating the chicken with an occasional duck on special occasions—whether I can afford it or not. Frankly, there is a lot of fun in drinking wine that has a good story behind it and that is worth something. And the wine that screams is one heck of a story!