09/05/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Cult Wines for Tough Times: Sommelier Journal

Napa Valley, home of the $500+ cult wine, is changing. With the economy tanking and jobs disappearing like conference room doughnuts, demand for these uber-fabulous wines is way down. In 2009, $50 is the new $500!

In the "olden" days (up to mid-2008), a wine was considered a "cult" wine if it got very high scores (95 points plus), was very scarce (due to small-case production), cost $500 or more at release and was sold only by mailing list to a few early adopters. These cult wines would often be "flipped" or sold on the secondary market for two and three times the release price.

We all still want to drink good -- no, make that great -- wine, but spending hundreds of dollars on a bottle of wine seems a bit obscene nowadays. And to be perfectly honest, is a $750 bottle really ten times better than a $75 bottle? What's a wine geek to do? Take a bottle of the next generation of cult winemakers' craft and call me in the morning!

In this, the post "crash" economy, you really need to know about the up- and-coming-winemakers who are crafting the most exquisite wines at reasonable prices. And while you may have heard, in passing, about some of these winemakers, others are so under the radar that you need a sonar periscope to find them. And none of their wines costs more than $75.

As a wine collector, wine magazine columnist, wine educator and former sommelier, I taste hundreds of bottles of wine each year. And while I may not remember all of them (like wine critic Robert Parker says he does), I have had a good number of epiphanic wines over the years. I have recently been blown away by a few new wines that others in the indie should know about.

The "eagle" has been kicked out of the nest by winemakers like Maggie Harrison, Kent Humphries, Bryan Kane, Jason Moore, Rob Newsom and Greg Stach. Who, you ask? You will be hearing a lot more about these six "screamingly" good winemakers. Most of them are young, and all are modest, unassuming and passionate about their craft. These winemakers are at the top of their trade, and their wines are astonishing, even if little known.

Another thing that these "cultish" winemakers share is a non-interventionist philosophy that shows their beautifully polished wines without a lot of manipulation. We have all tasted "Franken wines" -- wines that have been "spoofulated" or manipulated by using a menu of stomach -curdling additives and techniques to make flashy wines. The winemakers I am writing about use craft, not chemicals, to let the terroir shine through.

Maggie Harrison -- Antica Terra and Lillian Winery
Maggie apprenticed with Manfred Krankl as his assistant winemaker at Sine Qua Non for more than eight years. Manfred's tiny-production wines, known only to a few lucky "listers" and other über geeks, are deeply-concentrated, sublime-- and wildly pricey. With fantastic labels and quirky names like Boots, Pasties, Scanty Panties and a Ten Gallon Hat (Roussanne) and Just For the Love of It (Syrah), Manfred's wines have transcended mere cult status--they are considered by many to be other-worldly. During Maggie's tenure at Sine Qua Non, she helped Manfred and his wife Elaine make those legendary, 100-point wines. But now, Maggie has made her own Lillian Syrah from Santa Barbara County's White Hawk Vineyard, and the results are astonishing.

Maggie had no winemaking education or training -- she graduated from college with a major in International Relations. She traveled before settling down, and, after hoofing it around Africa, moved to California. She landed the job at Sine Qua Non "through a mixture of serendipity, fate and shameful persistence." In addition to her Lillian Syrah, Maggie also makes outstanding Pinot Noir at Antica Terra, an Oregon winery that she bought part of in 2005.

Kent Humphries - Eric Kent Wine Cellars
Mouton Rothschild has commissioned artists to design wine labels on their grand vin since 1945. Kent Humphries, owner and winemaker at Eric Kent Winery, has stayed close to home for the artwork on his labels. Colleen Teitgen, Kent's wife, formerly an art director, found up -and -coming local artists and even a poet to produce beautiful, collectable labels. It's a win-win situation, as these artists get a bit of the proceeds (and a delicious bottle of wine) and their art is displayed along with Kent's art -- his wine.

Like Maggie Harrison, Kent had no formal degree in winemaking. Before starting his own label, he worked for two other wineries -- Ballentine Vineyards in Napa, where he made Cabernet, Merlot, Zinfandel, Syrah and Chenin Blanc, and Chasseur, a boutique producer of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in Sebastapol.

Kent credits Bruce Devlin, the winemaker at Ballentine, Bill Hunter, owner and winemaker at Chasseur, and Mike Officer, owner and co-winemaker at Carlisle, for graciously spending many hours answering every question he threw their way.

Kent's Big Boy Blend Syrah has just gotten a 94-point score from the Wine Spectator, and his Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs are also ethereal! Kent's philosophy is, "when the work is done well in the vineyard and nature cooperates, intervention or manipulation are rarely needed."

Bryan Kane- Sol Rouge and Vie Winery
Bryan is unique as a winemaker, because he owns his own land. He recently bought 70 acres in Lake County, a still relatively-undiscovered viticultural area, a short drive north of the Napa Valley. Not technically trained, Bryan was a home winemaker, enthusiast and collector, who credits winemaker Scott Shapley, formerly at Siduri and Copain and now winemaker at Roessler, for helping him learn how to make wine.

Today, Bryan makes beautifully polished Rhone wines for VIE Winery that clearly show his skill and passion. At VIE, he focuses on producing Rhone and Zinfandel- based wines. And, with sexy names like "Les Amours" Syrah (also with lush grapes from the White Hawk vineyard), "L'Imaginaire" Grenache and "L'Intruse" Mourvedre, plus Viognier and classic GSM blends, this winemaker shows real passion in making Northern and Southern Rhone-style wines.

At Sol Rouge, Bryan's own project, he sources from and partners with the best vineyards to craft intense Rhone and Bordeaux- style wines. He sources grapes from Napa's cult wine-producing Beckstoffer To-Kalon vineyard to make his very limited-edition (50 cases) 2006 "TKL" Cabernet Sauvignon. He also makes a marvelous Napa Valley Cab and a Cab from the up- and- coming Lake County appellation.

Bryan's Sol Rouge Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, made with Beckstoffer's To- Kalon and Dr. Crane vineyard grapes, was selected to receive top honors as "Best-of-Appellation" by Appellation America. Bryan is one of the only winemakers keeping his prices for To-Kalon Cab reasonable, while most others are still charging between $100 and $300. That is truly sweet!

Jason Moore- Modus Operandi Cellars
Jason's 2005 MO Cab was clearly the runaway winner at a trade tasting last year. He started Modus in 2004 with his first commercial vintage of only 200 cases of Napa cab.

Jason is mostly self-taught, and learned by actually making wine in a garage. At a tasting, he met someone with a vineyard who was willing to give him an acre of his first crop and set him up in his garage. Jason would spend a day or two working with a winery to just to help out and observe, ask questions and learn. In 2005, he worked the harvest at Viader. In 2006, he was hired as production manager of Silenus Vintners, a custom-crush facility, where he was the assistant winemaker for 14 brands. (He is still multitasking -- he makes wine for at least six up and coming wineries.)

In the garage, Jason utilized the basic knowledge that he had learned from his extension classes at Davis and Napa College, but ultimately, there wasn't anyone telling him what to do and when -- he had to figure everything out on his own.

When he had a problem with the wine (and he often did) he would first do research on how to address it, come up with a strategy, and finally email his list of mentors (some of the most respected vintners in the business, including Michael Havens, Robert Foley, Mark Porembski, Brian Mox, Jon Berlin, Mike Trotta, Kirk Venge, Chris Tynan, Craig MacLean and Steve Lagier) describing how he intended to fix the problem. Jason credits these winemaking luminaries for responses that ranged from "great job" to "WRONG!" He incorporated the comments into his winemaking and learned that there are several ways to make great wine. Today, Jason's philosophy is to let the vineyard guide him as to the best method of winemaking.

Rob Newsom-Bodreaux Cellars
Rob Newsom is a colorful character. He got a degree in forestry, was a mountain guide, and then developed products for Gore-tex. All along, he traveled around the world, tasting wine. Back home in Washington, Rob became friendly with legendary winemaker Gary Figgins of Leonetti Cellars. One day Figgins dared Newsom to make wine, and he took Figgins up on the dare. After three years of making wine in a garage under Figgins' tutelage, Rob went commercial in 2001.

Boudreaux Cellars is four miles off the power grid and the only winery in Washington that is completely self-powered. Rob is a Louisiana native with a sense of humor, but his winery, named Boudreaux, is not related to the product called Boudreaux's Butt Paste, a diaper rash ointment! His sense of humor shines through on his website: "Good gosh, Gertie!
This sure is purty.
 Big, long, Merlot.
 Funner than a strip show."

Sourcing fruit from famed Washington vineyards such as Champoux, Klipsun, Seven Hills and Horse Heaven Hills for his 2005 Cab, Rob is already in the stratosphere of "cult wine" territory.

Rob says, "what is hard, is to make the same wine you made last year. Everybody loved last year's wine, but fruit changes every year. Without diversifying, you risk losing consistency."

Greg Stach- Kanzler Vineyards
Say the word "Kanzler," and most geeks think of Kosta Browne. Of course,
Michael Browne is a winemaking rock star who has made one of his awesome Pinot Noirs from fabulous Kanzler vineyard fruit, as have winemakers at A.P. Vin, Rhys Alesia, Kutch Wines, Roessler Cellars and Landmark. But this is about Greg Stach, winemaker extraordinaire at Kanzler Vineyards and assistant winemaker at Landmark Vineyards.

When Greg was a kid, he and his family drove around Napa, visiting vineyards. His parents had a small family farm and raised livestock and vegetables. Stach says all of this had "a profound effect on [his] palate," and taught him "to focus on how things taste and feel in the mouth."

Greg began in the restaurant business as a waiter and later as a wine buyer for a Reno, Nevada restaurant. With this position he was able to try first-growth Bordeaux, Grand Cru Burgundies and aged Champagnes. He was hooked.

In 1998, Greg went back to Fresno State to learn the technical aspects of winemaking. Unlike the other winemakers, Greg holds a degree in enology. In 2001, he moved to the Russian River and started working at Landmark Vineyards as a "cellar rat," making Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Greg credits winemaker Eric Stern of Landmark Vineyards as his mentor. At Greg's initial crush, he met Steve Kanzler and they made a half a barrel of Pinot Noir together. The rest is history. Like the winemakers above, Greg's winemaking philosophy is "to find the best grapes and let the vineyard speak for itself."

So, when times get tough, the tough look for these awesome, under-the-radar winemakers. But, since these "new cults" are limited production wines, let's not tell too many people or I won't be able to get my allotments!

If you would like the tasting notes for these marvelous wines, email me at