Despite high prices and very limited availability – or maybe because of this – a handful of domestic and international wines from historic estates are garnering fervent fans and achieving cult-like status.
To gain insight into what makes these wines so enticing, I recently interviewed the proprietors/general managers of three of these better known so-called “cult wines” – Dick Grace, Pedro Alvarez Mezquiriz and Gaia Gaja – who were attending the Naples (Florida) Winter Wine Festival Charity Auction, to which they had donated substantial quantities of wine.
Established in the mid 1970s by former San Francisco stockbroker Dick Grace and his wife, Ann – on a Napa Valley property surrounding a 130-year-old Victorian house – the Grace Family Vineyards produces a Cabernet Sauvignon that fetches upwards of $225 a bottle.
“In a given year, depending on the condition of the grapes, we make between 500 and 850 cases of the finest quality wine we can make, produced organically and biodynamically with fruit from an ideal combination of soil and climate, and with an early morning harvest performed by friends and family who have a real sense of community and pride in the experience,” Dick Grace says.
Adding to the aura of the wine, he says with pride, is a greater sense of purpose:
“The profit from its sales goes to the Grace Family Foundation, which supports a wide range of services, from helping the homeless in northern California to the construction and maintenance of health clinics in Tibet and Nepal.”
As to its availability, Grace adds, “We sell the wine directly to restaurants, retail shops and individuals – each making up about a third of our market – with a waiting list of over 1,500 potential customers.”
For those interested in purchasing the wine, Grace suggests seeking out a local shop on the list – or signing up and waiting the eight to 10 years to make it to the list.
Originally, the plantings of Vega Sicilia – founded in 1864 in the Ribera del Duero region of northern Spain – were primarily Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot varietals, brought from cuttings in France. However, this has changed over the years and the flagship Unico red wine is now more than 90 percent Tempranillo, with the remainder Cabernet and Merlot and sells for upward of $300 a bottle for current vintages.
“The high quality of the grapes used and a rather unique aging process of up to 10 years produces a product of great complexity, finesse and elegance that is quite special among Spanish wines and even wines from other parts of the world,” says Pablo Alvarez Mezquiriz, general manager of the estate. “Unfortunately, climate conditions do not allow us to make this wine every year. But even when we do, we can only produce 4,000-10,000 cases, which along with the quality accounts for the high price of the wine.”
Not surprisingly the wine has fans worldwide, with distribution to top-flight restaurants and some upper-echelon retail outlets in more than 100 countries.
Already a revered name in the northern Italian Piedmont region for its elegant, groundbreaking Barbarescos, Gaja is now making small amounts of exceptional Sugarille and Rennina Brunello di Montalcino from the vineyards surrounding the Tuscany estate of Pieve Santa Restituta, which has been producing wine since the 12th century.
“What differentiates our Barbarescos from those of other producers is the attention to the vineyards with reduction of crop size, a reasonable fermentation period and our combination of barrique and large cask aging process, which is the path we are taking in Tuscany to yield wines that provide a maximum amount of pleasure to the consumer,” says Gaia Gaja, oldest daughter of pioneering Italian producer Antonio Gaja. “Currently, the two wines produced at the estate are only made in years when conditions allow, making availability limited to high-end shops and restaurants. But we see so much potential for this estate that I am planning to move there to oversee and perhaps enhance the production.”
While all three thought there is good investment potential for their wines, they also felt that the wines should be purchased for aesthetic enjoyment, especially with food. “Actually we prefer to sell our wine to restaurants, where it will be consumed, rather than to shops for hording by individual collectors,” notes Pablo Alvarez Mezquiriz of Vega Sicilia.
And, while these wines escalate in price over time, the percentage increase is far less than for the highest level reds from Bordeaux and Burgundy, like Chateau Lâfite-Rothschild and Domaine de la Romanée-Conti La Tâche.