The term “cult cab” gained great currency in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It was really a California phenomenon, though certainly other regions have their iconic wines. The California cult wines were predominately Cabernet Sauvignon and mostly came from Napa. The cult wines were so-named because of a nearly fanatical group of wealthy collectors who would pay huge prices to obtain bottles in a cult-like devotion to a group of small, quality-focused wineries.
The cult movement can be seen as a coincidence of a trend toward favouring riper fruit and powerful wines at the same time as a lot of money was being made in the dot com era. Young tech entrepreneurs and investors had lots of money. Many of them resided in Palo Alto and San Jose, suburbs of San Francisco and a less than 2-hour drive from Napa Valley. An early fan of the style was the famous American wine critic Robert Parker who bestowed huge scores on these wines. Names like Aurajo, Harlan, Bryant Family, Colgin and perhaps most famously, Screaming Eagle, became the darlings of the wealthy tech set as the new millennium began.
But long before then, California had other cult wines, perhaps with not quite the same maniacal devotion, but wines that were certainly sought after. In the 1970s and 1980s Heitz Winery, founded by the highly individualistic Joe Heitz in Rutherford, bottled a Cabernet Sauvignon from Martha’s Vineyard, a vineyard owned by Tom and Martha May just down the road that sold all of their grapes to Heitz.
“Heitz Martha’s” as collectors referred to it as, took a different direction than most wines in Napa at the time.
Heavily influenced by Bordeaux, Napa produced blends where their Cabernet Sauvignon was joined with Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec. Grapes would be sourced from several vineyards. Heitz Martha’s was the first single variety, single vineyard wine to make the big time. The 1968 and 1974 quickly became legends; that status only increased as bottles were opened 20, 30 and even 40 years later to reveal wines that were still fresh and had gained considerable complexity. The 1976 and 1985 were also highly regarded at that time.
In the 1960s there was inglenook, that under the guidance of John Daniel produced some very collectible wines.
But the first California wine to really cause a stir was the Beaulieu Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. Georges de Latour was a Frenchman who came to California and bought a small ranch in 1900. Beau lieu in French means beautiful place, as Rutherford is today and certainly was back then, and this is what his wife named their new home. Georges soon purchased the 128 acres adjacent to their property and planted his first vineyard to 80 acres of Zinfandel and Petite Syrah and named the vineyard BV Ranch #1. In 1910 he bought 146 acres nearby from the Catholic Church and called it BV Ranch #2. During the prohibition years that followed he sold sacrament wine back to the Catholic Church.
The Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon is inextricably linked to a small Russian man by the name of Andres Tchelistcheff. Tchelistcheff met Georges de Latour in Paris and the latter convinced him to move to California and become head winemaker at his Beaulieu Vineyards in Napa. Tchelistcheff’s contributions to California winemaking were numerous. He brought over the idea of using small French oak barrels for ageing wine, was strict about absolute cleanliness in the winery, and encouraged cold fermentations among many other techniques that served to define the style of California wines, especially Cabernet Sauvignon.
Tschelistcheff’s influence in the wine world stretched far beyond just Beaulieu. He was a consulting enologist to many top American wineries. Tchelistcheff’s nephew, Alex Golitzen, went on to create Washington State’s arguably greatest Cabernet Sauvignon, Quilceda Creek. Tchelistcheff also consulted to other top wineries such as Heitz, Jordan, Grgich Hills, and Neibaum-Coppola from California, Chateau Ste. Michelle from Washington, and Erath from Oregon. Tchelistcheff died in 1994 after an illustrious 56-year career.
When Tchelistcheff arrived in Napa in 1938 he tasted the family’s Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from the 1936 vintage, a special Cabernet made for the family’s own consumption. He was so impressed that he insisted that de Latour bottle the wine and offer it to the public and make it Beaulieu’s flagship wine. That wine was first released in 1940 and was immediately ranked as among the best reds Napa Valley had ever produced. The wine quickly became a winemaker’s favourite, the wine that was the Napa reference point for combined power and elegance, the wine everyone aspired to make. It was the first wine to go on sale to line ups of people, waiting for a meagre allocation. It paved the way for the great wines of Napa to follow.
Since that 1936 vintage, The Georges de Latour Private Reserve has only had 5 winemakers. The wine has evolved over time but has always held the respect of the wine consumer as well as the critics. What separates the Private Reserve from other cult wines is that the Georges de Latour is made in reasonable quantities. This means it is accessible, and while not cheap, it at least is available in stores and not just to a lucky few who happen to be on a waiting list.
What does it taste like? We have tasted many Georges de Latours over the years, going all the way back to the 1978 vintage. The fundamentals of the wine have changed little over the years. Georges de Latour strives for elegance alongside of power and always has. In this way it is different than many cult Napa cabs as many of those wines emphasize powerful impressions caused by very ripe fruit and higher alcohol levels. Georges de Latour evokes a more Bordeaux-like wine, one that emphasizes savoury as much as fruit, one that shows a bit more restraint. Expect black currant fruit up front with savoury, earth and forest secondary notes that add complexity, especially as the years go by. Expect a powerful wine, but not an over-powering wine. The Georges de Latour always retains impeccable balance, power aligned with grace, more gymnast than linebacker. Expect a legend, the first to raise the quality bar in Napa and a wine that has kept the bar high for over 80 vintages.
2004 Beaulieu Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon
Deep red with brick coloured rim. Beautiful nose of black cherry with hints of menthol and forest. Medium + body, medium acidity and moderate, ripe tannin. Flavours of black cherry, ribena, earth and spice on the finish. Very complex. The mouthfeel is very seductive, a combination of ripe fruit with good structure. Powerful but elegant at the same time, this wine has impeccable balance. Not the bruiser style of Napa, but more traditional, a little restrained compared to some. Very sophisticated!