How to Find Napa Valley’s Next Great Cult Wines

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There are over 400 wineries in Napa, but when we talk to collectors it seems that the same handful of producers are always mentioned when discussing sought-after “cult wines.” You know the names, and if you are a regular reader, you likely have some of these in your cellar: Harlan, Bond, Promontory, Scarecrow, Hundred Acre, Screaming Eagle, and Opus One. Surely, out of all the wineries in Napa, there are other labels that are considered collectables and are worthy of collectible status.

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One aspect of what constitutes a collectable is value at auction, which takes time to achieve; like Rome, value isn’t built in a day. We spoke with Nick Pegna, Sotheby’s global head of wine and spirits, who said that he hasn’t seen any demand for up-and-coming or under-the-radar producers at auction—yet. He believes this is due to the auction sales process as opposed to retail, “where wines can be tasted and discussed at length. Results in the auction sales room depend on an established following among collectors.”

With that in mind, we talked to a couple of winery owners and a few high-end retailers, including Pegna’s colleague, Vanessa Conlin, MW—who is Sotheby’s global head of wine retail—to find out what creates buzz and who might be the next big thing.

“Small production wineries like Memento Mori, Vice Versa, and La Pelle are generating the type of excitement and in-the-know buzz last seen when wineries like Screaming Eagle, Harlan, or Hundred Acre were gaining attention,” Conlin says. Their secret? She says personal tastings at the owner’s or winemaker’s home, because this type of tasting “allows collectors to share their experiences and tasting notes with other collectors as word-of-mouth endorsements, which cost nothing but carry immense social currency.”

virtual wine tasting memento mori
Memento Mori is a winery gaining traction.

When shopping for under-the-radar producers, downtown Napa’s Vintner’s Collective is a good place to start. Established 21 years ago as the city’s first tasting room, it offers wine from about 20 boutique producers. Among bottles on offer, which are available to taste, are those by winemakers that co-owner Garret Murphy believes wine lovers should become familiar with, like Julien Fayard, Maayan Koschitzky, and Lloyd Matthews, all of whom have worked with another name to be aware of, Philippe Melka. (Koschitzky is currently Melka’s right-hand man at wine consultancy Atelier Melka.) Beyond winemaking talent, Murphy also believes in looking at the vineyard source, because the best wine is made with what he calls “exceptional fruit.” He points out, “Incredible vineyard sites are often only accessible to superstar winemakers; however, talented assistants who start their own projects have a leg up to access them, which is an intriguing pathway for consumers to find new wines.” Murphy also sees a growing interest in female winemakers including Helen Keplinger, who he says is “at the top of her game.”

Another Napa Valley source for the next big thing is gallery-style boutique Acme Fine Wines in St. Helena, where owner Karen Williams tastes thousands of selections each year before presenting her top picks to the Valley’s visitors and her club members. Williams is known for being the first to launch Hundred Acre and Scarecrow, and today she features legends like Bond and Eisele alongside brands she thinks are on their way to becoming household names such as Impensata, Vida Valiente, and Blue Monster. Williams also considers fruit source among a wine’s most important aspects, along with the winemaker and vineyard manager. That said, while she doesn’t believe that there is a strict formula to follow to create a collectible brand, she thinks that “word-of-mouth information from reputable sources can help a consumer find a brand that will likely become a collectible.”

realm wines
Realm is a producer we’ve been keeping a close eye on.

We have been watching Realm Cellars transformation since current owner and CEO Scott Becker took it over in 2012. After earning his MBA at Harvard Business School, Becker worked at Cakebread and was involved in launching Promontory with Bill Harlan. Winemaker Benoit Touquette was mentored by Michel Rolland and interned with Andy Erickson before turning his attention to Realm. (Erickson is clearly another winemaker to watch; the co-owner of Favia, Erickson also makes wine at Dalla Valle and To Kalon Vineyard Company.) Realm’s evocatively named proprietary blends and single-vineyard wines are among the best we’ve sampled in recent years. Becker agrees with Murphy in terms of vineyard sourcing, telling us, “I think greatness has been and will continue to be defined in Napa Valley by stewardship of the land.” On his own brands and others he admires, such as MacDonald and Abreu Vineyards, Becker says, “With so many great wines in Napa Valley already, the bar is high to deliver something compelling and differentiated. Yet the old rules still apply; wine quality, age worthiness, and value proposition also help the market determine what’s collectible from what’s not.”

Another brand that has caught our eye is Bella Oaks, which owner and proprietor Suzanne Deal Booth acquired in 2010, expanded in 2016, and produced her first vintage from in 2018. Her 26 acres of Mayacamas Range Cabernet Sauvignon are farmed by legendary vineyard manager Dave Abreu, and winemaking is under the direction of Nigel Kinsmen and consulting winemaker Rolland, whose hand, especially in the final blending process, is felt across Napa and around the world. Bella Oaks’s elements combine to create magic, including a historic vineyard site and all-star viticulture and winemaking team.

As with any wine region, the best way to find the next big thing in Napa is to visit frequently and taste. Ask advice in tasting rooms, bottle shops, and well-regarded restaurants. The valley is filled with people who are passionate about wine and want to share their favorites with others. Read up on the regions you’re interested in and take note of AVAs, vineyards, winemakers, and producers that catch your eye, and then get your hands on a tasting pour or a bottle. It’s great to trace a winemaker’s trail or find out who else is making wine from a vineyard that you’re already familiar with. Each and every bottle you open, friend or expert you talk to, or article that you read is another opportunity to come in contact with what just may the next big collectible Napa wine. And while you’re finding bottles to lay down in your cellar and open in a few years, don’t forget to pour yourself a few glasses and enjoy the journey.

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