In a field that necessitates immense knowledge, patience and business savvy, it is rare for a winery to experience near-instant celebrity. Screaming Eagle arguably rose to fame with one vintage and one review: in 1995, wine critic Robert Parker awarded the 1992 vintage a near-perfect 99 points. The wine’s upward trajectory has remained constant ever since.
There is something magical about the Screaming Eagle property. That Phillips stumbled upon this site — young, near perfect, staggeringly beautiful — seemed an act of fate.
In 1995, wine critic Robert Parker awarded the 1992 vintage a near-perfect 99 points. From then on, Screaming Eagle joined the elite group of ‘California Cult Wines’
In the vineyard’s adolescence, Jean Phillips sold the property’s existing fruit to local wineries. She then swiftly replanted the land exclusively with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. Phillips started crafting wine on-site in an old stone barn.
Those who understand wine know that every vintage is an inspired collaborative effort. Phillips sought the advice of specialists from the Mondavi Winery, and also reached out to consultant Richard Peterson, a pivotal choice for Phillips and the property. Peterson introduced her to his daughter, Heidi Peterson Barrett, a then up-and-coming winemaker. As a pair, in that same old stone barn, Barrett and Phillips produced Screaming Eagle’s first commercial vintage in 1992. It was a life-changing, industry-shaking vintage.
A view of the property at Screaming Eagle. Courtesy Screaming Eagle
After critic Robert Parker awarded the 1992 that near-perfect 99 points, Screaming Eagle joined the elite group of ‘California Cult Wines’. Phillips and Barrett produced California’s most exclusive and sought-after wine for 14 years. Then, in 2006, at the height of Screaming Eagle’s success, Phillips sold Screaming Eagle to Stanley Kroenke and Charles Banks.
If the Screaming Eagle product was not truly magnificent, the story behind it would be irrelevant. Current winemaker Nick Gislason takes great pride in the ‘energy’ of his wines, which manifests itself in bold flavours, lively in their elegance. Crafted around the vineyard’s Cabernet Sauvignon, notes of liquid smoke, dark chocolate and plum live harmoniously in the bottle.
Second Flight, Screaming Eagle’s sister wine and the brainchild of Stanley Kroenke, is characterized by its confident delicacy. A particularly aromatic wine, it is credited with scents of red fruit, fragrant spice and crushed florals. With a base of Merlot rather than Cabernet Sauvignon, Second Flight delights the senses with its charming litheness, and has been met with almost the same acclaim that Screaming Eagle first received.
Fame has not diminished the air of mystery around Screaming Eagle, however. There is no question that a great deal of the vineyard’s viticultural excellence is due to the natural vitality of the land. Yet some of its more singular qualities, such as its rapidly ripening vines, are credited simply to ‘farming decisions’. What these decisions are and how they play into the Screaming Eagle standard of near-perfection remain unknown to the public. The procedures are treated with the reverence and secrecy of a centuries-old vineyard, even if, 40 years on from Jean Phillips’ purchase of the property, Screaming Eagle is a relative teenager.
At auction the brand consistently wows, and competition for Screaming Eagle is fierce. The rarity and quality of the wine, the mysterious practices that set Screaming Eagle apart, its industry dominance and iconic status are all factors that drive bidders to pay huge prices per bottle. Yet the most compelling piece of the puzzle is still, perhaps, Screaming Eagle’s gloriously romantic beginning.
In an industry built around the concept of legacy, Jean Phillips and Heidi Barrett built their own history with their bare hands and an indelible dream. Half of the Screaming Eagle vineyard is still planted with Phillips’ original vines. Perhaps this is what distinguishes Screaming Eagle most of all — through the fame, global attention and near-perfect reviews, it has remained true to its original vision, nurtured by two women working determinedly side-by-side in a stone barn, blissfully unaware that their relative anonymity would soon morph into worldwide renown.