Screaming Eagle: An American masterpiece
Screaming Eagle, the exclusive Napa Valley winery famous for producing wines of exceptional quality, may be the American wine world’s most extraordinary story, explains Christie’s specialist Noah May
Among cult California wines one winery stands alone: Screaming Eagle. Its origins lie in the discerning eye of a star local real estate agent, Jean Philips, who started acquiring choice vineyard plots in the mid-1980s.
It was the Dean of Napa Valley, Robert Mondavi, who encouraged her to switch from real estate to wine making and by 1992 Screaming Eagle debuted its first vintage by the emerging winemaker Heidi Barrett, wife of Bo Barrett from Chateau Montelena.
With multiple perfect or near perfect ratings from various influential reviewers, her diminutive property secured a reputation for producing legendary, almost mythical wine, the unicorn of which is widely regarded to be the 1992.
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 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.
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.
$30 million — Rumoured to be the price paid in 2006 to purchase the winery from Jean Phillips
The estate produces only three wines: the uber-rare Sauvignon Blanc is the latest addition and is sold exclusively to long time members on a hotly pursued allocation list; Second Flight was introduced in 2012; and declassified wine not deemed qualified for the Estate’s standard bearer. The composition of their reds consist of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc.
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.
$75 — From release, this is what early adopters and those in-the-know paid for one of Napa’s most expensive wines at that time
Second Flight, Screaming Eagle’s sister wine and the brainchild of Stanley Kroenke, is characterised 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 average hammer price achieved is $1,621 with a mean aggregate value of $27 Million. The most popular vintage to enter auction to date is 2002 with a total of 1439 bottles which had a high-water mark of 197 bottles sold back in 2005, its release year. Closely following is the 2003 vintage with a total of 1286 bottles and the all-time volume of any vintage to date with 217 bottles entered at auction.
By all indications Screaming Eagle is among one of the world’s most sought after and collectable wines. Appearance at auction is extremely rare in comparison to other benchmark Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot based wines — a direct comparison might be the famed Pomerol cult.
Over the past five years every single vintage has seen price appreciation at auction. Statistical data shows the earliest vintages are being consumed and appear less frequently at auction over time. Vintages before 1997 are consequently becoming rarer at auction — only eight bottles of its first vintage were offered last year. This year only six bottles have been found.
16,746 — The number of standard bottles, vintages 1992-2015, that have entered the secondary commercial auction market to date
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.