The Wine Blog

Why Cult Wines Have Such a Following

October 31, 2008

by Amy Ullman

The term, “cult wine” is often bandied about by wine lovers. But what, exactly, does the term mean, and how does it get applied to these highly sought-after bottles?

Since the early days of vinous history, there have been scores of delectable, rare and expensive wines, from the lost

Falernnian crus of Ancient Rome, through the Chateau Petrus of contemporary Bordeaux. Yet none of the conspicuous consumers of these delicacies would have characterized their appreciation in religious terms.

That’s because so-called “cult” wines aren’t characterized as such based on religion, history, or a high price point. The term emerged from a perfect storm in the 1980’s and 1990’s that brought together several key elements: A booming economy that created a pool of buyers that never existed before; the rise of Robert Parker and his eponymous scoring system; and an ex

plosion of Napa Valley producers devoted to creating minuscule productions of unique, high quality wines. These components combined, creating new markets, greater demand, and cult-like followings that shape the industry to this day.

Cult wines are often based on Bordelaise red varieties: The robust and earthy trio of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot. But even fans of lighter reds and whites can find something to appreciate about these sacrelicious vinos.

Hallmarks of a cult wine:

  • Small production. The reason behind the hefty price tag? Basic economics: Supply and demand. Once collectors got a taste for these rare beauties, interest skyrocketed. Unfortunately, production maxes out at a few hundred cases per year. Thirsty buyers with big budgets + limited inventory = exorbitant costs.
  • Robust grapes. These hearty babies fare well in a variety of climates, but respond beautifully to balanced soils. So beautifully, in fact, that they’re capable of expressing something known as terroir.

Said otherwise, a Cabernet is not a Cabernet is not a Cabernet. Think of your childhood next-door neighbor, Billy. Or the postman, Bill. Or that rock poet kid in your English lit class named William. All technically have the same name, but factors such as age, origin and environment affect the final product.

  • New world. Although many European or Old World wines have cult followings, cult wines are a product of the new world. Although the most famousproducers like Opus, Screaming Eagle, and Sine Qua Non all hail from California, Australian producers like Grange are also getting in on the act.
  • Wine as an investment. These wines only get better with age (think mutual funds, but tastier). As tempting as it might be to crack it open upon purchase, resist the urge and wait. If you lack willpower, ask a non-wine lover in the family to stash it somewhere safe.
  • Don’t fear “bad” vintages. This is true across the wine world. Even a harvest that fetched less than stellar scores can still produce dynamic, complex, compelling and delicious vino.

But here may be the most golden rule of all. Just because a wine has a cult following, doesn’t mean you will like it. Everyone’s tastes are different. We encourage you, dear Drync-ers, to rate every wine you try, so you can remember what you like… and don’t!  And if you have the pleasure of tasting a wine you think deserves a cult following, add it to your Drync Wish List.


Amy Ullman

Writer Amy Ullman is the irrationally exuberant founder of Wine for Rookies. She received a Bachelor of Liberal Arts from Harvard University in 2009 with concentrations in Economics and French. She holds the title of Certified Sommelier from the Court of Master Sommeliers, a Certified Specialist of Wine through the Society of Wine Educators, and is currently working on her Diploma of Wine and Spirits via the Wine and Spirits Education Trust.