A rather shorter version of this article is published by the Financial Times.
'Don't lose money and don't fuck it up.' This was the sum total of instructions given to the manager of the vineyard making Napa Valley's most expensive wine by its owner Stan Kroenke, the sports mogul who also controls, inter alia, the Rams in Los Angeles and Arsenal in London.
The dapper Champenois Armand de Maigret has been running Screaming Eagle since 2010 but has been in and around the California wine scene since the 1990s 'helping wineries and vineyards to stay alive. The problem is that too many of them belong to people with a banking mentality looking for hasty profits.'
He knows what he's talking about because at one stage he worked for Merrill Lynch but since then has been associated with Napa Valley wine properties such as Domaine Chandon and those owned by the flamboyant Jess Jackson. But Screaming Eagle must be something of a dream job. That money is no object can be seen by the fact that about half of the 45-acre vineyard, particularly the vines affected by fanleaf virus, has been re-orientated and replanted – with vines dating from 2006, 2014 and 2015 – and the site has a new set of buildings.
But then the property is pretty good at generating income. Bottles of Screaming Eagle retail from around £1,000 apiece and production of this Cabernet Sauvignon ('please don't call it a cult') was back up to almost 14,000 bottles by 2012. Nor do middle men feature much in Screaming Eagle's distribution. So sought-after is the wine that almost 90% of it is initially sold direct to a certain subgroup of wine collectors for whom managing to get an annual allocation of the wine is akin to snagging a private audience with Warren Buffett. To judge from the number of listings on wine-searcher.com, however, many of these collectors must flip their precious bottles.
Any serious wine lover visiting Napa Valley would surely be curious about the whereabouts of this cossetted vineyard in a hollow off the Silverado Trail, but de Maigret goes to great lengths to keep visitors out. He tries to fool Google maps by providing several misleading addresses – and has had to put an access code on the gate in answer to an excess of eager wine tourists. He liked my suggestion that 1855 might be an appropriate code.
Indeed the recent news about Screaming Eagle has been the lack of news. Unlike most of their neighbours, they positively discourage visitors, even wine writers. I visited the property once back in 2007 when Andy Erickson was the young winemaker, and wine entrepreneur Charles Banks had de Maigret's role, but today the wines are made by another popular young man, Nick Gislason (the name is Icelandic; he came from Screaming Eagle's great rival Harlan Estate), this one apparently as famous for producing craft beer and Japanese fireworks as wine.
I met de Maigret in London earlier this year when he was persuaded by auctioneers Bonham's wine man, Master of Wine Richard Harvey, to host a small dinner in their Michelin-starred restaurant. Harvey is particularly proud of listing Screaming Eagle 2004 on the wine list there for a mere £1,500 a bottle, much less than the £2,678.80 asked at the luxurious Hedonism wine store down the road - which lists multiple vintages of it, including a three-bottle case of the second vintage ever made, the 1992, at £23,800. One bidder paid $500,000 for a five-litre bottle of Screaming Eagle 1992 at the 2000 Napa Valley wine auction.
This was the vintage given to me way back by the original owner of the estate, Napa Valley realtor Jean Phillips, soon after she had helped us film a BBC TV series there. It took me a while to realise that the little wine she talked of making in her back yard was the famous Screaming Eagle. I opened it for the eminent California wine scientist-turned-vintner Carole Meredith when she came to dinner with us in London in late 1999. She virtually waved it away, saying she didn't really like Cabernet. Australian wine writer James Halliday was more appreciative.
At Bonhams 20 of us enjoyed three vintages of Screaming Eagle – 2006, 2004 and 1999 – two vintages of the property's Merlot-based wine Second Flight, and Screaming Eagle Sauvignon Blanc 2013, of which precisely two barrels were made.
Second Flight has been made since 2006, presumably partly to mop up the produce of their younger vines. The majority of the estate's vines are Cabernet Sauvignon, the variety that so obviously flourishes in the warm-but-regularly-cooled Napa Valley, with a mix of Merlot with Cabernet Franc making up most of the rest. The tiny amount of Sauvignon Blanc is planted on clay, terrain that 'was no good for anything else'.
The Second Flight wines retail at around £450 a bottle, which seems excessive for the quality, but presumably the Screaming Eagle glamour rubs off on them. The 2004 Screaming Eagle was certainly a fine wine by any measure, though even I find it difficult to justify four-digit prices for a bottle of relatively young wine. But I'm sure that de Maigret's team could not put more effort into maximising quality. The vineyard has been meticulously divided, California style, into 45 different blocks, each vinified separately.
De Maigret claims that their vineyard alone benefits from a combination of great drainage and an afternoon breeze that makes it cooler in summer and warmer in winter than its neighbours. The vine flowering here tends to be two weeks earlier than in most of the valley and they are usually one of the first to pick. Last year's harvest was over by 6 September, for instance, when many a vintner was settling in for prolonged hang time in a quest for fully ripe tannins. Screaming Eagle, he says, is generally about 14.5 to 14.9% natural alcohol without resorting to the alcohol reduction techniques that have become so common. (A new tax bracket kicks in at 15%; 14.9% is a common alcoholic strength in California wine.)
As de Maigret points out, each decade in Napa Valley tends to deliver five phenomenal vintages and five that are either too hot or too wet. 'In Champagne they have only about three good vintages every decade yet they all drive BMWs.' Given a choice between a vintage that is too wet or too hot, he says he'd much rather have the former because at Screaming Eagle 'we have the budget to deal with rain'. They have such a generous staff to vine ratio, and such high prices, that they just send the troops into the vineyard to remove any damaged fruit. 'But we can't protect against too much sun; I'd give anything for another 2011', he told me, referring to what most California vintners regarded as the mouldy vintage from hell.
See my recent tasting notes.
SOME TOP NAPA VALLEY CABERNETS
The following wines were cited by Screaming Eagle estate manager Armand de Maigret as some of his favourite Napa Valley Cabernets.