This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times. See also my tasting notes on Harlan Estate and Screaming Eagle.
What do Arsenal football club, the St Louis Rams and the Denver Nuggets have in common with the Napa Valley's most expensive wine? They are all part of the investment portfolio of Stan Kroenke, who was persuaded to diversify from sport and real estate into wine in 2003 by Charles Banks, now 40 and a money manager for top-drawer athletes.
Come to think of it, Screaming Eagle, the wine property they bought from its founder Jean Phillips in March 2006, sounds like a sporting hero. And in the world of wine, Screaming Eagle is indeed famous for its record-beating properties – but in the saleroom rather than on track or field. Screaming Eagle is a legend, and the legend is almost invariably told by people who have never tasted it. Since only a few thousand bottles are made every year – just 400 dozen in 2005 for example – this is hardly surprising. To buy it you have to be on the list of faithful customers who are allocated, not sold, a few bottles every year. When the opening price for the 2003 went up from $300 to $500 a bottle, only half a dozen buyers baulked at the new price because they know how easy it is to sell it on at a profit. One Silicon Valley bidder paid half a million dollars for one six-litre bottle of the first vintage 1992 at the 2000 Napa Valley Wine Auction, one of America's famous charity events to which Jean Phillips was especially generous during her tenure.
I feel rather embarrassed by the story of her ascent to wine stardom. She was basically a Napa Valley real estate agent and was particularly kind to us when we were filming a BBC television series there in the mid 1990s, showing us useful locations, making introductions and so on. She took us back to her ranch house overlooking a bowl of vines just off the Silverado Trail one day and told us en passant that while she sold most of her grapes to others, she was developing her own little label too. She even showed me the miniature winery set into a hillside where her friend Heidi Peterson Barrett made it for her. It was not until several years after our series was eventually broadcast that I put two and two together – or rather noticed that Jean's then email address was email@example.com.
As the 21st century wore on, Jean reached a bit of a crossroads, however. She married and, unrelatedly, fanleaf virus spread through her vines from a neighbouring vineyard. Major replanting was needed and, somehow, Charles Banks managed to persuade her that he and Stan were the people to take Screaming Eagle on to its next phase. "When I was establishing my vineyard in Santa Barbara I looked at a few vineyard management companies but Tom Prentice of Cropcare and I really bonded. He came to me and said I really want you to meet Jean Phillips. We instantly saw eye to eye on what was needed," says Banks. "She's a very humble person who believes passionately in the magic of the property, with its special soils and wind coming up from valley floor. We hit it off. She understood it was this really interesting phenomenon – investors buying into Napa Valley wine not for a nice lifestyle but to make great wine over the long term. And sometimes anyway you just need fresh blood. Our replanting program doesn't make economic sense. Over the next two to three years it's a disaster. But over 20 years we have the chance to build one of the great wine brands of the world."
Some would say little building work is needed but at the moment only 18 of the property's 54 acres are in production with more virused vines still to be ripped out. Only 10 acres are currently going into Screaming Eagle, I was told by Banks's winemaker Andy Erickson as we looked over the vineyard bowl in which, even at harvest time, the red volcanic earth was all too evident, thanks to the many blocks that were either bare or planted with only the tiniest of cuttings. Erickson and his viticulturist wife Annie Favia clearly regard themselves as guardians of paradise – as well they might with the Phillips reputation and the Kroenke/Banks budget behind them. Mid Westerner Erickson was turned on to wine in the Haute Savoie, worked in Argentina, is a protégé of experienced Napa Valley winemaker John Kongsgaard and now also makes Arietta, consults at Dalla Valle and Hartwell and is involved with a project called Ovid uphill of Dalla Valle. He initially helped Charles Banks with his Santa Barbara wine venture Jonata (pronounced Ho-na-ta).
Favia worked in the winery with Cathy Corison, one of the Napa Valley's gentler winemakers, for two years before deciding that she wanted to be "less cold and wet" so moved out into the vineyard and has since worked with the valley's most famous viticulturist David Abreu. During my visit last September she could hardly stop herself fondling the three-inch high 420A rootstocks that had gone into the red soil awaiting grafting in the spring. The plan is not only to re-orientate the rows, leading to an interesting patchwork of diagonals, according to complex computer modelling of the site designed to even the ripening process on both sides of the trellis and minimise sunburn, but also to increase plantings of Banks's favoured Cabernet Franc at the expense of Merlot – although Cabernet Sauvignon will always be the mainstay. The long term aim is to farm organically and presumably to upgrade the vineyard so that a much higher proportion of the grapes can go into Screaming Eagle – although they admit that there's a low-lying parcel on the west side of the property that will never be suitable. Average production used to be 750 cases of a dozen bottles but Banks admits it will probably be up to 600 or 700 for the 2006 after the very short 2005 crop.
Although there can be no guarantee of a virus-free future, the soil has been inoculated against fanleaf and the new cuttings, needless to say, have been chosen with extreme care. Young vines are not generally associated with wine quality, however, so how will the new, replanted Screaming Eagle manage to maintain its reputation? According to Banks, that fabuloulsly expensive Screaming Eagle 1992 was made from four year-old vines. And anyway, "Hey, look. Spend a day at Château Latour [which he does from time to time]. Even there they believe there's room for improvement. I believe there's tons of room for improvement in the Napa Valley even if there are a lot of winemakers who don't get that."
Meanwhile the heavenly pair, crucially assisted, as routinely in California, by a Mexican foreman – in this case Jorge Delgado who makes early morning soup for the picking crew once they have finished their work under the towable lights during harvest – wander round their playground with jaws still virtually agape at their luck. Jean Phillips' old house is being torn down and a new winery will be built "but it definitely won't be a temple", I was assured. The property even has sufficient water to allow them to create mist to cool down the vines if necessary – this in addition to an anti-frost sprinkling system. "Jean has amazing intuition. Look at this soil, five foot deep above alluvial – it's the sort you dream about for Cabernet Sauvignon. It's like farming on a steep rocky hillside without being on a hillside. Jean just had a nose for it. She found properties for the likes of Dalla Valle and Harlan."
Over on the other side of the valley at Harlan Estate, whose release price has also just rocketed up in price from $350 to a bargain $450 a bottle, the team were clearly rather surprised by Banks's raid on Screaming Eagle. He had long been one of the more familiar names on the Harlan mailing list and is a partner with Bill Harlan in his wizard new wheeze Napa Valley Reserve, a playground at the gates of Meadowood resort for millionaire weekend winemakers.
At least Banks understands the temptations of being on such a mailing list, the Screaming Eagle one now overseen by popular wine auctioneer Ursula 'Gavelgal' Hermacinski. "I'm okay with the guy who has to sell one bottle out of his three to afford the two", he says. But I suspect there are many on that list who sell all three and may even still be under the impression that if the price is gigantic, the wine must be too. As one who has been lucky enough to taste both the Phillips and new regime vintages of Screaming Eagle, I can report that that little hollow does indeed have its own very distinct character that manages particularly pure expression – very far from a simple fruit bomb. "Winemaking's very simple," Erickson told me. "It's basically all Annie and Jorge."
Banks has his own views on Napa Valley Cabernet. "Too many California wines tend to be over-extracted, overripe and porty. I don't particularly like them. What makes great wine is balance, elegance and finesse. Our fruit tends to be more understated. I really appreciate the complexity of Screaming Eagle and always have." It will be easy for observers to claim that as more of the vineyard goes into Screaming Eagle, the style and quality of the wine have changed. I wonder how many of them will actually be able and willing to pull corks to find out.
See my tasting notes on Screaming Eagle and on Harlan Estate – given away at $450 a bottle on release!