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Death to the “Cult” and Birth of the Domestic First Growth

One of the more interesting aspects of the domestic wine world over the last fifteen years has been the phenomenon of the “cult” winery. 

You can count the true “cult” wineries on two hands.  Denoted by critical success, reputation, limited volume, inelastic demand with wait lists, and profitable aftermarket value, you can almost name them off the top of your head – Harlan, Screaming Eagle, Scarecrow, Colgin, Bryant, Dalla Valle, Hundred Acre, Araujo … The rest of the hundreds of wineries that suggest they are of “cult” status are a mix of allocated wineries trying to up the ante and some wannabes that want to be allocated. Some have the pedigree to emerge into this classification.  Most do not.

The net outcome based on those that wear the crown and those that desire to ascend to the throne is a real dilution in the meaning of “cult” wine.  This meaning has been further diluted by the lingering economic malaise that has also metaphorically centrifuged the contenders from the pretenders.

This brief reflection would be apropos to nothing were it not for a couple of emails I received from a flash wine site recently that described an unknown Paso wine with its “cult-like” following.  This did nothing but reinforce the “contender from the pretender” notion in my mind.  Just as the denizens of a Phish concert gives off a wafting hint of b.o. intermingled with da kine, a flash wine sale for a wine with a “cult-like” following at 60% off of list price gives off a hint of b.s. intermingled with desperation.


The reality is that the word, “cult” like “boutique” before it, and “artisan” in the near future has become meaningless: An unoriginal euphemistic phrase no more convincing than calling a used car a “pre-owned” vehicle.

We’re not fooled by the phrasing.

In the wake of the co-opting of a phrase that has been stripped of meaning coupled with an economic environment that has re-calibrated most wine price points and demand to rational levels, I think what we’re subtly seeing is the very early emergence of a New World Order in the domestic wine world, at least as far as the inelastic upper echelon of wine is concerned. 

Borne out of necessity, true “cult” wines are morphing into a new category:  a Premier Cru class; – a Domestic First Growth equivalent – both in perception and reality.

While this isn’t the time nor place to discuss the differences in between a French classification system that is based on tradition and history and a U.S. based system that rewards vision and moxie, I will note that any winery in this lofty position has to carefully navigate the gauche indelicacy of outright calling themselves a Domestic First Growth wine.  That designation has to be anointed just as they were anointed as a so-called cult wine(ry). 

However, wineries can and do politely suggest, via their vision, that this is the case, as Tim Mondavi has done when he says at the Continuum web site, “Our goal at Continuum Estate is to produce a single wine to be recognized among the finest in the world.”  Continuum is one of a select few wineries that aren’t yet mentioned in the same breath as Harlan, but for whom their potential will surely place them in this category in the next couple of vintages.

Combining premium location, a singular focus, a ‘spare no expense’ meticulousness to detail that would make an OCD man anxious, we’re starting to see the germinating market elements with these wineries who are not only emboldened coming out of the recession, but also the beneficiary of some wind at their back by virtue of the French first growth wine sales in Asia.

Call it an educated hunch:  Humans love mental order and things that fit into a realm of understanding.  With a re-balanced demand curve, a very muddled “cult” meaning, and upper-tier wineries that have effectively shaken the ankle-biters that are other would-be elite wines, we’re going to see the emergence of a new classification of Napa wine – they’ll be geographically clustered (Pritchard Hill, for example), they’ll be expensive, they’ll be scarce and they’ll be the future darling of the insatiable luxury wine market in Asia in the not too distant future.

Call these wines the scourge of the everyman, call them Domestic First Growths (DFG), just don’t call them, “cults” a phraseology that has lost its relevance in the wine world.


Posted in, Good Grape Daily: Pomace & Lees. Permalink | Comments (15) |


On 04/22, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) wrote:

I can see a To Kalon marketing group forming up, and marketing themselves to the Asian markets.  In fact, they’d be stupid not to.  With very few players within the group, it would be very easy to maintain the quality and exclusivity a group like this would require.  The trick is to keeping the group small and exclusive to keep out the riff-raff, so to speak.

On 04/22, The Grumpy Winemaker wrote:

“First, I cannot be. Second, I do not deign to be. Mouton I am.”

It just sounded appropriate.


On 04/23, David Rossi wrote:

Well said.  Being a cult wine(or a cult anything) is like catching lightening in a bottle.  It happens very rarely and it can’t be predicted or planned for.  Better that wineries stick with a vision, work hard and build a solid base of business than hope to be the next cult phenomenon.

It is a fluke, not a business model.

On 04/24, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) wrote:

Call me what you will, but I have never been interested in these cult wineries.  I feel like these wineries built their reputation on scarcity and price, not quality juice.  Remember, the “first growths” were ranked by the quality of their vineyards, not by the popularity of their wines.

If I was going to create a list of California “first growths”, I would look at wineries like Stags Leap Wine Cellars, Joseph Phelps, and Ridge; rather than Screaming Eagle or Harlan.

On 04/25, David Honig wrote:


You once again demonstrate why I think you are the best wine thinkers and writers today.


On 04/25, 1WineDude wrote:

Thought-provoking stuff, bro.

I agree with you on Continuum, btw.

A European wine mag. did a thing on Napa first growths not too long ago - worth looking up (would search & post a link but I am running out of free time here as it is!).

Regarding To Kalon publicizing in Asia, Opus One has just hired some staff for the Asian market, which seems pretty close to the concept… should be interesting to see what happens.


On 04/25, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) wrote:

Great article. Too many pretenders out there and many of us on the wholesale side are also responsible for using the terms boutique and cult inappropriately.

In response to Portland’s post, the first growths of Bordeaux were originally classified by the prices they demanded on the market.  They always have had the best or should I say worst soil which incidentally created the opportunity for the finest wines.

On 04/25, Christian Miller wrote:

Yup; pretty safe to say that one of the definitions of cult wine would be “does not appear on flash sales sights.”

On 04/25, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) wrote:


    You are correct sir.  I was thinking of the Burgundy rankings.  Ten points for you.

On 05/02, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) wrote:

To Portland: I would stet stag’s leap and jospeh phelps (unless you are referring to isignia) off that list. Guys like stag’s leap, Montelena and silver oak don’t actually produce consistently exceptional wines (at least not anymore), they produce good wines (low 90pts).

I do agree with this article, since you could potentially call every small production wine a “cult” wine, but I was slightly turned off by the tone, felt kind of snobbish. 

Also, where do the wineries that have low production volumes, a dedicated following and consistent track record of producing solid wines (both regular and reserve labels) fall? examples would be Pride, Conn Valley, Larkmead, Andrew Will, Carlisle?

On 05/02, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) wrote:

My point about the wineries I listed is that they have track records too of producing beautiful wines and have a strong following but are priced at more affordable levels ($50-$100).

On 05/02, Jeff wrote:


Thanks for commenting.  Apologies if it felt snobbish.  The online wine blog jetstream can be insider-ish; I hope that isn’t a turn-off as I do try to be inclusive to wine enthusiasts of all stripes.

That said, There’s a difference between a cult winery, an allocated winery and a winery that has a bottling that the wine club really likes—which is what I think you’re getting at with Larkmead, Carlisle, et al.

There are different striations in the market and not all of them are apparent at first blush.

At any rate, thanks for reading and I do hope you’ll come back and comment again.


On 05/03, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) wrote:

I am certainly willing to debate the specific wineries I listed.  I don’t drink a lot of Stag’s Leap, and I am not really a fan of Silver Oak.  I have tried a wide selection of Jospeh Phelps wines, and his cabs are consistently excellent, regardless of score.

I will say that wineries like Andrew Will do not deserve “first growth” status because they are negociants.  I think you should have to have a vineyard to be considered a “first growth”.  And while wineries like Pride or Carlisle have made some great wines, I don’t know that they are “first growth” status. 

I think pedigree matters, which is why I included Stags Leap and J. Phelps.  I would even consider Mondavi or Montelena, who still produce excellent wines, even if they have fallen out of favor with current wine critics.

On 05/05, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) wrote:


i had the same general idea in mind of listing wineries that were generally consistent and reasonably priced.  as somebody pointed out to me, the orginal first-growths were based on price and demand, not quality juice.  that’s why the original post of about the new “domestic first growths” has only increased in relevance since debating the list on this thread.

my new question for the thread (if anyone is still reading) is, “what are the new ‘second-growth’ wineries”? does owen roe and penner-ash qualify for the oregon “second-growths”? or do less-established but more cultish wineries like big table farms make the cut?

On 05/17, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) wrote:

Great responses.  I suppose if we are going by the definition of first growths than negociatants wouldn’t apply.  The broader question I ask myself is this: is the US better off with a formal classification? Which would I prefer? I’m not quite sure.  It would certainly bring up prices further.

On one hand, I kind of enjoy the sea of ambiguity when it comes to “knowing” of a nice cult winery, even if the wine doesn’t drive prices through the roof.  At the same time, there is an exclusivity to owning a bottle of Margaux. I recently tried an ‘83 M. Roth. And an ‘86 margaux at a restaurant (not on my dime) among 4-5 other french wines and my honest opinion was that while those wines were truly unqiue and amazing, they did not reach level of tasting pleasure as the most impactful wines I’ve drank (Cardinale 2000 meritage / 2007 Clos du Papes).  My assessment still is that what is sexier than formal ranking is being “in the know” of wines that might fly under the radar of a an everyday consumer who will know and perhaps buy a wine (if he has deep enough wallets) based on popular buzz words and brand.

What do you guys think?


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