Pass the Kool-Aid: What's The Deal With Cult Wines?

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Cultus. This Latin word is the derivation of two different ideas that come together in wine: worship, reverence or devotion (cult) and labor, tilling, tending (cultivation.) A sociologist will tell you that there is one difference between a “religion” and a “cult” and that is simply how many people believe in it. That’s why Roman Catholicism is a “religion” and Jonestown was a “cult.” Seriously, it’s a statistics issue. Only inherently, the word “cult” simply means a group of worshippers.

“Cult” is a word that is generally not used as a ringing endorsement today. It implies fringe mentalities and zombie-like devotion to or obsession with things, people or ideas that are patently bat-shit crazy to the rest of us. With that in mind, I want to ponder the concept of cult wines for a minute. I’m not a winemaker, oenologist, sommelier, or any kind of empirical authority on what makes a wine special – in fact I reject the notion that pecking orders in the wine aisle are anything like empirical. People like what they like.

So. There are wines that cost a lot of money. There are wines that are produced in very small amounts. There are wines that win the Holy Wine Grail of a 100-point rating from the guy who kicked Dionysus off Olympus and replaced him as the official Wine God, Robert Parker. There are wines that are hard to find, historically significant or just super interesting for some reason. Sometimes a wine is all of these things at once. Fine.

Many of us have a tipping point in terms of what we are willing to spend on a beverage. Maybe it’s $10, maybe it’s $50. (For me, if you are a rosé and you cost significantly more than $15, I really want to know why.) Some people deviate from their usual pattern for special occasions or significant gifts. The most expensive bottle of wine I ever bought was a Brunello, in a restaurant in central Rome on my wedding anniversary. I don’t remember exactly what it cost but the number had three digits and I spent half the meal kind of thrill-ride giddy that we’d actually done it. Other people do this routinely because they have the means and the interest and they enjoy collecting wines the way some people enjoy collecting postage stamps.

This is a philosophical foray, folks. I want to know why certain wines, certain wineries, become so trendy-sought-after-magnifico that you literally cannot obtain their product because there is an 8,000-person waiting list and you are not a movie star. I want someone to explain this to me if there is something I am missing. Let me lay a few stats on you and you tell me.

Screaming Eagle Cabernet, which sells out before the grapes are even crushed, has an average retail price of over $2800.00. Average. There are bottles that sell for many thousands.

Bond estates Cab, listed 37th on a list of the top 50 most expensive wines from California, has an average retail price near $400.00, but bottles sell for $2000 in some cases.

Harlan estates Cab can be yours for anywhere from $800 to $10,000.

Now, let’s say you’re a collector who sees rare wines as an investment. Okay, fair. You’re going to store it, a sort of, um, liquid asset, if you will, and never pull the cork.

How would you feel if you spent 10 grand on a bottle of wine and never got to find out what it tasted like?

Or, say you fully intend to drink it. A really great wine can be a special, even a transcendent experience; I am the first to say it. Um, there are $20 bottles that can blow your mind, and in the $50-100 range there are tons of bottles that can blow your mind. A $75 dollar small batch pinot noir almost made me cry once. The truth is, if you blindfolded someone, or you put the wines in unmarked bottles so no one knew what they were drinking, an overwhelming majority of humans do not have enough taste buds per millimeter on their tongues to identify them by varietal, much less brand. If the Screaming Eagle Cabernet got its label torn off, how much would it be worth then?

So, you’ve got a $500, or $5000, bottle of wine in your hands. You’re going to buy it. Is it because you’re going to resell it to an even bigger doofus for $8000 in a year? Is it because you are going bonkers on a one-time basis to toast your 50th wedding anniversary or some massive milestone? Is it because you are simply fascinated by rarities and things that are considered exquisite by society at large? currently has one bottle of Chateau Latour Pauillac Bordeaux that is selling for $16,500. It is from 1890. Not a typo. Maybe you see owning and displaying that thing the way you would an original Van Gogh or an improbable archaeological artifact. And… well, sure.

Is it because if other people think it’s cool, it must be cool? Is it a thrillseeking thing, spending thousands on something that, while probably very well-crafted, will either end up coated with dust in a cellar, or, not to put too fine a point on it, turn into pee?

I want to know. Because at a certain point, we circle back from cultus, as in cultivation (meaning tending something) to cultus, as in you believe in it because someone charismatic and powerful removed your ability to think for yourself.

And I’m afraid it’s that really bad answer, the one that brought us things like Scientology and Mensa. People are that seduced by anything that gives them the chance to feel like they belong to an exclusive minority of people who are better than everyone else. I don’t want it to be that answer. But I’m concerned. Anyone?