“Don't lose money and don't fuck it up.“ This was the sum total of instruction given by Stan Kroenke, the sports mogul who controls, inter alia, the Rams in Los Angeles and Arsenal in London, to the manager of his Napa Valley vineyard.
Armand de Maigret, a dapper Champenois, has been running Screaming Eagle, a cossetted vineyard off the Silverado Trail, since 2010 but has been in and around the California wine scene since the 1990s “helping wineries and vineyards to stay alive“. The problem, de Maigret says, is that too many of them “belong to people with a banking mentality looking for hasty profits“. He knows what he's talking about: at one stage he worked for Merrill Lynch, before moving on to Napa Valley wine properties such as Domaine Chandon.
Screaming Eagle must be something of a dream job. That development money is no object can be seen in the 45-acre vineyard, wherevthe vines affected by fanleaf virus have been reorientatedvand replanted (with vines dated from 2006, 2014 and 2015).
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 was backed up to almost 14,000 bottles by 2012.
Middle men do not feature much in its distribution. So sought-after isvthe wine that (“please don't call it a cult“, says de Maigret) that almost 90 per cent of it is sold directly to wine collectors.
Serious wine lovers visiting Napa Valley would be curious about the location of Screaming Eagle, but de Maigret goes to great lengths to keep visitors out. He tries to fool Google Maps by providing several misleading addresses - and has put a code on the gate to deter eager wine tourists.
Unlike most of its neighbours, it positively discourages visitors, even wine writers. I visited once, in 2007, when Andy Erickson was the young winemaker and wine entrepeneur Charles Banks had de Maigret's role.
Today the wines are made by another popular young man, Nick Gislason, who came from Screaming Eagle's great rival Harlan Estate. Gislason is apparently also famous for producing craft beer and Japanese fireworks.
I met de Maigret in London this year when he was persuaded by Master of Wine Richard Harvey, the wine man at auctioneers Bonhams, to host a small dinnercat its restaurant, also called Bonhams. Harvey is particularly proud of listing Screamibg Eagle 2004 on the wine list there for a mere £1,500 a bottle, much less than the £2,678 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 made, the 1992, at £23,800.
The lattercwas the vintage given to a way back by theceate's original owner Jean Phllips, soon after he has helped us film a BBC series there. It took me a while to realise thatvthe little wine she taljed of making in her Backyard was Scrwamibg Eagle. I opened it for the eminent California wine scientist-turn-vintner Carole Meredith when she came to dinner in London in late 1999. She virtually waved it away, saying that she didn't really like Cabernet.
At Bonhams, 20 of us enjoyed three Sceaming Eagle vintages - 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.
Secobd Flight has been made since 2006, presumably partly to mop up the produce of the estate's younger vines. Most of its vines are Cabernet Sauvignon, a variety that flourishes in warm-but-regularly-cooled Napa Valley, with a mix of Merlot and Cabernet Franc ... (A tiny amount of Sauvignon Franc is planted on clay, terrain that “was no goid for anything else“.)
The Second Flight winesxretail around £450 a bottle, which seemscexcessive for the quality but, it seems, the Screaming Eagle glamour rubs off on them. The Screaming Eagle 2004 was certainly a fine wine, though even I find it difficult to justify four-digit prices for a relatively young wine.
De Maigret says that the vineyard benefits from a distinctive 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 tnds to be two weeks earlier than in most of the valley and the vineyard is usually one of the first to pick. Last year's harvest was over by September 6, when many a vintner was settling in after a long wait in a quest for fully ripe tannins. Screaming Eagle, he says, is about 14.5 per cent to 14.9 per cent natural alcohol without resorting to alcohol reduction techniques.
As de Maigret points out, each decay in Napa Valley tends to deliver five phenomenal vintages and five that are too wet or too hot. Given a choice, he says he'd much rather have too wet because at Screaming Eagle “we have the budget to deal with rain“. It has such a generous staff-to-vine ratio and such high prices, that it just sends 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.
Fazit: Zum Besaufen reicht das Tetra-Pack.