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Sommelier Journal

Cult Wines for Tough Times

By Marlene Rossman


In the olden days (before mid-2008), a label was considered a “cult” wine if it regularly received scores of 95 points or more, was hard to find due to limited production, cost $300 or more at release, and was sold only by mailing list to a few early adopters. These über-fabulous wines would often be “flipped” or sold on the secondary market for two to three times the release price.

We all still want to drink good—no, make that great —wine, but spending hundreds of dollars on a bottle seems a bit obscene nowadays. And to be perfectly honest, is a $750 bottle really 10 times better than a $75 bottle? So what’s a wine geek to do? Take a bottle of wine from the next generation of cult winemakers and call me in the morning.

In this “post-crash” economy, you really need to know about the up-and-coming winemakers who are crafting exquisite wines at reasonable prices. A few of these names may sound vaguely familiar, while others are flying so far below the radar that you’ll need sonar to find them. In any case, you will assuredly be hearing a lot more about these six winemakers. Most of them are young; all are modest, unassuming, and passionate about their art. They’re at the top of their trade; their wines are astonishing, if still little known—and none costs more than $75.

Another attribute shared by these “cultish” winemakers is a non-interventionist philosophy. We’ve all tasted “Frankenwines”—bottlings that have been manipulated with additives and techniques to make them flashier and boost their ratings. The winemakers I’m writing about use craft, not chemicals, to let the terroir shine through. ...


Like Harrison, Humphrey holds no formal winemaking degree; his academic background is in advertising. Before establishing his Eric Kent winery in Sonoma County, he gained experience working for Napa’s Ballentine Vineyards, where he made Cabernet, Merlot, Zinfandel, Syrah, and Chenin Blanc; and at Chasseur, a boutique producer of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in western Sonoma County.

Humphrey credits Bruce Devlin, the winemaker at Ballentine; Bill Hunter, owner and winemaker at Chasseur; and Mike Officer, owner and co-winemaker at Sonoma’s Carlisle Winery & Vineyards, for spending many hours answering every question he threw their way. His Kalen’s Big Boy Blend Syrah has already been acclaimed by the wine press, and his Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs are ethereal. His philosophy: “When the work is done well in the vineyard and nature cooperates, intervention and manipulation are rarely needed.”

Humphrey and his wife, Colleen Teitgen, a former art director, encourage up-and-coming local artists by commissioning them to design the beautiful Eric Kent back labels, as well as by supporting Sonoma arts events.

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