The following blog is based on a piece originally written in the fall of 2018, and has been revised for this Special Edition of WineSpeed devoted to Oakville, Napa Valley.
A recent morning tasting Screaming Eagle has convinced me of one thing: it doesn’t scream. But it does soar with such an incredible lightness of being it hardly seems corporeal. I was more than impressed with the wine. I was moved by it.
Like many others, I have heard Screaming Eagle mocked as the penultimate example of wine hubris. A $1,050 cabernet? A $500 sauvignon blanc? Are they mad? Or just maddeningly narcissistic?
About that, I don’t know. But, during the visit, this part was clear: money is not what comes to mind when you look around.
Screaming Eagle is a small unadorned vineyard dotted by some dilapidated red barns. Not fancy new barns made to look old. Actual worn-down old barns with old pick-up trucks in front of them. And a couple of old black labs splayed out in the cool shade of the trucks. Until a simple crush pad and rectangle of a winery was built, the original owner, Jean Phillips, made wine in a stone building smaller than a single car garage.
At first, I found it hard to understand why this unassuming place makes such uncommonly good wine.
But the answer was all around me. Or more specifically right under my feet. The neighborhood—the sloping eastern hills of Oakville—is home to many prestigious vineyards, and the number of fantastic wines made here would cause anyone to pause and pay attention. Joseph Phelp’s Backus Vineyard is just across the road. Rudd Estate and Gargiulo are neighbors, as is the small Tench Vineyards. You can spot Dalla Valle on the ridge line. Just over the mound is BOND “St. Eden.”
And right there is Screaming Eagle, spooned up against a series of small hills, ensconced in a little cul de sac largely facing north. It’s an advantage in a warm climate where the setting sun can be fierce. “The air patterns flowing around these small hills are part of the magic,” says winemaker Nick Gislason. “In this one little pocket, it’s warmer in spring and cooler in summer. I’ve never seen a site where the grapes hold their freshness so well.”
Gislason is definitely not out of winemaker Central Casting. Slight in frame, gentle in his movements, and with thick glasses and a bushy mane of hair shooting in all directions, he looks more like a philosophy student in college than the person vested with making America’s most expensive wine. But first impressions are of course notoriously undependable and talking with Gislason for a few minutes reveals a man of uncommon thoughtfulness and imagination.
You might expect a winemaker in his position to reference First Growths as models for his cabernets or site the Domaine de la Romanée Conti as the inspiration for a certain elegance. But Gislason’s conceptual and compositional “North Star” is the Lopez Community Fireworks Company (in Washington State) for which he worked as an apprentice when he was a teenager. “If you want people watching fireworks to feel vital and alive,” he says, “you keep a sense of urgency by blowing up a firework just a split second before its apogee. And then, between the individual fireworks, you need carefully chosen space—darkness between light. Creating contrast and tension in fireworks is very similar to wine.”
Standing next to a barrel in the winery, we begin to taste and only then do I realize that the room is missing sounds of any sort of machinery. At that moment, the only sound is the Rolling Stones “Wild Horses” reverberating among the small number of fermentation tanks. “I like dynamic range in music,” says Gislason. “I like it in wine, too.”
Range in wine is something I think I get. A more elusive concept is the idea of space. The only other winemaker I’ve heard use this term is Greg Brewer who began to describe “negative space” in his Sta. Rita Hills chardonnays and pinots more than a decade ago. When I asked Nick Gislason about what I thought was a cashmere softness in the Screaming Eagle cabernet, he said, “It’s not softness per se. It’s space—an openness. There’s a core to the wine, but there’s space inside that core.” I’m still not sure if I understood what he meant, but the wine had richness without concentration; beauty without heaviness.
It was the beginning of the 2018 harvest when I spent time with Gislason. For weeks, the air had been coolish warm and there was little if any humidity—the kind of air that makes your body feel great and the kind of air grapes love if they are going to hang for a while.
It seemed like everyone in the Napa Valley was wired from the waiting—happy but anxious, and holding their collective breaths. How long would this exquisite weather last? “When we feel the trajectory of ripeness ascending, when we feel the freshness, energy, and complexity building, that’s when we are highly alert,” said Gislason. “At some point on that trajectory, it feels like the grapes are going to crest. One day before that, we take them off the vine.”
My notes on the 2015’s are below, but first, some insight on the name Screaming Eagle, as well as some further facts about Oakville.
Screaming Eagles (plural) is the name of the legendary 101st Airborne Division of the Army. The 101st Airborne Division, an elite light infantry division, began as a paratrooper division in WWII. An experimental unit when it was formed, the 101st Airborne was expected to experience up to 80% in fatalities. (It never did). Jean Phillips, who founded the winery, was always vague about her reasons for naming it Screaming Eagle, except to say that as a young girl, that name was very important to her.
In the end I don’t know why Screaming Eagle costs what it does any more than I know why Petrus or the DRC wines cost what they do. But I do know this: wines that emotionally move you are rare. They are wines one should listen to.
The prices below were the prices for these wines as of a year and a half ago when the wines were originally tasted. Today’s prices are higher (some things don’t change) and vary wildly on the market. Anyone in the market for Screaming Eagle should shop around extensively.
THE FLIGHT 2015 (Oakville, Napa Valley, CA) $550
The first vintage so named, The Flight is 55 to 70% merlot from an unusual bed of gravelly cobbles on the eastern edge of the property. (Before this vintage, the wine was called Second Flight). I’ve never tasted a merlot quite like this. Very floral and elegant with notes of wild roses and cranberries, it is anything but the thick cherry-laden merlots that are so common. And in many ways, it’s not like the 2015’s in general which can be closed down behind a steel door at the moment. A springboard of freshness keeps the wine lively on the palate at the same time, there’s magnificent structure. (14.9% abv)
SCREAMING EAGLE Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 (Oakville, Napa Valley, CA) $1,050
Sometimes a wine rushes at you with waves of beautiful fruit. That’s what this 2015 SE does. But fruit is just the beginning. Next comes a gorgeous “lifted” quality—the idea that the flavor is so alive, it soars on the palate … and keeps soaring. There’s a majesty to this wine. The tannin—like the flying buttresses on a cathedral—provides structure, but the impression on tannin is startlingly, languorously soft. (14.8% Abv)
SCREAMING EAGLE Sauvignon Blanc 2015 (Oakville, Napa Valley, CA) $500
I tasted this last, and with just one barrel produced (20 cases), this wine is barely commercial. Made mostly in used oak and aged a long time sur lie, it has a minerals-and-cream texture that I associate with white Burgundy, and yet the flavors are savory sauvignon blanc. Nutty, resiny (like sage), and complex, it’s a white that is part of the revolution in Napa Valley Super Sauvignons akin to the top white Bordeaux. (14.1% abv)
The Oakville appellation in the heart of the Napa Valley, became an American Viticultural Area (AVA) in 1993. The tiny appellation spans the valley east to west for five miles across and two miles north to south. On the eastern side, it rises up the Vaca mountain range to an elevation of 1000 feet; on the western side, the appellation goes up to 500 feet. Just 0.5% of California wine is made here, including many of the most famous wines in the United States.
Vineyards were first established here in the mid 1800s, including the legendary To Kalon Vineyard, the planting of which began in 1868. Today parts of To Kalon are owned by several Oakville wineries, including the Robert Mondavi Winery which was the first winery built in the appellation in the difficult years following Prohibition (it was built in 1966). Today the Oakville Winegrowers Association includes 56 wineries and 17 growers; 95% of these businesses are family owned.