Working as a sommelier for one of Hawaii’s best restaurants, this was the most popular question I received on the floor. Forget the 500 other selections — people wanted to know about the most expensive wine on the list, the 2005 Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley. I could never answer that question directly, but I knew how to answer it professionally.
Listen to the sommelier shtick: “Screaming Eagle is the most famous ‘California cult’ wine. An obscenely small case production rated a perfect 100 points multiple times and made by a legend in California winemaking: Heidi Barrett. 2005 was the last vintage produced by Barrett, so I’m sure it should be valued as a collector’s item now that Screaming Eagle has quadrupled in size and sold to an evil empire.” Blah, blah, blah. But that was normally enough to satisfy a typical wine connoisseur.
When I heard that Heidi Barrett was coming to Hawaii on a short business trip I had to find a way to meet her. Maybe then I could finally find a proper way to answer that infamous inquiry. Tasting through her new projects over lunch, I grilled her with questions in an attempt to understand how she conquered the California wine community.
A quick primer on Heidi’s background. Robert Parker refers to her as “the first lady of wine,” and Time Magazine dubbed her, “the wine diva of Napa.” Other than Screaming Eagle, she has made wine with a host of top California properties and now has her own label, La Sirena. She may have single-handedly started the empowered female winemaker revolution.
You know that movie Bottle Shock? That’s her husband, Bo Barrett. Heck, she even assisted in the creation of that silly “aroma wheel” while studying wine at the University of California at Davis. In summation, a certifiable bad ass.
At lunch, I quickly asked her the three thousand dollar question: Why are you so damn successful?
“Consistency, dedication and blending,” was her answer. The consistency and dedication part is something my junior varsity soccer coach taught me, but blending? Heidi explained the key to her winemaking style is delivering “a perfect count-of-six tasting experience.” According to her philosophy, a world class wine should have a harmonious beginning (1-2 seconds), mid palate (3-4) and finish (5-6 and beyond). Certain vineyards supply better beginnings, while specific varietals provide the ideal finish.
“Consistently creating the ‘count of six’ experience is where I earn my keep,” she said. “That’s where the fun is.”
Listening to Heidi describe her craft is enough to make anyone want to pop the cork on a bottle of Screaming Eagle. Now let’s finally, directly, answer our initial question: is Screaming Eagle really worth $3,000?
That’s because you can experience her brilliant winemaking style for significantly less. Here’s a sampling of three wines from her new projects worth seeking out:
Fantesca Estate & Winery Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, CA 2007 $120 restaurant price
Heidi just took over this operation and most hipsters aren’t yet aware of the connection. As a result, the price has yet to skyrocket. A prototypical California Cabernet with big, jammy flavors of blackberry and red cherry. Subtle layers of toasty oak round out a velvety mouth feel. Although Barrett was not on board for the grape-picking during the 2007 vintage, she did the blending, and we all know what that means. This wine may become my new secret weapon.
Amuse Bouche, Napa Valley, CA 2007 (any vintage works) $400 restaurant price
I realize $400 is not cheap, but compared to a $3,000 price tag, Amuse Bouche is the best way to try Heidi’s high-end blending mixology. Primarily Merlot, with a touch of Cabernet Franc, this wine is revered by wine critics every vintage and really showcases Heidi’s genius. A huge bomb of a wine intended to be the icing on the cake of a celebratory evening. A wine described by the humble Barrett as, “sort of a cult wine, I guess.”
La Sirena Moscato Azul, Napa Valley, CA 2010 $55 restaurant price
Listening to Barrett describe her Moscato was like listening to a long-time resident of Hawaii. Initially she referred to it as, “Hawaii in a bottle,” for possessing light tropical notes and a soaring acidity that pairs nicely with our daily weather. Moving into food pairing ideas, she pointed out that the wine is meant for, “Pacific Rim cuisine, full of spiced nuances and gentle balance.” “Mango salsa,” in a glass.
California wine country is full of lesser known winemakers whose only “consistency and dedication” is to marketing their egos and overplaying their mysterious viticultural practices. It’s refreshing to meet someone as accomplished as Heidi Barrett and discover nothing more than a hard-working savvy business woman with a down-played gift. It’s even more refreshing to hear that she had to leave her Hawaii lunch because she’s “a big time scuba diver.”
Cass is a Certified Specialist of Wine, Certified Specialist of Spirits and Advanced Sommelier. Follow him @TheWineCastle