California Cult Wines' Second Labels

It has been some time since I have devoted a column to wine, but with spring in the air this past week in New York City and most of my favorite California vineyards accepting orders for March or April shipping, I have decided to focus my attention on northern California Cult wines second labels. The second label wine concept goes back to the French classification system for 5 classified growths, which was established during the reign of Emperor Napoleon III to coincide with the 1855 Exposition Universelle de Paris. Over the years, a second label or second wine became a way to profitably release wines that were often from different vines than the first growth releases, or in some years when poor weather conspired against a first growth release and only a second label would be released. Two examples of French first growth second labels would be:

Chateau Latour (1st Growth) / Les Forts de Latour (2nd Label)

Chateau Mouton Rothschild (1st Growth) / Le Petit Mouton de Mouton Rothschild (2nd Label)

Many, but not all, California Cult wines have followed this tradition. For example, Screaming Eagle does not offer a second label. I would not be surprised, though, if this changes over time. (Since E. Stan Kroenke bought the vineyard from Jean Phillips several years ago, production has risen modestly from approximately 500 cases per year to 680 for the 2008 release.) The 2007 vintage of Screaming Eagle received a perfect 100 score from Robert Parker, while the current release, 2008, received a 96-98 score and their availability even to their mailing list clients remains very limited, usually three bottles.

I was reminded of the overall quality and pleasure these second labels can provide when Mary Claire and I were looking for something special to have with dinner last weekend that required a significant Cabernet Sauvignon wine. I looked through my New York City wine collection and decided on a 2004 Harlan Maiden (RP95). (Parker rated the 2004 Harlan Estate 98.) The wine did not disappoint. While bold, its nose and overall balance were superb. When I order my limited allocation of Harlan Estate each year, I also make certain to order the current release of the Harlan Maiden. The wonderful 2007 vintage of the Harlan Estate was rated 100 by Parker, while the Maiden received a 93. The Maiden will ship this spring.

Some vineyards provide a limited release second label for their mailing list customers. For example, Bryant Family Vineyard, another favorite, this year released a second label DB4. This release costs $90 per bottle and can only be purchased in 1/2 case lots. This compares with their first release, which costs $325 per bottle and was rated 94 by Parker. Parker has not rated the DB4 past releases (2004-2006), but I can tell you from my own experience that these are superb wines that would clearly rate 90-92.

To be able to purchase these second labels from the leading wine producers in Napa Valley you need to be patient and get on their mailing lists. Most often you start on a waiting list that can take several years to clear, but the wait is worth it and over time you will come to enjoy both their first and second label superb offerings!