Napa Diary Day 15: The Refinement of Screaming Eagle

By far California’s most famous (and expensive) cult wine, Screaming Eagle has a very discrete entrance off Silverado Trail with only the number to indicate the address. There is nothing remarkable to see across the slightly sloping vineyard, and winery buildings are workmanlike wooden structures without any of the flamboyance of the price of the wine.

Nick Gislason came as winemaker in 2010 and takes a pragmatic view to viticulture and winemaking. “We are a low-tech operation,” he says. Harvest is determined by tasting, not by technical details, although sugar levels and acidity are measured to have a record. The vineyard is divided into roughly 1 acre lots for picking, so there are about 50 different fermentations. This is an early ripening site, but even so, they are early pickers here, usually a week to ten days ahead of everyone else.

About half the vineyard was replanted in 2006, with the row orientation changed slightly, and spacing increased from 550-600 vines/acre to 2,300 vines/acre. Another 4 acres were replanted in 2014, and 2 acres in 2021, with wider spacing. It all depends what suits the spot. The proportions of the three black varieties in the vineyard, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot, have stayed the same.

Viticulture has moved to a no-till system. “If you mow or till, what do the insects have to eat except the vines,” Nick says, as we walk the vineyard, pointing to cover crops that harbor a variety of predators that prey on insects that might attack the grapes. There hasn’t been a tractor anywhere in the vineyard since October 2020.

Trials to eliminate spraying for mildew started with 2 acres in 2014 and have now extended to the whole vineyard. The vineyard has been fitted with a clever system for spore trapping for mildew. (It’s about the only example of anything remotely hi-tech in the place.) It consists of a spinning rotor that is coated with grease, which picks up spores. The rotor is sent off every week for DNA analysis, and spraying is done only if a density of spores is detected. There are 4 in the vineyard, placed at points where mildew pressure has been experienced previously, but Nick thinks that one would probably be enough. There has not been any need to spray this season.

Powered by a solar panel, the spinning rotor is coated with grease and catches mildew spores.

The winery (completed in 2010) is quite compact, with a fermentation hall and barrel room. There’s a mixture of wood and concrete fermenters, all in a conical shape, but Nick doesn’t attach much importance to the type of vessel. Almost everything is destemmed. There’ve been some trials with whole clusters, so there may be a tank with 10-15%, but this amounts to only a small proportion of the total blend. After cold soak for a week, fermentation now takes place with native yeasts. The blend is made after 15 months. Depending on the year, one or two barrels of press wine might be added to the blend.

There are two red cuvées. Screaming Eagle is usually 75-85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3-4% Cabernet Franc, and the rest is Merlot. Originally this was the only wine. But this comes from only part of the crop. Before Stanley Kroenke bought the estate in 2006, a large part of the crop, including most of the Merlot, was sold off, because the original winery had limited capacity. After the sale in 2006, they began to use all the crop. “We had the choice of changing the blend of Screaming Eagle, or making another wine with the Merlot,” Nick explains.

“We made a wine based on the Merlot from 2006 to 2011 and then decided in 2011 to release the wine.” The first release was a pack of two bottles each from 2006-2009, and it was called Second Flight. “But the name didn’t feel right since we were putting the same effort into the Merlot-based wine as we put into the Cabernet Sauvignon-based wine, so we changed it to Flight (in 2015). It’s an expression of a different variety.” Flight is usually 60-70% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc, and the rest is Cabernet Sauvignon. Production of Screaming Eagle and Flight is roughly equal.

The surprise when you taste Screaming Eagle, if you are not familiar with the wine, is that it does not at all fit the image of the typical Napa cult wine: big, bold, and powerful. Instead, what comes across most of all is the sheen of refinement. Supple tannins make it approachable even in the first few years, although its black fruit palate is quite reserved. Flight is more open, showing more perfumed, lifted aromatics, but shows the same house style of smoothness melding into elegance.

An updated profile will be included in the 2022 edition of the Guide to Napa.

Tasting the 2016 Vintage

Screaming Eagle
Sterner nose than Flight, with black fruit aromatics not so lifted and more in background. Smooth and elegant on palate, touch of tobacco on gravelly finish with hints of chocolate coating. Very supple tannins make it possible to drink already, but I would wait at least a couple of years. Tannins are very fine indeed and evidenced directly only by some residual dryness on finish. A fresh, restrained style, starting off relatively tight, but promising elegance and even delicacy as it develops.  95 Drink 2023-2040

Flight
Opens with slightly lifted blueberry and blackberry aromatics giving a smooth impression. Palate offers faint sense of tannic bitterness and some hints of tobacco at end. Nick Gislason describes fruits as floral; they are supported by good freshness. Already quite flavorful on palate. Overall quite a delicate impression for Merlot.   93 Drink -2031