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

Bring Back the Merlot

I got to thinking about Merlot when I was tasting Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa last week. Now I have never been much of a fan of Merlot, I’m not an enthusiast for Pomerol, for example, because I find those fat lush fruits less interesting than the more restrained flavors of Cabernet-dominated blends in the Medoc. And even though the last couple of vintages have had their problems in Napa, I think it’s a fair point that the extra ripeness that Cabernet achieves there may make it unnecessary to fill in the mid palate with Merlot the way that has been traditional in Bordeaux. Although at the Napa Premiere tasting of the 2007, 2008, and 2009 vintages, it seemed to me that more than a few of the Cabernets (especially from 2008 and 2009) cried out for some Merlot on the mid palate (or cried out for something closer to 20% than the 10% they actually had). But it wasn’t so much the younger wines that made me think about the virtues of Merlot as the older ones that I tasted during the week, ranging from 1985 through to 1995.

Many of the older wines had a really sparse quality, a sort of Spartan palate, with the bare bones of tannic structure poking through the black fruits of Cabernet. No matter how delicious and full of fruit those wines were when young,  age may not have exactly withered them, but certainly it allowed the full austerity of Cabernet show through. The other striking feature was that although they had certainly matured, with the fruits lightening and changing from primary to secondary aromas and flavors, in very few cases was there much evidence of that delicious savory quality to which Bordeaux turns when old. It seems to me that the development of savory qualities, extending to what the French call sous bois (forest floor) is needed to compensate for the lightening of fruit flavors as the wine ages. I have begin to wonder whether this is something that happens more naturally with Merlot, or with a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, than with  Cabernet alone. I discussed a direct example of this previously in The Retarded Development of Cabernet Sauvignon. I think it is more difficult to find examples of pure Cabernet Sauvignon that has aged interestingly than blends.

Not that Merlot is dispensable in young wines; in can add refinement and elegance – but there’s a rub. Merlot is rarely planted on the best terroirs. If you ask in Bordeaux about the match between variety and terroir, the answer is usually that each variety is planted on the terroir that’s best for it. But the fact is that Cabernet is planted on the best terroirs – the gravel mounds – and Merlot is planted on the clay-rich soils where Cabernet won’t ripen. I have found two interesting exceptions to this rule, one in Bordeaux and one in Napa.

Chateau Palmer in Margaux is famous for having Merlot planted on gravel mounds, on terroirs that any other producer would have devoted to Cabernet. This goes back to an enthusiasm of Édouard Miailhe in the 1950s, when Merlot was heavily planted at Palmer, reaching as much as 60% of the vineyards. It was partially reversed at the end of the 1960s, bringing the level down to 47%, although this is still high compared to other producers. Palmer 1961, which represented one of the icon wines of the twentieth century, was only 30% Cabernet Sauvignon. No one knows why Palmer 1961 reached the heights of the first growths, but to my palate it was much in line with the 1959, 1962, and perhaps 1966 vintages – all of which had a very high proportion of Merlot planted on gravel, before it was cut back. Has Palmer ever achieved those heights again? Could this merely be coincidence?

I had a similar epiphany at Screaming Eagle when tasting barrel samples of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to compare with the blend. Even within this small vineyard, the terroir varies from gravel at the eastern edge to more clay at the west of the vineyard. The Merlot came from a block of vines planted in 1987 on the best – for which read gravel – soils. Although Screaming Eagle has Cabernet on gravel and Merlot on clay, they are not slavishly devoted to the idea that they must follow the old Bordeaux rules, so there is some counter thinking, with Merlot on gravel, as well as some Cabernet on a clay plot that gives good results. The Merlot was elegant and refined, with a very fine grained texture that I don’t usually associate with the variety. But then again, I don’t get to taste much Merlot grown on gravel. I think that Merlot makes a significant contribution to the refined quality of Screaming Eagle.

Palmer and Screaming Eagle are, to my mind, hard examples to argue with. The problem with Merlot may be that, when it’s grown in company with Cabernet, the Cabernet usually gets first choice of terroirs. In Bordeaux, this means it’s never as refined. In Napa, the Merlot is often a bit too coarse – indeed, I wonder whether deficiencies in the Merlot are partly responsible for the focus on pure Cabernet Sauvignon. So bring back the Merlot, I say, plant some on your best terroirs, and make wines that will be truly refined when young but will mature into a gracefully savory old age.