Most Expensive Wines in the U.S.

8 California cult wines


Before we get deep into this discussion I would just like to state that I don’t believe there is a particularly powerful corollary between price and quality in wine. There is, however, a distinct corollary between limited supply, whether actual or created, as well as an almost mathematical correlation between points and price.

So, what about that correlation between points and price? Don’t points demote quality? Well, no, they denote conformity -- conformity with the criteria that particular critic uses to identify wine that he or she likes. This is not the place to argue for or against points; I only bring them up because they do play an important role in wine pricing. But make no mistake about it, the 100-point scale is about as definitive as looking outside to forecast the weather. Whatever it means is very local and only pertinent over the short term. I’ll return to this topic soon enough, but for now let’s check out the most expensive domestic wines.

1941 Inglenook Cask Reserve

California’s wine industry has had many milestones but very few wineries have had truly profound impacts. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that while California has more than 3,000 wineries today, in the relatively recent past that number was much smaller. In fact, in the 1940s there were only a handful of wineries in Napa Valley.

Names like Beaulieu, Martini, and Charles Krug were the gold standard for Napa Valley wines but one man, John Daniel, was hard at work trying to best the best. It may have been only in hindsight that the collective we recognized the monumental nature of John Daniel’s work at Inglenook, but recognize it we have. In particular, the 1941 has been recognized as one of the greatest wines ever to have been produced in the Napa Valley. Given the accolades and rarity of the wine today it’s almost surprising that it is not selling for more than the several thousand it fetches on the rare occasions that bottles come up at auction.

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Cult wines

If you’re looking for more recent wines, wines that you might actually have a chance of finding and buying, well, you can still blow tons of cash. 

The so-called “cult wines,” primarily a California phenomenon, are wines that are sort of defined by their prices and exclusivity.

The recipe for a cult wine is: make it expensive, make it available by mailing list only, and get points, a lot of points. And as more people have perfected the pointy recipe as of late you’re gonna need at least 97 points to really keep your cult machine cruising!


Est. 1978

Kistler is one of the originally culty wines. It wasn’t really a cult wine because it was available at retail and its price, while always high, crept up in sync with every increasing score. 

An anomaly among cults, Kistler is best known for its premium single-vineyard Chardonnay and Pinot Noirs.

Current release prices include:

2007 Cuvee Cathleen Chardonnay, $200

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2007 Cuvee Catherine Pinot Noir, $200

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Est. 1992

Like Kistler, Marcassin is an early California cult that built its fame and reputation on Chardonnay and, to a lesser extent, Pinot Noir.

The personal winery of über-cult winemaker Helen Turley and her husband John Wetlaufer, Marcassin was one of the earliest cult wineries. From the start, the combination of the Turley name and the Martinelli name -- a cult producer in their own right and owner of some exceptional vineyards -- produced big bucks and plenty of points, though in today’s world their points might not have allowed them to break out like they did.

Current release prices include:

2005 Marcassin Estate Chardonnay, $300

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2005 Marcassin Blue Slide Ridge Pinot Noir, $325

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Est. 2000

A recent entry into the Burgundian cult wine scene, Aubert has been making waves with its Chardonnays, and getting all the necessary accolades as well.

The cult scene ground to a halt in 2008, but look to Aubert to start making up for lost time over the coming years.

Current release prices include:

2008 Aubert Lauren Vineyard Chardonnay, $175

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2008 Aubert UV Vineyard Pinot Noir, $125

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Grace Family

Est. 1978

I’m not sure if the Grace Family Cabernet is really considered a cult Cab, but it certainly was the first one I ever saw. This limited bottling Cabernet was produced by Caymus Estates way back in the 1970s.

It was always hard to find and reviewed very well, even way back when critics were more miserly with points. The quantities produced by Grace Family have always been minuscule, and even today they only have several acres of vines, ensuring a limited supply of these in-demand wines. I recall seeing Grace Family wines at retail back in the day, not sure how they got there, but today Grace Family sells its wine the cult way -- by mailing list.

Current release prices include:

2008 Grace Family Cabernet, $350

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Est. 1984

You know Bill Harlan must have been out to do something special when you consider that he only released his first commercial vintage of wine, the 1990, some 10 years after founding Harlan Estate. Simply put, the goal was, and has always been, to produce the finest wine possible in California.

In fact, the goal probably has been to produce the finest wine period. The virtually universal admiration for Harlan Estate seems to indicate that this is exactly what Bill has achieved and, in the meantime, he further cemented the identity of California cult wines. This is a classic example of one: sky-high scores, low production, though with about 1,800 cases a year certainly not the lowest around, and a mailing list distribution.

Current release prices include:

2008 Harlan Estate, $800


Est. 1992

Helen Turley sure was busy in 1992. Not only was she setting up Marcassin, but she was getting busy turning the Bryant Family Vineyards’ Cabernet Sauvignon into one of the three great California cult wines.

Bryant Family Vineyard keeps an uncommonly low profile, which befits a cult wine that somehow manages to get a fair amount of wine out through retail channels. Quantities must still be low though, since the scores for Bryant are inconsistent at best, yet the prices remain ambitious!

Current release prices include:

2007 Bryant Family Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, $500

Find out more.

Screaming Eagle

Est. 1986

And, of course, this leads us to the ne plus ultra of California wine: Screaming Eagle, or Screagle, as it is affectionately known. While the property that was to be Screaming Eagle was purchased in 1986, it wasn’t until 1992 that the first vintage was commercially produced.  

The bulk of the original property was planted to white grapes with barely an acre devoted to Cabernet Sauvignon. From those old vines, a tiny amount of wine was produced and was met with a feverish reception. Not only did the major critics all go gaga over the wine, but there really was almost no wine made. So, the results were predictable: sky-high prices.

Today Screagle draws from more than 60 acres of fruit and, while production is still low and scores still high, the breathtaking prices make me wonder what people think they are actually buying. 

Current release prices include:

2007 Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley, $1,500

Find out more.

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  • Snooth User: cv4wine
    252543 53

    After reading articles like this, I grin remembering the famous Getty tasting where in most of these labels were blind tasted along with Ernest and Julio's Estate Bottled Sonoma Cab which outscored most of them. You're very correct when you hint that ratings are in the palate of the individual taster.

    Dec 06, 2010 at 6:07 PM

  • Snooth User: lisamattsonwine
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    372258 384

    The subject line of the email said "California Classics" and I bit. Are cult wines classics by default? If Aubert wines have only been around for a decade, can they already be classics?

    Just curious of your take on what makes a wine a classic.


    Dec 07, 2010 at 3:59 PM

  • A similar situation to the Gallo incident occurred in Australia a few years ago when a group of consumers was asked to do a blind tasting on 5 wines.

    They knew one of them was Penfolds Grange but had no idea which one. They were then asked which one they thought was Grange, which one was the most drinkeable, and which one they liked the least.

    A twenty dollar shiraz actually was rated the highest as to drinkability and to its likelihood of being Grange. Whilst the grange was considered least preferable to most of the group.

    It was rather amusing, as at the time I worked for the distributor of the $20 wine and Grange was retailing at that point for around $350.
    Let your own palate and preferences guide you - not what someone else believes. Your taste is your own. After all I prefer Monet to DaVinci, and Gaugin to Picasso regardless of what a critic may say. But no matter what always be adventurous and seek out new brands, regions, and wine styles.

    Dec 07, 2010 at 6:12 PM

  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 238,749

    Lisa - Copy editors makes these wines classic!

    Of the group I would certainly consider the Inglenook to be classic California Cabernet, and maybe the Grace Family, but no, in my mind these are not the real classics, which would fall more to the Monte Bello, Montelena, Mayacamas end of the spectrum for me. Not to go all M on you.

    Nebu135 - well said!

    Dec 14, 2010 at 10:06 AM

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