By Julia Flynn Siler
OAKVILLE, Calif. — Screaming Eagle cabernet sauvignon is one of America’s most sought-after wines. Just don’t try to visit the winery or get on its mailing list.
Tourists looking for the vineyards are usually out of luck. Charles Thomas, a local winemaker who has worked in the Napa Valley for nearly three decades, says he is sometimes asked by visitors where Screaming Eagle is. His stock answer: “Oh, about half a mile down the road.”
In fact, Screaming Eagle is on Silverado Trail within sight of the winery where Mr. Thomas works. But the owners have always maintained an air of mystery about the place, and locals play along. Napa is very welcoming to the growing waves of wine-tasting tourists. But not when it comes to Screaming Eagle. The Napa Valley Conference and Visitors Bureau won’t provide a street address.
The winery can afford the stealth. Only an elite few get to buy Screaming Eagle’s cabernet: the people on the winery’s exclusive mailing list, who pay $500 for a bottle they can resell on the open market for $3,000 or more, depending on the vintage. New York Yankees manager Joe Torre is on the list, as are innumerable doctors and dentists, says one of the winery’s owners. A waiting list to get onto the mailing list is now about 4,000 names long. The winery’s founder, Jean Phillips, never opened a tasting room.
Ms. Phillips sold the winery last year. But it will continue to be a low-key operation, say the new owners, E. Stanley Kroenke, owner of the Denver Nuggets basketball team, and his business partner Charles Banks, a Santa Barbara, Calif., money manager. “It’s going to be every bit as private as it’s ever been,” says Mr. Banks. When a reporter visited Mr. Banks, he refused to let her take a photograph of the winery.
This tradition goes back to 1986, when Ms. Phillips, a former real-estate agent, bought the 68-acre Screaming Eagle ranch and started making wine in a 12-by-18-foot stone building. She made just 200 cases of her first vintage. Wine critic Robert Parker awarded her 1992 release a nearly perfect 99 rating, and Screaming Eagle scored instant cult-wine status.
Ms. Phillips resorted to a common cult-wine practice: She sold only to people on a mailing list, with a limit of three bottles a year. The list was full by 2000. She closed the waiting list after thousands of people had signed up.
Ever since, wine lovers have been trying to worm their way onto the list. A letter writer pleaded for a bottle as a gift for a doctor who had treated him for cancer. Another begged to replace a 1997 bottle that he had broken. “A lot of them I think are scams,” says Ms. Phillips, who keeps boxes of these “begging” letters in storage. “The first 10 you believe, but after you get 200 of those, you don’t believe them any more.”
Those who have made it onto the list are often elated. One grateful buyer sent Ms. Phillips a photo of his baby in a bassinet next to a bottle of Screaming Eagle, sending updates with photos of the growing child each year. Another enclosed the photo of a West Point cadet cradling a bottle at his graduation.
People who haven’t made it have sometimes tried to find the winery to beg their way onto the list. But Napa Valley locals, including the cashier at the Oakville Grocery, the gas-station attendant at a nearby Chevron, and fellow winery owners, aren’t willing to give directions. There is a gate at the entrance but no sign indicating that visitors are welcome to Screaming Eagle. A rutted road leads to a modest, one-story house and small, stone winery, surrounded by gnarly oak trees and vineyards. Because Ms. Phillips lived on the property for many years, she says she “didn’t want to have strangers creeping around.”
Occasionally, trespassing wine tourists were able to find the place and wander up to the front door, where Ms. Phillips long kept a shovel to ward off rattlesnakes. One of Ms. Phillips’s ploys to keep strangers from picnicking on her property was to warn them about the snakes.
“If you can’t even get to the vineyard, does it really exist?” asks Scott W. Lewis, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, who paid to attend a $1,000-a-head tasting last year of 10 Screaming Eagle wines put on by organizers that aren’t affiliated with the winery. It took seven months for them to acquire all 10 vintages of Screaming Eagle, mostly from private collectors, paying an average of $1,590 a bottle.
At that same tasting, which took place in Carmel, Calif., at the 20th anniversary of the Masters of Food & Wine, a group of top sommeliers and others were so eager for a sip or two that they stood behind the roped-off area of the event. Once the official tasters had left, the wannabes slipped past the rope and polished off the dregs.
Last September, a German-speaking couple driving a rental car managed to find the unmarked turnoff and drive up the dusty road past the gate, which is usually locked. “It was like they’d found the promised land,” recalls Screaming Eagle’s winemaker Andy Erickson, who turned them away.
The new owners will keep making Screaming Eagle in small quantities, 400 or 500 cases a year. Since buying the winery in March, they have been flooded with more than 1,000 faxed, phoned and emailed requests from people hoping that the change of ownership will help get them on the mailing list — or wondering whether the winery is still there. They recently added a Web site and reopened the waiting list. And winery staffers have been barraged by pleas for the wine. Screaming Eagle’s winemaker, Mr. Erickson, says he has been hit up by every preschool group, public school, and local charity in the area, hoping that he’ll donate a bottle or two for their fund-raising events. “I just took it as a joke,” he says.
Some, however, are hoping to jump the line. Last August, a place on Screaming Eagle’s mailing list was put up for auction on eBay. After 20 bids, the price reached $2,560, but the seller pulled the lot because it didn’t meet the reserve price, according to an eBay spokesman.
A few days after Mr. Kroenke and his partner closed on their purchase of Screaming Eagle in March, Mr. Kroenke got a phone call from a fellow National Basketball Association owner. Expecting to discuss possible player trades, he returned the call. Instead, the rival owner just wanted to talk about Screaming Eagle. “Do you need a partner?” the rival owner asked. Mr. Kroenke demurred.
Even family can’t jump the queue. Last summer, Ann Walton, Mr. Kroenke’s wife and an heir to the Wal-Mart fortune, sat at one of the winery’s rustic picnic tables under the shade of oak trees. She turned to Mr. Banks, her husband’s business partner, and brought up the subject of her daughter’s wedding. Could they serve Screaming Eagle to the wedding guests, she asked him.
“No,” Mr. Banks answered quickly.