In Search of the Incredible Cult Riesling

Christie’ reports that a live-by-Skype multi-estate-auction recorded the highest price for a single bottle of American wine ever. A rare 1997 Smith-Madrone Riesling fetched $196,000. The buyer of record was Raoul Messier, a well-known agent who made an additional $2,400,000 in purchases at the auction. Messier will not reveal his master, but all signs point to Halston Sturge, that shadowy purveyor of tawdry 4-D immersion software who has made a habit of collecting cult wines with the wealth garnered from his exploits in Mobile’s Tech Alley.

— Wall Street Journal, March 15, 2064

Why the Cult Cabernet? Why not the Cult Riesling? Why do we pay upwards of $100 for a superb Cabernet or Pinot Noir from a top producer when an amazing Riesling fetches no higher than $40?

The answer is in the question, and unsurprisingly simple. To be defined as a “cult” anything suggests a departure from reason. Cult Cabs from Napa soared to atmospheric prices on the back of fancy. Simultaneously, Riesling has suffered from what Mike Veseth termed “the curse of the Blue Nun.” German mass production Riesling pap in the 1970s and 80s acted like a bill of attainder, prejudicing generations future against the noble white varietal.

Smith-Madrone wines

But this is 2015. We are desperately looking for the Next Big Thing, especially when the wine drinking public is growing impatient with the hangover induced by out-of-control wine prices (and 15% alcohol). So why not Riesling?

It certainly could be so. Riesling bristles with energy. Maybe this is because of the grape’s natural balance of extract and acidity, which allows it to age in bottle for decades. This gives it much more consistent aging potential than even the great Bordeaux varietals, and without having to drive up residual sugar or alcohol level. Or perhaps it is because of the grape’s rugged individuality. No other white varietal bears the mark of terroir more prominently than Riesling, giving it enormous expressive potential. And let us not forget that Riesling can be picked early or late, giving it a drinkable style from mouth-puckering austere to dessert sweet.

So what we have is a varietal that ages more consistently than Cabernet, expresses the vineyard better than Pinot Noir, and has more range than any other grape on earth. Riesling bears all the marks of greatness a hundred times over.

Stuart Pigott has made the most persuasive case for Riesling’s primacy in the public press. His is the impassioned case of the gentleman scholar and gonzo journalist, and his case is persuasive. We expect that it will take a while for the well-heeled wine investors to take note, as they are still dazzled by the fancy French houses and Napa estates when they open their pocketbooks. There is nothing wrong with that. So long as Riesling is under the radar of the investors, we will all be able to enjoy it at its best. But it strikes many commentators that it is simply the most undervalued grape in the present tense.

Any serious wine drinker understands the seductive call of the undervalued. Given Riesling’s dangerous potential, prices for German old school vintages could quickly skyrocket. Corporate imitators in similar latitudes could quickly set up shop. Before long, all that made the grape distinctive and beautiful might bring down the wrath of Moloch. We won’t be able to tell the quality from the fake. The authentic from the HGH-freak.

Which is why you might want to start toying with Riesling now. Even if you do not stockpile wine, Riesling should be an option for the table. This is a bottle that plays well with food—even food with heat and spice. And any wine drinker knows the trouble that lurks there. Trying to pair intricately spiced food with good wine is a bit like inviting Democrats and Republicans to the same cocktail party—the conversations are toxic and not even getting drunk is pleasurable.

Despite having spent a good stretch of my early life in Austria and Germany, it was not until recently that I came to understand Riesling’s potential. Of all places—and this is an odd place to find a Riesling—it was in Napa County. Not on the valley floor, but up in Spring Mountain, where I navigated steep switchbacks to find the Smith-Madrone winery. I went in the philistine, convinced that Riesling was too sweet and too German to be good wine. Such preconceptions dissipated with the first glass, which seduced with its floral nose, the endless expression of pear on apricot. On the tongue the wine kept changing character. First baked apples, then deep-dish peach pie, then granny smith apples, and all on a conveyor belt of flinty granite. I was taken. People in the know will nod, but even experienced wine drinkers may not have heard of Charles and Stu Smith.

But that was yesterday. The Daily Meal just named Smith-Madrone winery of the year for 2015. This was a mammoth honor, and not lightly bestowed. For an idea of the competition, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti won an honorable mention. And their Pinot Noirs often sell for $6,000-$12,000 a bottle.

A bottle of Smith-Madrone Riesling will set you back $27. Now, there is shipping to consider, but last I checked UPS does not charge $5,973 per bottle to ship. To put it another way, one bottle of Romanée-Conti costs roughly the same as 18 cases of Smith-Madrone Riesling.


Of course, if Riesling hits overdrive, those prices won’t last. Part of what turned California Cabernets into Cult Cabernets was overwhelming demand generated in the 1980s. Some of that stemmed from interest generated by the 1976 Judgment at Paris, the wine tasting which demonstrated that top California cabs could hold their own with Bordeaux’s finest. Some too came from the fact that many of Napa’s winemakers were parvenus in the best American sense of the word. They were new and exciting and they were unburdened by tradition. They also produced in small quantities, so their followers quickly found themselves scrambling to get on mailing lists. Hence was born the cult of the Napa Cabernet.

Yet despite the best efforts of enthusiasts in the wine-writing world, Riesling still is undervalued. Which means that Riesling still punches well above its weight. Its quality has steadily enhanced. Its enchanting mix of acidity and extract means that it will age along with you. Open a bottle of Smith-Madrone 2010 now and it will already show the positive effects of aging. In another five years, it will have lost its nubile beauty but acquired a kind of chiseled grace. Both are distinctive expressions and carry their own charms. Think of young and old Paul Newman. For those wine hipsters who are looking for real quality at prices that don’t require an investment banker’s income, Riesling will surprise and delight.

So drink up. Or hold onto those bottles. Who knows? If the priests of wine geekery anoint the noble white as the Next Big Thing twenty years from now, everybody will be scrambling for those rare early vintages of the new Cult Kings of Riesling. And my bet is that Smith-Madrone will be near the top of any list.

H. Robert Baker teaches history at Georgia State University. He is the author of The Rescue of Joshua Glover: A Fugitive Slave, the Constitution, and the Coming of the Civil War (2007) and Prigg v. Pennsylvania: Slavery, the Supreme Court, and the Ambivalent Constitution (2012). He is currently working on a book about Napa Valley in the 1970s and 80s.