Wined Down with Joe Roberts: California Cult Wine

By Joe Roberts

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It’s not everyday that you get invited to a former movie mogul’s ultra-exclusive estate to dine on ultra-bad pizza (really, Californians, please just stop trying to make NYC pizza already!) and sip on ultra-exclusive wine. At least, it’s not an everyday occurrence for this working stiff, but it is one of the perks.

But that’s where I found myself recently, at an over-the-top mansion-of-a-house perched on the hills above Napa Valley, dining on take-out pie and contemplating the tasting notes of Napa’s soon-to-be newest “cult” Cabernet. I was the guest of Tim Martin, a long-time wine marketing guru and one third of the founding membership of Tusk Estates (the others are Philippines native Michael Uytengsu, who at one point headed up Keebler, elves and all, and Bordeaux winemaker-turned-California-surfer-dude Philippe Melka, by most reasonable accounts now the most celebrated vintner in all of the Napa Valley). And we were there to taste what has become one of Napa Valley’s worst-kept fine wine secrets.

“Welcome to the secret house of Tusk, my man!” Tim boomed when we walked through the posh foyer. Secret or not, it felt less like the Batcave and a lot more like an elaborate Man-cave.

The house itself is currently under renovation, primarily to turn the lower floor into what looks to become the ultimate fraternity party house – a jet-setter crash-pad that will play host to an annual, all-out shindig for Tusk mailing list members. Unlike the underachieving Left Coast pizza, the over-the-top abode was a fitting backdrop for Tusk’s totally over-the-top wine. “You’re the very first media guy to taste this,” he told me as he poured a large glass of the inky dark 2008 Tusk Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, “because I won’t just let anybody up here.”

In this case, Tim wasn’t just blowing media sunshine up my ass. While Tusk is following part of the “Cult Napa Cab” script (a big-

boy, opulent wine; an exclusive mailing list; a small production of 150 cases or so; an expensive, sought-after winemaker using grapes from expensive, sought-after Napa vineyards in Oakville and Pritchard Hill), they’re eschewing what traditionally has been the rest of the Napa Cult Cab equation: get an astronomical score from a big wine glossy, and then watch the waiting list numbers explode (along with the coffers).

It’s not that Melka can’t get high scores from wine critics – in fact, his wines routinely garner insanely high marks from the vino-cognoscenti. So why not submit to the glossies and score it up? After all, Philippe considers the inaugural Tusk offering among the best wines that he’s ever made.

“Pachyderms like the Mammoth and elephants travel together with their families for life. So our goal in Tusk is to create a family of connected friends,” Tim noted. “Our program is a member to member referral so that everyone is connected back to the owners, like a family tree. Our method is based on connections - not scores - which is a bit different in approach, but a path we strongly believe in." So Tusk is counting on word-of-mouth, social outreach, and pedigree (or fruit and winemaker) to put their juice on the map.

The price of familial entry includes only two qualifications, neither of which involve owning your own private jet: 1) you have the available dough to cough up $1100 for a three-bottle allocation, and 2) you’re no more than two degrees of separation from any of the founders (by virtue of reading this, you now qualify for #2, since I became an honorary Secret House of Tusk inductee during that visit).

The execution, in any case, is more traditionally cult-like. Saying that the Tusk guys exhibit obsessive attention to detail is like saying that playmate Raquel Pomplun is “sort of attractive.” The bottle weight suggests the density of a white dwarf star; the packaging, designed by Mark Wiegard, is hand-wrapped linen, and sports an woolly mammoth logo by Mark Summers (yes, the same guy whose classic literary author caricatures are blasted all over Barnes & Noble’s stores). That logo is impressed using a mid-15th century printing method developed by Johannes Gutenberg. And we haven’t even mentioned the meticulousness of the winemaking practices (quad-sorting the incoming grape berries, for example, or aging the juice for nearly three years in pricey new French oak barrels).

How about the wine itself? Is it worth all that dough to get made into the Tusk famiglia?

Tusk’s Cab is best described, I think, as well-endowed: hedonistic, enormous, complex. It’s full of aromas of cassis, berry pie (crust, spices, fruits and all), Mexican cocoa, coffee, graphite, truffles, and probably the purest, most incredible black licorice notes I’ve yet encountered in a Cab at any price point. In the mouth, it’s huge and silky – not a wine for dinner, and definitely not for pizza, but one to contemplate with cigars and camaraderie after pizza (and probably well into the wee hours of the morning).

A cult wine for non-score-whores? An exclusive wine for populists? Stranger things have happened.

If you’re not into big Cabs, you should probably steer well clear of this mastodon of a wine, because it will never live up to the price tag for you, mansion-party or no mansion-party. But lovers of the opulent might just have found their Mecca, along with an excuse to party like a movie mogul… for at least one night a year, anyway.

About the Author:Joe Roberts is a certified wine geek, and has been called "an original" by media maven Gary Vaynerchuk, "provocative" by the Seattle Times, and "a Robin Hood in the exclusive world of vineyards and corkings" by The Urban Grocer. His wine knowledge has been tapped by the L.A. Times, New York Times, CNBC.com, Mutineer Magazine, Publix, Palate Press, Mint.com, and Wines.com. You can find Joe regularly roasting wine's sacred cow (and pairing them with robust, obscure red) at the award-winning 1WineDude.com. Follow him on Twitter @1WineDude.


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