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The Wine Diva of Napa
When the final bid came in at $500,000 for a 6-L bottle of 1992 Screaming
Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon at the Napa Valley Wine Auction two years ago,
there was a moment of stunned silence. Then the audience broke into
applause. It was (and still is) the highest price ever paid for a bottle
of wine. The proceeds went not to the woman who made the vintage, Heidi
Peterson Barrett, but to fund social services in Napa Valley. But the sale
cemented Barrett's reputation as one of the world's top winemakers.
One recent Tuesday, as the grape harvest was beginning, Barrett strolled
through a vineyard, picking fruit from the sunny and shady sides of the
trellis, chewing on the grape skins. In her hand was a printout of
grape-sugar levels that were tested overnight. "But you can't measure for
flavor," she says. "There is no hint of any green flavor, all black and red
fruit, blackberry and cherry flavors. I think we are real close, Friday,
Barrett, who has a degree in oenology from the University of California at
Davis, has worked with winemakers in Australia and Germany. Today for the
owners of Screaming Eagle, she makes just 500 cases a year; all are sold in
advance to established customers. Resale price of a new bottle: $1,000 plus.
She also makes Cabernet Sauvignon for Barbour and Showket Vineyards, among
others. Her private label, La Sirena, sells for $125 a bottle.
As harvest time approaches each year, Barrett gets tense. "Screaming Eagle
grapes are $4,500 a ton," she says, compared with $2,000 a ton for a typical
Napa vineyard's. "You have got to get the harvest date correct. Then you're
halfway there." Screaming Eagle is blended from six to eight lots of
Cabernet Sauvignon. Smaller amounts of Merlot and Cabernet Franc are added.
When the grapes are picked and crushed, Barrett must decide what kind of
yeast to add and how long to leave the juice to ferment. She likes to work
on her own, which is why she keeps her vintages small. After 18 months in
oak barrels, the wine is blended before being bottled. "I do it with a taste
test with a count of six," during which the different grape tastes should
hit the drinker's palate. "I want all those stages, one through six, to be
seamless and full." And Barrett usually gets what she wants.--T.M
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