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What a difference a county line makes…or doesn’t

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Back in the 1990s, a young couple, Casidy Ward and Lynn Hofacket, purchased a parcel of land high up on the slopes of the Mayacamas Mountains. The planted four clones of Cabernet Sauvignon at elevations ranging from 900 feet to 1,700 feet, on a steep slope whose soils consisted of sandy clay loam and degraded volcanic basalt, which is more or less perfect for Cabernet. Later, they hired the veteran winemaker, Marco DiGuilio, to make the wine, which is called Hidden Ridge. It’s a very good Cabernet, as fine as just about anything from Napa Valley. I gave the 2005 “55% Slope” ($75) 95 points.

Backtrack: The couple’s original plan wasn’t to make wine, it was to sell their fruit to other wineries. But they soon found out they had a problem. Their vineyard was technically in Sonoma County. The only appellation it was entitled to was “Sonoma County”  because it was on the wrong side of all the AVA lines in Napa Valley. Despite being on the same range as Spring Mountain and Diamond Mountain, they couldn’t use those AVAs because the appellation boundaries end at the Napa-Sonoma county line.

And because the resulting wine could bear only a Sonoma County origin, the grapes were not considered prestigious. Certain Sonoma winemakers couldn’t see putting yet another Sonoma County Cabernet on the market for $75, nor were Napa vintners interested in turning to Sonoma County for fruit when there were grapes available from Napa’s tony sub-AVAs. The only solution, as it turned out, was for Ward and Hofacket to make their own wine, with DiGiulio’s help.

You can get a better sense of the predicament the couple faced by looking at the numbers, which prove that the mere fact of a Cabernet grape’s origin — not necessarily its quality, just where it was grown — has absolute influence on its price. Consider the following statistics for the year 2008:

• Average price per ton, Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, statewide: $1,111.93

• Average price per ton, Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, District 3 (Sonoma/Marin): $2,321.51 (Marin Cabernet acreage is negligible.)

• Average price per ton, Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, District 4 (Napa): $4,779.55

• Highest recorded price per ton, Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, District 3: $6,454.47

• Highest recorded price per ton, Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, District 4: $15,000.00

Clearly there’s something wrong with this picture. Terroir supposedly is God-given and unchangeable, a basic fact of Nature. What are county lines? Man-made artificialities, political conveniences derived often from economic calculations. So what is an AVA — an expression of terroir, or an expression of economics?

I’m not saying there are not differences between the eastern and western slopes of the Mayacamas. The western slopes get more rainfall. The western slopes also are marginally cooler, because they’re a little closer to the Pacific. However, that coolness is mitigated by the fact that the western slopes get the afternoon sun, which is warmer than the morning sun that shines upon the eastern slopes. So, yes, there are differences, but they’re not strong enough to justify a difference in grape pricing exceeding 100%.

This is why in the past I’ve argued that appellation in itself is not a reliable indicator of wine quality. I know people will write in to say the opposite, but the case of Ward and Hofacket illustrates very clearly the inadequacies of our current system of AVAs. Nor is this a slam against Napa Valley, whose Cabernets and Bordeaux blends continue to delight and astonish me. But it is to suggest that we need to be more broad-minded and less chauvinistic when we think about California Cabernet Sauvignon. Very fine Cabs and blends come from Sonoma County, from Paso Robles and other regions, not just from Napa Valley.

This chauvinism regarding Napa is deep-rooted. It has historical antecedents that have been drummed into the public’s brains for generations. When you’ve been told for your entire life that Napa Valley is the end-all and be-all of fine wine in California, it’s hard to think otherwise. Just the other day, a new “tripadvisor” survey came out showing that Napa Valley is “The undisputed American capital of wine” when it comes to a tourist destination choice. Is Napa the most beautiful? No. Is it the most friendly to tourists? No. Is it the most crowded? Yes. Is it the most expensive? Yes. So why is it numero uno?

What was the number two wine tourism destination? Quote: “Sublime Sonoma.” The “tripadvisor” list didn’t even bother to make any distinction between Sonoma “County” and Sonoma “Valley,” which is illustrative of why people have such a hard time understanding what “Sonoma” really means.

So I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: When it comes to deciding what wine to buy, the winery’s reputation is your best bet. After that come a range of variables: price, wine type, the food you’re pairing it with, and perhaps even if you have a personal connection with the winery. Appellation also counts, but not as much as some interests would have you believe.

And by the way:

The San Francisco Chronicle’s Food and Wine Sections just won a nice award. I am so glad to hear this. The newspaper, as most people know, has been under severe financial pressure, and they might have fired their food and wine reporters, but they didn’t. Good for them. If any newspaper in the country deserves a smart, functioning food and wine section, it’s the Chronicle.

  1. Sadly that price inflation makes sense. Like it or not, the tripadvisor survey is indicative of the demand for all things labeled “Napa.” I like Casidy and Lynn’s story. Rather than fight tooth and nail to be recognized by Napa producers they just decided to make their own. Some might call that the path of least resistance, but then those people might not have made their own wine before.

  2. Steve, what led them to believe at any point that their vineyard could be called Napa Valley? Were maps back in the 1990s bad?

  3. Why can’t their wine be labelled Sonoma Valley? They are in the Sonoma Valley, on the other side of the mountain, and should have a different appellation than wines grown in Napa on east-facing slopes. How could they have not known that their grapes were in Sonoma County to begin with, and thus not allowed to use the Napa name?

    Kenwood, Arrowood, Chateau St. Jean, B. R. Cohn and others in the Sonoma Valley all make pricey Cabernets and I would bet that Cab prices in the Sonoma Valley are higher across the board than those in many other parts of the Sonoma County.

    Appellation borders do not mean all that they should mean, but they do have some meaning and I, for one, would rather have them than have none of them.

  4. Charlie, maybe I didn’t make it clear. They were never under the illusion they could use “Napa Valley.” It was Napa wineries that didn’t want to buy Sonoma County grapes.

  5. Glad to see you turn to Trip Advisor, rather than a reference to a travel mag or writer, to make your point. “Trip Advisor: get the truth. then go”.

    The young couple no doubt paid much less for their land then if it were in Napa County. Wine prices track land prices. They’re either greedy or out of touch with basic wine industry economics.

    Because price looms so large these days among the variables you mention, it is even more critical that those charged with bringing new releases to the attention of wine drinkers seek out QPR vino.

  6. Steve–

    Why would they? Unless they somehow thought that the grapes would enhance their wines. When you have a franchise, and you have paid for that franchise, that is where you play.

    And to put the shoe on the other foot, if they did not understand that Napa wineries happen to like the Napa AVA on their wines, then they did not do their homework.

    The world is full of folks whose dreams lead them to do all kinds of things they have not bothered to check out. It cause folks who have never made a wine to enter the market at $75. It causes folks who want to make $75 wine to be undercapitalized and to go out of business at the beginning of an economic downturn.

    The point you make about the value of grapes is true enough, but it should have not come as a surprise to them. Good for them for making great wine. Maybe it is time for a new appellation–Sonapanomayacamas. Or maybe they should just petition to be included in Sonoma Valley if they are not. Do you know why they do not or cannot use the Sonoma Valley AVA? It has proven valley, and if I understand the lay of land as you have described it, they are clearly within the Sonoma Valley by eyeball if not by AVA description.

  7. Nice shout out for the Chron. Jon Bonne has really elevated the wine writing over there.

  8. Hey Steve – great read, this might be my favorite post from you all year.

    I would add only that you don’t need to tell us so frequently that you called it – I would believe it the first time :-).

    Cheers!

  9. Charlie, I don’t know if they’re entitled to use Sonoma Valley. If it was me, I’d prefer to call it Sonoma County, not valley. And you’re right, that whole side of the Mayacamas needs to have some new AVAs.

  10. To missquote big Bill “The fault lies not within our stars, but within ourselves”.

    The poser of the appellation is diminished by a rush to esablish them yes, but also from little government oversite on other areas of grape production. When limits on crop size and winemaking methods are instituted, more assurance can be given to quality. This is a problem we caused, and we can only fault ourselves.

  11. Sounds like these folks got a pretty good deal in the end. They control their fruit source on cheaper-than-Napa land, yet can command a Napa price for their wine. If the $75 price point isn’t working out for them, though, I’ll be happy to try their wine at half that price. I’m assuming that their real estate expense shouldn’t be forcing them to sell that high.

  12. Timothy Milos says:

    The reason the vineyard is not in Sonoma Valley is the same reason it isn’t in Napa County: because of where the lines are drawn. While Ward and Hofacket never had any illusions as to where the vineyard was, its remarkable that the perceived value of the fruit is diminished because of its location. Were appellations reflective of more of common character rather than political lines, this vineyard would be appellated “Spring Mountain, Sonoma County.” The wines bear far more resemblance to the wines of Spring Mountain then they do to any other place (as good as our fellow Sonoman’s are).

  13. Steve,

    OK, I have to take a good natured jab at your comment “Is Napa the most beautiful? No. Is it the most friendly to tourists? No. Is it the most crowded? Yes. Is it the most expensive? Yes. So why is it numero uno?”

    Steve, why this hostility against poor little Napa? I love Napa and suspect it came in as “numero uno” because many people from around the country make a once in a lifetime trip to Napa and love it. From Napa town to Calistoga, the Napa Valley is beautiful. And you know as well as I do that there are some incredible wineries in Napa that are off the beaten path of 29 and the Silverado Trail that are just as quaint and homey as the wineries in Sonoma (I can send you a list!).

    Of course, I love Sonoma too, and Paso Robles, and Mendo, and Temecula, and Santa Barbara – all have a different “vibe” and all have unique qualities that make them nice areas – but I don’t pick one over the other.

    Napa bashing seems to be “en vogue” now – and yes, there are the big box wineries that people who know nothing about wine and had more dollars than sense breezed into the valley and bought; and yes, you do have the snobbish, let’s charge them through the nose attitude ast some wineries. But on the whole, many of the people in Napa that I deal with are hard working vintners who are, in most cases, holding down another “day job” to realize their dream of winemaking.

    So, in the “let’s criticize Steve for every little comment and hold him responsible for things he didn’t mean” I offer the above somewhat tongue in cheek – but also because Napa is a beautiful place if you know where to go!

    Richard.

  14. Richard, I deliberately said I wasn’t slamming Napa, just trying to put things in perspective. All wine regions I’ve ever seen are beautiful; so is Napa, just not more beautiful than, say, Santa Ynez Valley or Dry Creek Valley. And Napa indisputably is the most crowded. I love going to Napa, obviously, yet when visiting friends ask me where to go to wine country in the Bay Area, I usually steer them to Russian River Valley. Fewer big names, but more rural and relaxed.

  15. Morton Leslie says:

    I know a small Napa Valley winery owner who pays $7,000 a ton for quality Napa Cabernet, buys Taransaud oak, has a true star of a winemaker, custom crushes and bottles at the most expensive facility in the Napa Valley, and makes great wine which he sells for $75 a bottle. Almost all of his sales are through wholesalers so he’s getting half. He makes money.

    The point is its hard for me to generate much sympathy for Hidden Ridge. So, how do they justify the price point?

  16. Morton, I don’t know how they justify their price point. Above my pay grade to determine that!

  17. Morton Leslie says:

    I think Hidden Ridge should thank their lucky stars that there is a Napa Valley, otherwise no one would be paying $75 for a California wine, certainly not theirs. They’re just cruising in Napa’s slip stream.

  18. Morton: And Napa in turn is cruising in Bordeaux’s slip stream. Where does it start and where does it end.

  19. Morton Leslie says:

    Actually, if you had been here, you would know it was quite a fight for Napa vintners to get where they are. But never once have I heard a Napa vintner complain Bordeaux had an unfair advantage. They accepted it and worked harder. The whining ends when newbies who want to benefit from everyone else’s hard work shut up about how unfair it is and accept the fact that they have to work just as hard as everyone else.

  20. Great post, Steve. The Hidden Ridge story is nearly as compelling as property itself, which (if you go to their website for the video) is about as dramatic as it is steep. You are correct that Lynn and Casidy did not set out to make wine, but from reading some of the comments it is probably helpful to point out that–to my knowledge–they didn’t set out to grow grapes either. In fact, Lynn wanted the property because it looked like a great place to set up a hunting lodge for himself and his friends. The evolution to grape-growing came from Lynn’s background–he’s been a farmer for practically his entire life.

    It was the farmer in him that couldn’t resist the challenge and opportunity to plant vineyards in what turned out to be a unique soil/climate profile. It wasn’t a situation of Lynn or Casidy “not doing their homework.”

  21. Jonathan Leahy says:

    Well, I want to thank Steve for another good post! I have had the opportunity to visit that vineyard and see and hear first hand from Lynn and Casidy how much work went into that property. Lynn did it himself, not a hired crew and not the new tradition of buying into the game. I do not think they are “cruising in the slipstream” when it comes to making that wine. The risk and toil are theirs, so to should the rewards. That project is a masterpiece of work and the wine is very good.

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