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Is Napa Valley Cabernet an endangered species? I don’t think so.

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Of my 100 highest-scoring Cabernets in 2010, only nine were not from Napa Valley or its sub-appellations. I guess that says something and it’s not particularly surprising. The majority bore the basic Napa Valley AVA. Of the Napans with more specific appellations, the numbers were, in descending order:

Rutherford: 14
Howell Mountain: 7
Diamond Mountain: 4
Oakville: 3
Stags Leap, St. Helena, Spring Mountain, Atlas Peak: 2 each
Calistoga, Yountville, Mount Veeder, Oak Knoll: 1 each

It would be imprudent to draw conclusions from these numbers. For one thing, in any given year there could be more Oakville wines than Rutherford wines on the list; these things have a randomness to them. There also are a number of Napa Valley Cabernets I simply didn’t review this year, for various reasons, mainly because I can’t review them all. Nobody can. Nobody can even be aware of them all. Then too, the Cabs I reviewed in 2010 ranged from the 2004 vintage right up through 2008. A wine that made the top 100 with its 2005 vintage may not have done so in 2006.

I found it a little surprising that there was only one Mount Veeder on the list, but then, there are relatively few producers up there. Less surprising were the lower numbers from the valley’s southernmost areas–Oak Knoll and Yountville–and its northernmost, Calistoga. Napa Valley’s sweet spots obviously are right in the juicy middle, and also in the mountains.

These considerations in my mind were aroused when I read Tom Wark’s blog the other day. It’s a very long post–his lengthiest ever?–but worth reading, if for no other reason than that it resurrects, Dracula-like, the notion of some kind of ranking or classification, especially for Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Now, I am not writing this just because the notion of classifying California wine is always destined to stir the pot and get everybody all riled up. It’s really not even worth discussing anymore, and as much as I respect Tom (and he knows it), his idea of a “Committee of Elders” is as silly and fictional as the Bene Gesserit from “Dune.”

But Tom took as his starting point the analysis by Leo McCloskey in which Dr. McCloskey warns of the commoditization of Cabernet Sauvignon to the point where prices will be forced to drop, thus putting Napa Valley in the embarrassing and unsustainable position of producing an expensive product that  people aren’t willing to buy anymore.

This is the real issue about Napa Valley Cabernet, not classification system fantasies. Dr. McCloskey does make some interesting points (although I cannot fathom why he writes, “Over one decade the number of 90-plus point California wines dropped 50% in Wine Spectator,” as if Jim Laube scores were the entrails of chickens, containing divine clues. What in the world does Jim’s scoring history have to do with the commoditization of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon?).

I’ve wondered ever since I’ve been in this business how so many Napa Valley Cabernet wineries manage to stay in existence. Well before this recession, I wondered about it. I remember in the early 1990s there was another recession and everybody was predicting this huge shakeout. It never happened. The current recession is much worse, and there’s a lot more Cabernet planted now than in 1991, but if you think about it, we haven’t seen a massacre in Napa Valley, not yet anyway. Somehow, wineries manage to get through tough times; and keep in mind, a lot of those Napa Valley winery owners have awfully deep pockets from outside the wine industry.

They say that history tends to repeat itself. If that’s true, Napa Valley will do just fine. On the other hand, there are such things as “tipping points” (Dr. McCloskey himself refers to one, for Chardonnay), which are paradigm-shifting events that do indeed have radical consequences. I just can’t see Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon being at a tipping point, personally. Bordeaux has been through far worse, and for far longer, than Napa Valley–world wars, Hitler, empire changes, all that minor stuff–and somehow they’ve survived. So, I suspect, will Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon–even without a classification system.

  1. With so many Napa Cabernets being just brands without any other than artwork distinguishing themselves from the other Napa Cabs, commodification is definitely something that vintners should be worried about. Unfortunately, scores are the most important distinguishing characteristic right now. With discount labels like Cameron Hughes taking off, commodification is starting to rear its head in the Napa Cabernet market. However, without the legal requirement of only specific cultivars (say coinciding with Bordeaux) there will never be a ranking system. However, wouldn’t it be fun? There would be no way that a Napa hierarchy could remain static for the 155 years that the Medoc classification has stood unchanged (ok, one change). Imagine what kind of pressure it would put on the different classification systems in Bordeaux to continuously readjust the rankings?

  2. Colorado, well, if there is a Committee of Elders, I want to co-run it with Wilfred Wong and Charlie Olken!

  3. But don’t let anyone know you’re on it…

  4. Steve:

    Thanks for a great year of reading!

  5. Steven, Thanks for being a great reader!

  6. Colorado, don’t ask, don’t tell. We can slip into meetings wearing Halloween masks.

  7. The “Committee of Elders” would be those who chose the critics. The critics would remain a secret. You want’ to be in the critics circle, Steve. The Elders are the one’s that would take all the crap.

  8. Isn’t wine really just a commodity anyway? Is it such a bad thing that Napa would drift back in this direction? I’m not saying wine is exactly like corn or beans, but it is an agricultural product that’s meant to be consumed even if aging is often part of the process. You only need so many producers making wine that’s meant as a display piece.

    I’m curious about Napa Cabernet being intrinsically more expensive to produce. Some of that seems to be about cost of land and micro production with no economy of scale. If there is less interest in high priced Cab, then won’t land and fruit costs drop? And if there was consolidation of tiny producers into more middle sized ones, would that make a difference? Plus it seems in many cases there are owners who then must hire various consultants since they are not trained in winemaking, though the owners are enthusiastic. Also, if there are wines that are expensive mainly because they must be sculpted via expensive winemaking, then I’m curious why the grapes justify a high cost if the magic is in the cost-intensive winemaking.

    Or is there something else to it? It just seems like a lot of the high costs are related to a competitive market and a certain type of business plan. Maybe these factors will change in a different economic climate.

  9. The consulting fees and the multi-million dollar wineries/tasting rooms don’t help keep costs down, but perhaps aren’t the main reason for exorbitant prices. Might ego play a big part in Napa Cabernet prices? How many wines are priced on what the owners think they should be rather than what actually goes into the production? Or on scores? Has that much really changed in those wineries that have doubled or tripled in price in the last 5-10 years after receiving a high score? How many producers wait to price their wines until a high score has been annointed (cough, cough, Bordeaux)?

  10. Colorado, I think ego plays a part in everything people do. If a Napa producer thinks highly enough of his wine to charge $100 wholesale, then he’s entitled. The marketplace will let him know if he can get away with it.

  11. Simply, all high priced wines, either from Napa or elsewhere, stay high priced as long as there are sufficient buyers for those wines. And strictly speaking, if they get those high prices, the wines are correctly valued, if not undervalued.

  12. Kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy…

  13. Tom is absolutely right. An ironclad rule of the marketplace. The only question is, will there be sufficient buyers to keep most of Napa’s expensive Cabernets viable? I think there will be. Whatever Napa loses in America it will make up for in Asia. There, it has a formidable opponent, Bordeaux. But some really smart people are promoting Napa in Asia, and there are distinct advantages. Napa is California, America, Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and new money–something Asians can relate to. Napa has, in other words, cachet.

  14. I already said my peace on Tom Wark’s blog on the subject but just want to thank Steve for inspiring me to start reading wine blogs and occasionally even comment. Your posts are relevant, interesting, and well written. I thoroughly enjoy being a reader. Thanks and happy new year.

  15. There can still be commodification of Napa Cabernets while the most expensive wines continue to increase in price. The battle will be along the border between those distinctions. Many wineries will be fighting to keep prices in the stratosphere. And yes, the smart ones are in Asia right now doing just that. After all, Veblen goods are still just commodities…

  16. Thanks to you too, Kathy, and I hope to keep my blog worthy of your interest.

  17. The biggest threat to the commodization of Napa Cab is that they will all taste the same and there will be no difference between them and Cabs of other regions. This is what makes any commondity, a lack of distinction within the product. And it is what happened to Chardonnay.

    That $5 bottle of BV South Coast Chardonnay with its expertly crafted balance of malolactic, sur lie barrel extraction and clean, tart finish, and generic Chardonnay aroma is much like the majority of good Napa Valley Chardonnays. It is much like BV’s Napa Valley wine. Yes, that South Coast B.V. Chardonnay is probably better than any Chardonnay made in California in the 1960′s, but today is today, and for the most part Chardonnays are made to taste much the same.

    The danger for Cabernet is not that we haven’t created an artificial hierarchy of vineyards, but that we are more and more making it to one flavor model just like Chardonnay. I won’t get into what most winemakers are doing with raisined clusters, new barrels, reverse osmosis, and the like, but Cabernet today certainly lacks the individuality that vineyards brought to it in the past.

    Napa Cab is threatened by chasing high scores and McCloskey, himself, is doing his best to see that all Cabs taste like Parker likes them. McCloskey believes that Cabernet needs to taste one way, a way that gets the big score… and ultimately as Australia, Chile, and Argentina catch on to the manipulations… that could make it a commodity. So it is entirely understandable that in McCloskey’s world view, differentiation between Napa Cab needs to move to an “official” hierarchy and classification on paper. (Since it can’t, in his view, exist in the bottle.)

    In actual fact, McCloskey and his minions (number chasing winemakers) are what threaten Napa Valley Cabernet.

  18. Fun stuff, but I share Steve’s skepticism. I go into more (boring) detail on Tom’s board, but the Enologix analysis seems to leave out demand as a factor, or perhaps substitutes critical scores for it, which are not at all the same thing. The price patterns by region in California over the past 10 years imply significant regional differentiation, not commodification, and the regional trends generally reflect changes in supply and demand by price segment. The “commodification” of Chardonnay (which is only relative to Cabernet) can be explained by other factors than those Enologix cites, some of which are cited above or on Tom’s board.

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