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Can other regions challenge Napa when it comes to Cabernet?


After drinking and enjoying the Bernardus 2009 Marinus barrel sample of Marinus (which is from Monterey County), I started wondering, does any other region in California besides Napa Valley have a snowball’s chance in hell of gaining acceptance for ultrapremium Cabernet Sauvignon/Bordeaux blends, or is the Napa brand simply too strong to compete with?

Off the top of my head, the answers, respectively, are No, and Yes. The Napa Valley brand is so connected with Cabernet Sauvignon, they’re effectively joined at the hip–the perfect Siamese twin conjunction of geography and wine, such as you find in Bordeaux, Burgundy, Tuscany, Piedmont, Champagne, and just about every great wine region in the world.

And yet, vintners in California keep chasing after Napa, with the idealism (or is it naivete?) of Don Quixote tilting at windmills. Sonoma County has been doing it longest. They’re still trying in inland Mendocino. Lake County has made a very serious Cabernet play in recent years, especially with their Red Hills appellation on the southern slopes of Mount Konocti; and, of course, Cabernet super-grower Andy Beckstoffer is heavily invested up there. And then, more recently, the Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara is doing the Cabernet thing, with big money backing it up.

There are multiple scenarios one can envision, leading to multiple outcomes. One, which is the most likely, is that Napa will continue to dominate. Of course, this is predicated on the likelihood that Cabernet Sauvignon will remain America’s favorite and top red wine. I think that, despite Pinot Noir’s rapid ascent, it will. There’s nothing else remotely in a position to knock off Cabernet.

But Napa has challenges. One is price. Napa Cabernet is expensive–the most expensive wine in America. If it costs a lot here, it is prohibitively expensive in Europe. There’s Asia, of course, but rich Asians seem interested only in Bordeaux. So cost is the biggest obstacle Napa faces. But it’s not insuperable. If high cost were enough to make something unpopular, then nobody would want Porsches, Dom Perignon and Rolex watches. But they do. Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon could be around for a long time as a luxury product, with even less expensive bottlings ($25-$50) benefiting from that perception.

There are other possibilities. Americans are a curious people, who like changes. They’re always looking for the next big thing, whether it’s an action hero movie, politician or fashion style. This trait presents the greatest opportunity for non-Napa Cabernet. No marketing wizard ever born could guarantee in advance to make her product a success, but we know certain things from the “evil art,” advertising, concerning what it takes to convince consumers to try something new. Among these are recommendations. The best reccos are from experts whom the public trusts, and “regular people,” the man or woman in the street.

Well, what makes people–experts or “just plain folks”–recommend something like wine? The expert will recommend something that surprises and delights himself or herself. It’s quite easy for me, in my position, to recommend (via a high score) any particular Napa Cabernet. I do it all the time. It’s something else for me to give a high score to a non-Napa Cabernet. In Sonoma County and particularly Alexander Valley, I do that pretty routinely, but when we get beyond Napa-Sonoma, my Cabernet scores fall off pretty rapidly. (There are exceptions in the Santa Cruz Mountains, but Santa Cruz Cabernet, like Santa Cruz anything, is rare these days, because of housing development.) Therefore, when I give a good score to a Santa Barbara Cabernet or one from Lake County (which I don’t do anymore, since Virginie Boone is now covering that region) or anyplace else, it may not be a 100 or 98, but even if it’s a 92 or 93, you might detect, from my text (if anyone bothers to read the text anymore, instead of just looking at the score) a sense of excitement. Do I get more excited by a 92 point Happy Canyon Cabernet than a 95 point Napa Valley Cabernet? In a way, I do. Because expectations were lower in Happy than in Napa.

Now, I understand enough about this industry to know that if I excitedly recommend a wine, people respond by buying it. I’m just saying. And if someone buys a wine I recommend, and they like it, then they might just recommend it to someone else. And so on, down the line. Therefore, as the quality level of non-Napa Valley increases–and it is–and Napa Valley Cabernet continues to be expensive, while non-Napa Cabernet holds the lid on pricing, then we have the pieces in place for non-Napa Cabernet to be competitive.

Bordeaux survived and thrived because it had no competition whatsoever when it comes to Cabernet. It long ago reached the tipping point of being inexorably one of the world’s greatest wines, in perception if not in reality. I don’t think Napa Valley has reached the same point, or anywhere close. Napa Cabernet is a very glamorous wine, and a very great wine (despite the Europhiles who denounce it), but it cannot take its current reputation for granted. So I do think there’s an opportunity for other regions in California to be competitive (not to mention Washington State). I’m going to switch my answers to the questions I started with:

Does any other region in California have a snowball’s chance in hell of gaining acceptance for ultrapremium Cabernet Sauvignon/Bordeaux blends?


Or is the Napa brand simply too strong to compete with?


  1. Steve:

    Given Napa’s headstart in focus, capital investment, quality of production, amenities, natural beauty, etc. I don’t think it is in any danger of losing its Cabernet hegemony.

    At Steven Kent our goal, from the very beginning, was to prove that we could make Cabernet from the Livermore Valley that could compete with Napa from the standpoint of quality yet retain its sense of place, its different-ness. In baseball parlance, we wanted to make the major league roster. Whether we were one of the starters or not would depend upon the coach (the critic, the passionate wine consumer). We’ve been at this long enough to conclude that our goal was not too Quixotic…some wine experts and many passionate consumers agree. We also realize our work has just begun.

    Napa deserves the respect that it has created and that it garners. But isn’t the story a little played out at this point? Isn’t it so much more interesting…the Cabernet stories being created by those folks in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Paso Robles and Happy Canyon, and yes, the Livermore Valley? Despite all the existing barriers to (mindshare) entry for us non-Napa types, I’d much rather be the first from my appellation than the 400th from there. Being an outlier is where all the fun is anyway.

  2. This a tough question…
    It involves not only physical and geographical aspects but also economic, cultural and even random factors.
    Strictly from a climatological point of view, Sonoma Coast and Sonoma Mountain AVAs seem, in general terms, better suited for the production of a more restrained and balanced CS than Napa’s valley floor.
    In reality, there are several other areas in CA where growing conditions (again, in statistical terms) are nearly identical to Napa’s.
    On the other hand, the most important point for wine investors is a long, consistent (low-variance) and highly successful track-record.
    Hence, one will need a minimum of 2-3 decades of data/observations/evaluations to give you a meaningful answer.

  3. Steve,

    I doubt that any other region will compete with Napa – as a brand. Brand Napa benefits from a confluence of history, scale, and recognition. But when it comes to what’s in the bottle, there is no doubt that producers outside Napa can make world-class Cabernet.

    My family planted Cabernet at Star Lane because we believed that the specific site, at the far eastern end of the Santa Ynez Valley, was capable of producing exceptional wines. A few people had similar thoughts about sites near ours along Happy Canyon road, which has given birth to the recently created Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara AVA. Because there are so few producers within this new AVA, it will never compete with Napa for brand recognition. But ultimately it comes down to what’s in the bottle and telling a very specific story about a very specific site. Thanks to writers like yourself and the rapid explosion of information available through the web, social media, and good old-fashioned word of mouth, that message is getting out.

  4. I am not sure I want to compete. Of course I make wine there now but I want to show what Alexander Valley, Mendoza and Rapel can do as well and why they are much better value. I like napa being there it gives us something to compare other great wines too. You never want to be the biggest, fastest, cheapest, most expencive you will always fall over.

  5. No question that Star Lane and the Dierbergs have added Happy Canyon to the list of places that can make very good Cabernet Sauvignon. It is too early to know how good and how many others will join in that pursuit.

    Gary Pisoni argues convincinly that there are places at the top of the Santa Lucia Mountains AVA, especially in protected folds that will someday offer big, rich Cabs.

    We all know what is possible in the hills west of San Jose. And it is not just Ridge that has succeeded up there. Sadly, some very great Cab turf has been lost to housing over the years.

    Some of the Alexander Valley and Knights Valley hills also have produced very good Cabs, and maybe, over time, more will join in and establish a critical mass such that we will take about those places as a region and not just individual bottles.

  6. Charlie, I haven’t heard Gary’s argument for SLH Cabernet, but I have one word: HAH! Gary is a big talker who is capable of backing up his claims with real wine, but we need to taste the wine first.

  7. It’s obvious that Napa has claim on top quality Cab based on ageability, soil, climate, expertise and experience. It’s the latter two that intrigue me. Are the “also-ran” terroirs considered such because they just couldn’t produce (enough) great Cabs? Or because of a historical accident of timing, reputation and resulting investment, so that they just haven’t been exploited fully?

  8. Napa Valley is a typical case study in spatial economics.
    Based on the predominant view in the spatial economics literature, early firms settle in one or two locations by historical accident and on account of geographical endowments, transport possibilities and proximity to sources of supplies and materials. Other firms are attracted by their presence, and the industry ends up clustered in one or in both (early-chosen) places. This spatial ordering, however, is not predictable, stable or unique: “a different set of early events could have steered the locational pattern into a different outcome, so that settlement history is crucial’.
    W. Brian Arthur (Increasing Returns & Path Dependence in the Economy; Michigan; 1997) notes that most industry location patterns are emergent-dynamical processes that are shaped by history, owing to what he calls “historical dependence”. Thus, in accordance to the “historical dependence” view, Napa Valley, “Silicon Valley and similar concentrations should be regarded as largely the outcome of chance”.

  9. Mr. O’Connor–

    I wonder if the grapes know that?

    Most of the North Coast, plus Livermore, the Santa Clara Valley, the Sierra Foothills and even Cucamonga were planted eons ago. And true to the planting patterns of those areas, they had an array of grape varieties.

    There must be a reason beyond chance that the good Cabs came from Napa and not the Sonoma Valley, the Alexander Valley, El Dorado County, etc. Quality was found in the grapes, and while it is a truism that not every possible site in CA was tried at the time, or has yet been tried, there is a qualitataive reason why the Napa Valley earned its spurs for Cab.

  10. Mr. Olken,
    The quality (and propensity) of Napa’s various mesoclimates and soils for winegrowing is indisputable. But this does not necessarily mean that Napa’s physical and geographical attributes are superior, for the production of CS, to dozens of other regions in CA.
    The issue I raised was that the “Napa Valley” is the result of a conjunction of factors that were put together by historical chance; and this combination of endogenous and exogenous factors could have happened to many other locations in CA with similar physical and geographical features.
    History is full of examples of the massive adoption of certain technologies by consumers that was not motivated solely by qualitative reasons: PCs were mainly adopted in spite of the superior quality of the Macs; QWERTY (typewriter) keyboards were adopted instead of the superior DVORAK layout in order to slowdown typists and reduce the incidence of jamming; VHS format VCRs prevailed over the allegedly superior BETAMAX system… Economists identify these emerging phenomena in a variety of ways: positive network externalities, collective switching costs, lock-in, path-dependence (nonergodicity), positive feedbacks, self-reinforcing mechanisms…
    The fact is both chance and necessity play important roles in the emergence of industry locational patterns. But imagine if minor, random events in history had been different: what if Robert Mondavi had lived in Sonoma County? Or the 1976 Judgment of Paris had never happened? Would the Eden of CS in California be in another area? I cannot say for sure, but why not?

  11. Mr. O’Connor–

    Maybe if Captain Neibaum or Georges de Latour had lived somewhere other than Napa, then maybe your point would be stronger.

    But, please remember your history. Paul Masson was not a jug wine producer a century and some ago. He was making serious wine in the hills above San Jose. And there were others. He had quality rootstock, better than Harazsthy, but it was Sam Brannan and others who brought the better rootstock to Napa.

    Still, there has been almost a century and a half of Cab history all over CA and it was Napa that emerged as qualititatively best even before Prohibition.

    I won’t disagree that there MIGHT be other places in CA that could produce large quantities of superb Cab but so far they have not been discovered and it is not for not trying.

    Frankly, I hope it happens. Pinot has multiple quality locations from Santa Barbara to Oregon. Cab so far has been less lucky in finding multiple places where it can make significant quantities of superb wine. At least to my palate.

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