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?