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Playing with the Grape and Crush reports

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My intern, Chuck, was telling me about a certain Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon we’re both familiar with that, while pretty good, could be better. He said the owner was looking for some Merlot to blend in, to improve it.

“Why Merlot?” I asked. “For softness,” Chuck answered. The Cabernet’s tannins were too raw.

“Why not Cabernet Franc or Petit Verdot?” I said. Based on my experiences, and some reporting I’ve been doing, both these varieties are increasingly popular, especially in Napa Valley, to blend in with Cabernet. I personally thought that Merlot was less resorted to, because it is such a difficult grape to grow right.

Well, in bridge they talk about taking the guess out of the finesse by peeking at your opponent’s cards. In wine, instead of guessing about what’s up, what’s down, and what’s sideways, we can always look it up in the two guidebooks the California Department of Food and Agriculture puts out each year: the Grape Crush Report and the Grape Acreage Report.

I predicted that I thought Petit Verdot was the most expensive red grape variety in California. We looked it up: weighted average dollars per ton: $1,192. A glance of the rest of the list shows that that isn’t even close to being the most expensive. Twenty varieties cost more, including Pinot Meunier, Lagrein and Counoise!

Okay, so my predictive powers as Chuck’s boss were proven to be a total sham. But wait! “Let’s look at District 4 instead,” I said, that being Napa Valley. “I bet Petit Verdot’s the most expensive grape there.”

Flip to page 63 of the Crush guide, and there it is: average price, Petit Verdot, District 4: $4,919. That’s higher than Cabernet Sauvignon ($4,456), Merlot ($2,518), Syrah ($3,015) and Pinot Noir ($2,473)–but not higher than Cabernet Franc, whose average Napa price last year was $5,238.

Still, I could just as easily have pulled a switcheroo with Chuck and said that I bet Cab Franc was Napa’s most expensive red grape, so I considered myself vindicated. The point being that Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot increasingly are being relied upon to complexify (is that a word?) Cabernet Sauvignon. Cab Franc gives, I think, aromatics and sometimes a lovely green note of olives and herbs (in contrast to Cab Sauv’s blackberry fruit), while Petit Verdot adds an elegant structure; it seems to have tannins that are at once smoother and denser than Cabernet’s, which can be prickly despite modern tannin management.

Next I turned to the Acreage Report to see if it jived with the Crush Report. There was in fact a big spike in plantings of Petit Verdot in 2010, but it wasn’t in Napa, as I’d expected; only 18 new acres were non-bearing last year. No, the big increase in California Petit Verdot (59 new acres) was in San Luis Obispo, of all places. It took me about 3 seconds to make the connection: right before meeting with Chuck, I’d been with Scott McLeod, who left Rubicon last year to consult and, possibly, do his own thing one of these days. Scott was telling me about the Adelaide Hills region of western Paso Robles, where one of his clients is located. He predicted, confidently, that this area will become known as a prime source of Bordeaux-style red wines.

So is western Paso Robles where all that Petit Verdot is going? I looked up Cabernet Franc. Only 21 non-bearing CF last year in SLO county.  Where’s most of the new California Cab Franc going? The Sierra Foothills, is where. Once again, it took me only seconds to realize what was going on. Many years ago, more than 10 and possibly even 15, after my first trip to Amador, El Dorado and Calaveras counties, I’d returned home convinced that the best grape and wine up there in the mountains wasn’t Zinfandel, as most would have said. No, based on my tasting, it was Cabernet Franc. I said so and wrote as much. Evidently the growers still believe in it, because between those three counties they had 130 acres of non-bearing Cab Franc last year, about as much as the rest of the state altogether.

This is super-geeky stuff, and I wouldn’t blame anyone from hanging themselves if they even got one-third of the way through reading it. But for some of us, it’s what we thrive on.

  1. I love the “super-geeky stuff” Steve! I’m able to learn more and more by reading your stuff, thanks!

  2. Some of us, do thrive on this stuff! Love it.

  3. Steve, you are great for the wine business, thank you. I certainly appreciate your geekyness (is that a word?), but I also appreciate your light heartedness towards wine and your ability to poke fun at our industry (when it needs it) and just make wine enjoyable. Thanks. Cheers!

  4. jon campbell says:

    just filtered some awesome el dorado county cab franc yesterday!

  5. Ron Saikowski says:

    This is the real”behind the scenes” stuff of what happens in the Wine World. Great Job!

  6. Christian Miller says:

    The market for Cabernet Franc is an interesting one, since there is a fair amount planted, but only a small portion gets bottled under it’s varietal name.

    For extra geeky fun, when you really have nothing better to do, check out Table 8 in the CASS reports, which gives the range and distribution of prices for each grape and district.

  7. When I began working at Ironstone (Calaveras County), I asked for what they were best known. I was told, “Merlot.” Then, I looked at their acreage, and realized that they made more Cab Franc than anyone else in the state. I asked, why wouldn’t you want to hang your hat on that, especially since the state is loaded with Merlot people hanging their hats on that one (this was during the Merlot boom). Oh… light bulb went on, and now they hang their hat on Cab Franc, as it should be.

    Their Cab Franc was really juicy, as I remember it.

    Meanwhile… Com’mon Napa Valley and your cockamamie prices. How to limit the best wines coming out of Napa… Frankly, as long as a Cab only has to be 75 percent Cabernet Sauvignon to be called such, as a winemaker, and 85 percent of the region to label it that way, I’d step outside of Napa for the CF, and let those who are artificially inflating their prices learn the consequences.

    A little imagination can go a long way to making creatively juicy and tasty wines.

  8. Interesting. Total Petit Verdot production from District 8 (includes SLO Cty) increased a whopping 42% (from ’09 to ’10, where ’08 and ’09 were roughly the same).

    Yes, I keep the last few years of crop reports within arms reach ;)

    Fun article, thanks.

  9. I would’ve guessed Malbec as being one of the highest priced grapes in Napa because there is so little of it.

  10. jon campbell says:

    you inspired me too….we were arguing about what to plant on the back side of our place…..I thought Graciano or Cab Franc, but now after reading this and bringing it up at work today, it will be Cab Franc…..

    So expect 12 more acres of Amador County Cab Franc on next years report

    (we already have 7 or 8 on one of our el dorado county leases)

  11. Derek Cronk says:

    If the intent of the “certain” winery was to soften the tannins, Petit Verdot or Cab Franc would not have been good choices. Petit Verdot is more tannic than Cab Sauv. Cab Franc would be about equal. That leaves Merlot or Malbac, assuming they wished to stay with Bourdeaux varieties. Otherwise all kids of options open up. Also I think you partially answered your own question by looking at the relative prices. Merlot at $2518/ton or Cab Franc at $5238/ton; you are talking 2 to 1.

  12. Way back in the 90’s (was it really almost 20 years ago?) I was suggesting to friends (and even consulting clients) in the Foothills that they really needed to give up their obsessions with trying to produce Chardonnay and even Cabernet Sauvignon that attempted to go head-to-head with the same varieties from the Coastal appellations – and plant Cab Franc. I’m glad some did, with or without my input.

  13. Derek, yes, but I find that nowadays with modern tannin management all the old arguments about which Bordeaux variety is more or less tannic are becoming irrelevant. Howell Mountain used to be synonomous with hard tannins. No more. Some of those wines are as soft as velvet.

  14. Matt Mauldin says:

    After trying Adelaida’s Viking Estate Cab a couple of times over the last few years, I’m definitely a believer the Adelaida Hills area of Paso for Bordeaux varietals… Fun article Steve…

  15. Zack Seymour says:

    Steve, How realiable is the Brix in the crush report? I was just looking at it and Pinot Noir 25 Brix while Zin only 21?

  16. Zack, I don’t know. I think the state only reports on #s supplied to them by people involved in the deals.

  17. Christian Miller says:

    “How reliable is the Brix in the crush report? I was just looking at it and Pinot Noir 25 Brix while Zin only 21?”

    Caution is required when looking at the state totals, rather than by district. Remember that a lot of Zin in California is picked early for White Zin, which skews the averages. For example, if you look at just District 3 (Sonoma County), you’ll see the brix is higher for Zin.

  18. Steve:
    Please refer to your first paragraph. You’re not a wine-maker. All the bar-graphs and pie-charts in the world won’t a good wine make.
    Chuck is probably right.
    Until you’re actually involved in the actual wine making process and its many decisions – you’re just a dilettante making so many cavalier guesses.

    With Kind Regards – Andrew

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