Finding elite value in Napa Valley’s Super Seconds
“Super Seconds” is a term I first heard in the 1980s. It referred to several Bordeaux chateaux that had been classified as Deuxieme, or Second Growths, but that were critically considered higher in quality than their Second Growth sisters—and, in some cases, approached if they did not exceed the quality of the far more famous First Growths of Bordeaux.
The Super Seconds included, if I recall correctly, Leoville-Las-Cases, Pichon-Lalande, Gruaud-Larose and Cos d’Estournal. I was reminded of the Super Seconds the other day when I read Steven Spurrier’s column, “2005 Médoc Super Seconds,” in The Tasting Panel magazine’s Dec. 2012 issue, whose digital version you can access here. (You can also read more about the tasting Spurrier attended on this blog by a young woman, Hilary Howes, who’s studying for her M.W.)
The thing about the Super Seconds was that you could get a great Bordeaux at a fraction of the price of a First, like Lafite, Mouton or Latour. In other words, the Super Seconds were, above all, values. Not the kind of value that, say, a $10 wine that scores 89 points provides. That’s everyday or common value—“Wal-Mart value.” There’s another form of value we can call “elite value.” This is where you spend a lot of money on something, but it still seems like you’re getting a bargain, because it’s pretty much as good as something from another producer who charges more.
This notion of “elite value” is well known to restaurateurs. In the Sept. 10, 2012 issue of The New Yorker, staff writer John Colapinto refers to it in his article, “Check, Please,” about New York’s Eleven Madison Park restaurant. Eleven Madison’s full tasting menu costs about $900, astonishingly high, but lower than, for instance, the tasting menu at Thomas Keller’s Per Se. Colapinto writes that, compared to places like Jean Georges, Eleven Madison is “the least expensive prix-fixe option” among its peers and paraphrases the New York Times’ Frank Bruni as describing it [Eleven Madison] as “a cheaper alternative to other fine dining places…”. Colapinto quotes a food blogger and restaurant critic, Ryan Sutton, that “the trick of fine dining—or any luxury business [is] How can you convince customers to spend eight hundred and seventy-six dollars on a wine-paired tasting menu and make them feel like they got a value?”
Eleven Madison is, in other words, a Super Second restaurant, an elite value. There are Super Seconds in all luxury fields: A BMW, for instance, is a Super Second Mercedes. A Calvin Klein men’s suit is a Super Second compared to Brooks Brothers. I have paid good money to stay at El Camino Real, in Puerto Vallarta, but it’s a Super Second compared to the Grand Velas Riviera Nayarit.
In any field of luxury consumer good or service that’s mature enough to have developed a hierarchy of competition, the concept of elite value has established itself. A young, emerging field, like space tourism, simply isn’t built up enough to have developed elite value vendors. A fully-developed field, like Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, which is extremely competitive, evolved an elite value spectrum some time ago. If we can call Harlan Estate, Screaming Eagle and a few others Napa’s First Growths, we can certainly define a range of Second Growths. I will refrain from doing so here and now, but I will identify a few Napa Valley Cabs that are “Super Seconds” in the sense that they approach and sometimes exceed the First Growths, at a fraction of their price. They include (but are not limited to) Sequoia Grove, Von Strasser’s vineyard-designates, Duckhorn, Long Meadow Ranch, Goldschmidt Game Ranch, Piña, La Jota, Frank Family and Monticello, all generally costing less than $100. I would happily take and cellar any of them and not be jealous of my richer neighbor who had Harlan and Screaming Eagle. Indeed, I might even feel smug, knowing that I could buy 8 or 10 bottles of each, for every one bottle he had.