Napa Valley Cabernet is synonymous with quality, luxury, scores, and of course, the subsequent price tags. But what makes the wines from Napa Valley command such a market presence? What actually makes Napa Valley wines so special?
Let’s skip over the portion of history where its wines were aged in redwood barrels and bottled in jugs, and jump right into the “Judgement of Paris” of 1976. Bordeaux varietals had been imported and planted in Napa, where winemakers hoped to create competitive contenders on the world stage. With Napa going toe-to-toe against Bordeaux and winning a stunning upset in a blind tasting against the French, the world became aware of the quality that Napa had to offer. Later, with the 1985 vintage of Groth Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley achieved its first 100 point score from critic Robert Parker, growing the region’s esteem to even loftier heights.
The driving force behind the recognition is the terroir of Napa Valley. A beautifully Mediterranean climate blankets the region, protected by the Mayacamas mountains in the western and northern reaches, and the Vaca range on the eastern side. The northern areas of the valley are laden with volcanic rock and ash, and the southern end is ripe with sedimentary rock deposited by the advances and retreats of the San Pablo Bay. Winemakers will tell you that the greatest wines are produced not in the cellar, but on the vine – Napa Valley is a prime example of this philosophy. The region is known for the ripeness of the fruit and how it translates into the glass, with forward flavors of ripe plum, black currant, black cherry, raspberry, blueberry, and blackberry, as well as secondary flavors of minerality, leather, florals, and garden herbs. The more experienced connoisseur will likely pay a premium for sub-appellation nuances – a prime example being the “Rutherford Dust” that only occurs in the vines grown in the Rutherford bench area of the valley.
The Napa Valley can be broken into four general zones:
- The Mayacamas mountains on the west, where more precipitation is seen due to the influence of weather patterns coming in from the Pacific.
- The enclosed northern end (wrapped by the Mayacamas mountains connecting to the Vaca range) sees a warmer climate, due to its geographically enclosed nature.
- The eastern Vaca range, which is much drier due to the rain shadow created by the Mayacamas in the west
- The open southern valley floor, which sees cooler weather patterns due to the influence of the San Pablo Bay.
From May to September, daytime highs reach the 80s and 90s throughout the valley, and in the evening the coastal fog rolls in, cooling the valley to the 40s and 50s. This swing in temperature allows the grapes to fully ripen while locking in the perfect acidity [Now, acidity may not sound like the most appealing thing outright, but in relation to a wine: imagine a dish like fish or a taco. Let’s call it a fish taco! Fish tacos are awesome, but what makes all the wonderful flavors even better? A squeeze of lime (acid). If you’ve been following this blog, you already know we love our food analogies in relation to wine and winemaking, as the two go hand-in-hand]. This balance of ripe fruit and brilliant acidity make for a large portion of what makes Napa Valley Cabernets structured, delicious, respected, reputable, and downright expensive.
But do they need to really be that expensive? Yes and no.
If you have a winery, vineyards, a tasting room, staff, and all the common bills any regular person or business would have, then the answer is yes. Buying in a tasting room is an experience – it’s direct to the winery from a consumer, you get to experience the views, the cool cellar temperatures, art, gifts, and food the tasting rooms have to offer, and the experience of being in the heart of wine country. However, you are paying for all of that in the price of the bottle.
If you don’t want to spend the money on traveling to the tasting rooms or Napa wine country, are you still paying too much for Napa juice in the stores? Even if it is on sale or closeout pricing, the answer is unfortunately yes. As a winemaker, even if you sell your label in bulk to a distributor, you still need to earn revenue to offset your costs and possibly make a profit. Then the distributor needs to make their cut for housing your product, transportation costs, and a staff as well. Then enters the retailer, who needs to cover rent, a staff, and all the common expenses incurred with running a store. Every bottle of wine from anywhere in the world that you find on a store shelf is required to go through this three-tier system before it reaches you, the wine drinker. Each stop increases the bottle’s sticker price. Even if it is on sale, remember that everybody eats – on your dime.
As a general rule of thumb, most Napa wines cost about the same to produce. Factors like terroir and a winemaker’s reputation fetch a higher price at market, but it doesn’t increase the actual price to produce Napa Valley wine. We promised to pull back the curtain with this blog, and here is the curtain fully pulled back on Napa Valley. Amazing juice? Absolutely and undoubtedly – just look at the hero wines and vintages dating back to the mid-70s. But is it accessible to everyday consumers? Not quite. It’d be a shame to buy the current vintage of, say, Caymus for the asking price on-site or from a retailer and drink it for dinner that night, since that is a wine for aging and collecting. But wouldn’t it be nice to experience the quality and terroir of a Napa Cabernet on a random Tuesday night without feeling guilty about spending triple digits? That’s where we come in.
It has long been Cam’s belief that great wine doesn’t need to cost exorbitant amounts of money. This is what our brand was built upon. When you remove the fancy labels, tasting rooms, and bypass the three tier markups and sell direct to consumers online, you are left with great juice at a great price. Our annual Fall Cabernet Countdown begins once again this October, illustrating Cam’s core belief that great Napa Cabernet can be affordable to the common person.