When people find out I am a sommelier, one of the first things they ask is, “Okay, find me a killer Cabernet for less than $10. Oh yeah, from Napa Valley, I love Napa Cab”.
No can do my friend. That is an impossible dream.
The average price of an acre of prime Napa vineyard is about $150,000. This acre will yield, under proper circumstances, about 4000 bottles of wine. You will need thirteen barrels in which to age this wine. You will need employees at harvest and crush. It would help if you had a degree in oeneology too. You will need access to a fermentation tank. You will need a cool space for your barrels to age, and then you will need access to a bottling line, corks, bottles, labels, shipping crates, a distribution channel and yes, stop this crazy train I want to get off too! After all this, your wine will up up costing your customers about $150/ bottle, and you won’t be making to much profit in the process.
I have often wondered why a large majority of red wine drinkers seem to be ‘stuck’ on Napa Valley Cabernet when there is a whole planet of red wine out there, often much less expensive. I do understand the majesty of voluptuous, ripe, sun-soaked Cabernet Sauvignon, enriched by the dusty earth of the valley floor, bathed in that expensive vat of french oak. But truly, the allure here is the ripeness levels, and it is Napa’s climate that allows for this.
The climate in Napa Valley is classified as Mediterranean. What this means is that the winters are mild, rainfall is minimal and summers are characterised by hot days coupled with cool nights. So the sommelier secret here is that there are many viticultural regions around the world that also share this climate and are well-suited to growing Cabernet Sauvignon. The big difference? The real estate is much cheaper. Here are just a few:
1) Paso Robles,CA. 240 Miles south of Napa Valley, Paso Robles is a bit hotter on average, but otherwise shares many of the Mediterranean climatic qualities. Ripe, luscious Cabernets can be had for under $25/ bottle. Two producers I recommend are Justin ($25.00, and yes, these are the same people who make the ultra-premium, ultra-expensive Isoceles) and Broadside ($19.99). Drink ’em young and move on.
2) Rapel Valley. Chile. Cabernet was introduced in 1851. It is a large region, with some climatic variations as one travels from North to South, but in general again, one finds that moderate, Mediterranean climate suitable for smooth-drinking, agreeable Cabernet. There is also a large focus on organic and biodynamic viticultural practices here. I recommend the Casas del Bosque Cabernet 2009 ($18)
3) Tuscany, Italy. A magical land of fresh pasta, fashionable sunglasses and folks whizzing around on Vespas wearing expensive shoes. This region adopted Cabernet in the early 1980s, planting it mainly on the west coast, known as the Maremma. Two affordable ‘super-tuscans’ that involve plenty of Cabernet (as well as some Sangiovese, Merlot & Cabernet Franc) are Rigoloccio Toscana IGT 2007 ($18) & the Villa Antinori Toscana IGT 2006 ($17). Tuscan Cabernets and Cabernet blends tends to have a dustier, more herbaceous quality than those found in the Americas.
So there you have it. It may not be the answer you were looking for, but at least you know now why so many of those Napa Valley Cabernets come with such a huge price tag. Location, location, location!
All the wines featured in this article can be found at:
And, a retraction. Last month, I erroneously placed Piedmont in northeastern Italy. It is in the northwest.
Next month’s column will explore White Wines:The Road Less Taken.
Food & Wine Magazine Top Sommelier 2011