Buyers’ Guide to VINTAGES – Oct 15th, 2016

Sustainability & Price Perspective in California and Global Finds
by Sara d’Amato, with notes from John Szabo, David Lawrason and Michael Godel

Sara d'Amato

Sara d’Amato

This week’s VINTAGES release features both a spotlight on the wines of Piedmont previously visited by John Szabo, as well as a feature on the wines of California. Having just returned from Napa and Sonoma on a trip sponsored by California’s Wine Institute, a public policy advocacy association of California wineries, I’m pleased to share a few insights on recent developments in the region. With over 200 million cases produced annually and 110 grape varieties planted, VINTAGES has a great deal to choose from in California. The majority of wines in this feature have been sourced from the premium regions of Napa and Sonoma with a few key finds from Paso Robles and Monterey. While the prices are respectively high, the quality is excellent due to the outstanding vintages selected.

Napa Valley’s Bubble

Although Napa Valley makes up only 4% of the total US wine production it is the most well-known and revered appellation in the country. Part of this has to do with a strong marketing board, Napa Valley Vintners, supported by an industry whose average price for cabernet is one of the highest in the world. Surprisingly Canada is still the single largest export market for the US despite rising wine costs. (Last month, I led a Napa Valley masterclass in Toronto for a group of sommeliers and media, John Szabo has these notes to share from that event.)

The arguably exorbitant prices are in large part due to the price of the grapes. On the high end, cabernet from the esteemed To Kalon vineyard is now sold for between $18,000 to $25,000 per ton. To Kalon is owned by three names: Robert Mondavi, Opus One and Andy Beckstoffer. Beckstoffer does not produce wine himself but is known for selling these highly reputed grapes for a set multiplier of the winery’s retail price per bottle, requiring a minimum bottle price of $150. A smart and unusual system of grape pricing in a rather unregulated grape market.

To put this in perspective, in Washington, cabernet sauvignon is sold for an average $1,527 per ton as reported by the USDA in 2015. In contrast, the average price for a ton of cabernet sauvignon in Napa is $4,328. Although you can’t expect value from Napa, as no bulk wine grapes can be grown here, you can expect quality, depth of flavour, concentration and extremely age-worthy wines.

So why does cabernet make up 40% of Napa’s grape production? Because it grows exceptionally well in the varied soils of the fluvial, alluvial and mountain regions of the Valley along with the fact that cabernet wines can command the highest prices of any other varieties planted. Despite this, some of the most interesting wines tasted on this most recent journey were produced from other grape varieties.

Robert Mondavi’s basic Fumé Blanc is one of the greatest values of Napa Valley (relatively speaking of course). However, both the Fumé Blanc from the Oakville AVA and the To Kalon Fumé Blanc are breathtaking, especially as they gracefully age for a decade or more. Surprisingly, a portion of the To Kalon vineyards owned by Mondavi is dedicated to sauvignon blanc, a much less valued grape variety. The late Robert Mondavi’s stalwart dedication to sauvignon blanc has largely to do with his historical embracement of this variety in Napa of which he was a pioneer. We also received clarification of the term “Fumé Blanc”, a term coined by Robert Mondavi in 1968, which does not refer to a lightly oaked style but rather a bone dry style, very different from the sweet sauvignon historically produced.

Very few “corporate”, non-family owned, wineries exist in Napa although Beringer has a strong hold on some serious sites including a great deal of well-respected Howell Mountain fruit. Mid-afternoon last week, I trekked high up the mountain to 1,800 feet, with a group of Canadian sommeliers to visit Beringer’s Bancroft Ranch site.  These volcanic, well-drained soils largely grow cabernet sauvignon and merlot. One of the most interesting wines of the day was Beringer’s Bancroft Ranch merlot exhibiting unadulterated plushness and luxurious charm that forced us, for a moment, into a quiet reverie. It may have been the bright sun streaming through the Manzanita trees, but were all entranced by this magical location capable of producing some of the world’s most dramatic and arresting wines.

Howell Mountain at 1,800ft, Napa Valley. Beringer's Bancroft Ranch vineyards.

Howell Mountain at 1,800ft, Napa Valley. Beringer’s Bancroft Ranch vineyards.

Trinchero Family Estates, the forefather of White Zinfandel in 1974, (originally named Oeil de Patrie in 1972 and produced in a dry style), delighted us with their 2012 Forte blend of malbec, cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot. In addition Trinchero’s impressive library of back vintages was an unusual find in a region with such high demand and elevated prices.

It does not appear that Napa’s “bubble” is about to burst despite grand prices, and for us Canucks, a low dollar only emphasizes this fact. Prices continue to climb due to the “dream vintages” of 2011-2013 which were subject to significant critical acclaim. The demand is just too high for the Valley’s small production. Although the wines of 2014 and 2015 (a short crop) are showing well, 2016 is shaping up to be a stellar vintage with ideal conditions despite extreme drought. Producers were giddy with excitement during this year’s harvest which is largely complete. The concentration and immense structure in recent vintages is largely to do with this drought affecting yields and producing smaller berry size than ever before. Although Napa fans may be rightly aggrieved with surging prices, the quality should not disappoint.

Driving Sustainability in Sonoma

Although Sonoma is significantly larger than Napa in area, the wine produced makes up only 6% of the Californian total. There are many features that set Sonoma apart from the rest of California and certainly Napa. Most significantly are cooler coastal influences felt here due to the region’s close proximity to Pacific gaps and to the foggy effect of San Pablo Bay. These climatic particularities make it an ideal location to grow the chill-yearning varieties of pinot noir and chardonnay.

For some time now Sonoma has been known as a leader of sustainability in California, now more than ever with the surge in wineries that are certified by the CCSW (Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing) program. Sonoma’s winery association has an admirable goal of becoming the first 100% sustainable wine region by 2019. They are coming close to that goal with 65% of vineyard acres self-assessed sustainable and 48% of vineyard acres certified sustainable. Although the CCSW sustainable guidebook suggests hundreds of sustainable practices, the most important involve water management. This is of particular importance as California enters its 5th year of extreme drought. Innovative techniques such as evapotranspiration sensors are being used now to monitor moisture in specific blocks of the vineyard. Broader social practices are also targeted by the initiative such as affordable housing, childcare and education for permanent and seasonal workers. Finally sustainable practices have also been put into place to preserve agricultural land. In California an outstanding 30,000 acres of farmland are lost per year and to combat this trend, Sonoma wine producers have put into practice an ambitious 100-year conservation plan.

Clay Mauritson atop Rockpile AVA vineyards Sonoma

Clay Mauritson atop Rockpile AVA vineyards Sonoma

Sustainable favourites of the trip include MacMurray’s 2014 Estate Russian River Chardonnay which boasts a Burgundian “Batard” like structure and character. Furthermore, Seghesio’s Russian River Valley Arneis and Vermentino were a surprising find.

The relatively new Sonoma AVA of Rockpile was perhaps the most interesting terroir of the trip, most notably home to savory zinfandel. The vineyards are located at high elevations of over 1200 ft in some cases and produce intense and complex wine. Mauritson Winery’s 2013 Cemetery Vineyard Zinfandel was particularly notable for its aromatic and unique garrigue.

Without further ado, we’ll leave you with a few of top picks from California and our favourite global finds.

Our Top Picks from the Oct 15th VINTAGES release:

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That’s it for this week.


Sara d’Amato

From VINTAGES October 15, 2016

Use these quick links for immediate access to all of our Top Picks in the New Release.

Lawrason’s Take
Sara’s Sommelier Selections
Michael’s Mix
Szabo’s Smart Buys
All October 15th Reviews

New Release and VINTAGES Preview

Editors Note: You can find complete critic reviews by clicking on any of the highlighted wine names, bottle images or links. Premium subscribers to WineAlign see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid members wait 30 days to see new reviews. Premium membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!

Squealing Pig Sauvignon Blanc 2015

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