Why the hell are wines from the Napa Valley so expensive? As the owner of an international wine shop for seven years, I definitely sold my share of Napa Valley wine. The catch was that my wine shop was in downtown NYC — not an area of the city where one buys $60 Napa Valley reds and whites on the regular. They moved slowly, and the selection was small.
But I have always been fascinated with Napa Valley, the reason we are on the wine map in the first place with its wild variance in soils, its elevation and the fact that it is smaller than most of the world’s most sought-after wine regions (it’s just one-eighth the size of Bordeaux!). But the coolest thing about Napa Valley is that it’s the Johnny-come-lately of the world’s fine-wine regions. The wine culture was started by immigrants from Europe with winemaking skills who fell in love with the land and started to make wine for themselves to rival that of their homelands. Of course, back then Napa didn’t have the high-end perception it does today. It was straight-up scrappy. The first commercial vineyards weren’t planted until the 1830s, and it wasn’t until 1861 that Charles Krug, an immigrant from Prussia, started the first commercial wine estate, with only 540 acres under vine.
Over the next several decades, it was touch and go for these winemakers in a new land, dealing with the crushing phylloxera louse and the long, drawn-out years of Prohibition, which uprooted many vines — to be replaced with other crops such as walnut trees. And when the Volstead Act was finally repealed and Prohibition ended, even more work had to be done to rebuild what was almost lost. That’s intense, right? Some names well known today such as Heitz and Mondavi were key players in the work being done to bring Napa Valley back to where it was. In 1944, seven vintners formed the Napa Valley Vintners to collectively address the challenges of the time, which included a labor shortage and the ability to ship wine east.
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This was the beginning of the NVV, which began to encourage marketing and hospitality for the area with the goal of worldwide attention.
That attention came in 1976 with the Judgment of Paris in which Napa Valley wines were, for the first time, tasted blind against Cabernets and Chardonnays from France, and prevailed. This was a watershed moment, not only in Napa Valley and California wine history but in the history of the United States as a winemaking country.
Then things got crazy. The interest in Napa swelled, tourism increased to atmospheric heights and a deluge of wineries began popping up through the five-mile-wide and 30-mile long coastal region just an hour north of San Francisco. Tons of money was being pumped into Napa, and by the 1980s its popularity could not be ignored. In 1981, the U.S. government designated Napa Valley California’s first American Viticultural Area, or AVA, based on its unique climate, terrain, culture and history.
So guys, this is the reason why Napa Valley can be expensive. This is our Burgundy. This is our fine wine region. And to spend $60 or more on a wine makes sense. One would do the same for a fine Burgundy or Bordeaux. It is absolutely worth it to spend a little and see how wonderful these wines can be.
Now, in Burgundy, they have the “Village Phenomenon” — bottles are offered from just outside the most coveted areas for lower prices (the magic of the Bordeaux’s petit chateaux, where 95 percent of the region’s wines come from, can be enjoyed at around $15). But Napa Valley does not have such designations. Instead, it has 16 sub-appellations with names like Rutherford, Yountville and Mount Veeder, where the average acre costs $200,000 and the valley as a whole produces four percent of California’s total grape harvest.
So, is there any way to enjoy great Napa Valley wine while not breaking the bank? I asked Patsy McGaughy, communications director of Napa Valley Vintners, over lunch a few weeks ago. She was in New York promoting the second annual Somms and Sliders event, where 50-plus restaurants across the city pair Napa Valley wines with their signature burgers. How American is that? Eating a staple of US of A cuisine with a wine from California’s first official AVA!
I sat with Pasty on a rainy afternoon, sipping on a supple, smooth and slightly herbaceous 2012 Farella Coombsville Napa Valley Merlot (retail about $40), and a crisp citrus and mineral-driven 2013 Araujo Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc (retail about $60). Patsy gave me three tips to help everyday wine lovers experience one of the country’s most celebrated wine regions and not lose their wallets.
Napa Valley is known mostly for Cabernet Sauvignon in the historical sense, making up 40 percent of the overall harvest and 55 percent of the overall crop value. The best way to enjoy affordable Cabs from Napa, Patsy says, is to seek out some classic producers who are making great wine but have been in the business for a long time. They may not have the financial demands of the newer wineries in the valley, since just buying land is today’s premium price. Some examples she listed were Robert Mondavi ($18-$25), Charles Krug ($20-$30), Clos Du Val ($10-15) and Beaulieu Vineyards (wide range $8-$30 because of large land holdings) Some of these are the OG’s of the valley.
Patsy also says that alternative varieties can also be great values. Napa Valley is always experimenting with new grapes searching for a new home. She mentioned wines like Heitz Cellars Grignolino ($20), a native grape from Piedmont in Italy, or even Sauvignon Blanc, which ranges but starts under $20.
Go for Napa Valley Merlot. Merlot is awesome, guys. Don’t let a movie from 2004 guide your path. Patsy says that Napa Valley Merlot is generally a good value red wine, and often made in similar style and from some of the region’s leading Cabernet Sauvignon producers but at a lower price point. She says many of these are at the same quality as some of the area’s Cabs. Some examples are Clos Du Val Napa Valley Merlot ($15-$20 — the price is slightly higher because they probably don’t make as much Merlot as they do Cab), Mondavi Napa Valley Merlot ($7-$20) and another OG, Franciscan Estate Napa Valley Merlot ($20)
I don’t know about you guys, but this often Euro-leaning wine geek is about to go through an affordable Napa Valley phase. See you at the wine shop!