Last: The Napa Valley dilemma: popularity drives up prices

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When I began my career in the wine business over 30 years ago, I quickly fell for Napa Valley wines. The best ones could rival the Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines from Bordeaux, and often for far less money. In addition, they had no problem getting the grapes ripe, thus avoiding some of the green flavours found in the cooler vintages from Bordeaux (they don’t get those much anymore).

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The Judgement of Paris competition in 1976 got the ball rolling when it pitted wines from Napa against those from Bordeaux, shocking the wine world when Napa came out on top. Despite this crowning achievement, Napa Valley wines remained well-priced relative to their quality. In addition, Robert Mondavi, among others, exploited the appeal of the region by developing the concept of what we now know as “wine tourism”, and why not? Warm weather, sun-drenched vineyards, great restaurants, and about an hour’s drive from the coast and San Francisco.

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Cabernet grapes grow on the vine in the wine district of Napa, Calif. Herald files / Bloomberg Photo by Elin McCoy /Bloomberg

Then the inevitable happened; publications devoted to wine, most notably The Wine Spectator, regularly pitted wines from Napa against those from Bordeaux in numerical shoot-offs, typically with Napa coming out on top. Winemakers took notice as well, and the movement to equalize pricing took flight. Napa quickly became a playground for the wealthy; San Francisco millionaires began buying vineyards and building fancy wineries, complete with weekend retreat homes. Tourists came in droves, keen to experience a taste of life amongst the vines. Smaller wineries could sell most of their production directly to tourists via cellar door sales, and life was good.

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Those who got in early did particularly well as land prices began to soar and, assuming you could even find a vineyard for sale now, you can expect to pay about $1 million per acre. It’s been this way for a couple of decades and, as such, the logistics of starting a winery in Napa means that you would have to sell your wine for $100 a bottle just to break even, and that’s assuming critics like it. If they do like it, however, you might just become the next Screaming Eagle, a small winery that hit the jackpot after wine critic Robert Parker anointed it with a 99-point score when it was first released in 1992, selling for $250 at the time. It now sells for $4,000 a bottle, and older vintages can go for much more.

All of this might strike the average wine lover as absurd, and it is, but such is the world of rarefied wine.

This past fall, I returned to Napa Valley, a place I used to visit regularly both as a wine merchant and a wine writer. Other than the addition of a few new hedge-funded wineries, the place hasn’t changed much. St. Helena is still charming; Yountville is still dominated by superstar chef Thomas Keller and the town of Napa continues its transition from a sleepy residential community to a bustling destination for eating and upscale shopping. Hotels are expensive but I dealt with that by staying in Sonoma and doing the 90-minute scenic route commute.

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There are some wines and wineries from Napa that I still love, even if I can’t afford them. One is Dunn Vineyards perched atop Howell Mountain. Randy Dunn was working as the winemaker for Caymus when he left to start his own winery, delivering their first vintage in 1979. This is a true family project, and his son Mike now oversees the winemaking duties. He’s the sort of winemaker that reminds me of an era when winemakers, like chefs, didn’t need to be treated like rock stars. The thing about Dunn’s wines is they have quietly become as good as anything produced in Napa Valley, and that includes wines that sell for thousands of dollars a bottle (and yes, I’ve tried those).

As you head up the mountain road to the winery, evidence of the Glass Fire in 2020 is hard to miss. Mike told me that were it not for the efforts of firefighters they likely would have lost everything. It was a close call to be sure.

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Dominus winery in Napa Valley. Courtesy, Geoff Last cal

At the other end of the spectrum is Dominus, the spare-no-expense winery started by Bordeaux titan Christian Moueix – of Chateau Petrus fame – in 1983 on the former Napanook vineyard site in Yountville. The structure is a minimalist jewel of architecture designed by Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron (the Tate Modern in London is one of their many claims to fame). I had driven by the winery and have tasted the wine many times, but this was my first visit, and it was quite something. It was constructed using local basalt stones and wire and it seemingly melts into the landscape. The interior contains all the latest bells and whistles such as optical sorters, but the wine is still effectively made in a hands-on approach. The wine is expensive – about $400 a bottle here – but, like Dunn, it can hold its own up against anything. We tasted the current vintages as well as a bottle of the 2006 vintage, still a youthful wine that could age gracefully for at least another decade.

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The dilemma for wine lovers on a budget is most of us can’t afford to drop $400 on bottles of Dunn and Dominus, but that doesn’t push Napa Valley wines out of the picture. If you’re willing to part with roughly $40 a pop, there are solid options from producers like Martin Ray (based in Sonoma but their 50/50 Napa-Sonoma Cabernet is excellent), Girard, Beringer, Louis Martini and Oakville, to name a few.

What I do know is that you don’t have to spend more than $400 a bottle to get the best Napa has to offer and the region is still a great tourist destination, especially when you can get there in about four hours flying in Calgary, assuming you don’t hit traffic on the Bay or Golden Gate bridges. Cheers!

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