Ok, so I’ve been looking for one of these for quite some time now. An affordable Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon that can be used at either our Explorations Wine Club level, or as part of a 3 bottle shipment in our Special Selections Wine Club. The days of $20 Cabernet Sauvignon with anything to do with Napa Valley are long over for a number of reasons, so I was hoping to hit something around $30.. Finally, here it is.
Before I go on, I’ll explain why that’s been difficult. Of course, Napa Valley is known for being the quality leader of American wine. There’s a significant expense in terms of talent. If you’re a traveling winemaker, a consulting winemaker or just someone working full time at a single winery, you’re paid well in Napa Valley. Sometimes the going rate is about twice as much as it is in the rest of the state. Much like so many industries before them though, wine has a more significant issue in terms of facilities and real estate costs. Sure, building the shining winery on the hill is a choice and not necessarily a necessity, but tasting at an old barn simply doesn’t work any longer in Napa the way it might in say the Willamette Valley. Better buildings add to the romance and yes, they do sell more wine. Real Estate is the biggest issue though driving the cost of what’s in your glass.
Some time ago, development in Napa Valley threatened to get out of control. In the San Francisco Bay Area we struggle with finding places to put any additional population. San Jose to the extreme south is built up already, San Francisco tries its best, but infill development is both slow and tedious at best to get approved, Silicon Valley isn’t necessarily focused on single family housing, but instead corporate centers that support the huge workforces and campuses that need to be created….which has largely left the east bay and north bay to handle the majority of new residents. In fact, the east bay county of Contra Costa is projected to literally take half of all the new residents into California over the next 50 years. That’s an additional 4M people on the high side. That pretty much makes Berkeley run into Walnut Creek, which eventually runs into Sacramento and creates what people shudder about: Bay City.
Napa saw this coming when the federal government tried to get them to turn highway 29 (the only way through the valley today, as it has been for a century) into a 4 lane freeway instead of the 1 lane road that exists today.
The locals, sorry to use an inexact term: freaked out.
For good reason, but this only added to the thought that if the farmers weren’t careful, vintners and developers would turn their fertile valley into something else entirely. Ever seen an orange tree grover in Orange County? Me neither and I grew up in Southern California.
Thus the agriculture preserve was born. It’s existed ever since and despite the continual back and forth between political parties for control of it (it’ll remind you of the Supreme Court since small changes in elections have massive consequences for its decisions) it largely has created a pretty strict set of rules to govern development. One of the rules says that you have to have 10+ acres to start a winery. Another says that the Board of Supervisors has to approve all new wineries, as well as winery growth in terms of cases produced, or visitors to their sites (this is largely some of the valley is still, appointment only, rules and regulation….if you call, they’ll have an appointment time slot available much of the time before you get up the driveway). Lastly and perhaps most importantly, there are rules about the amount of grapes a Napa Valley winery can bring in from outside Napa to their own production facility.
We all think of Mondavi as a Napa winery for good reason, that’s where we visit them and that’s the name associated with the brand. Of course, that is not entirely true. Mondavi makes a small amount in Napa, but the vast majority of the work on the bottles that we see every week in the grocery store and drug stores the world over, happens in Lodi or on the Central Coast. There isn’t a feasible way to make affordable wines in Napa.
If you’re following me, grapes are expensive to produce because of a supply and demand curve thrown into some element of disarray because of rules, while the rules also do not allow cheaper grapes to come in.
The wine in your glass was made by the folks at Judd’s Hill. Judd’s itself is a second generation Napa Valley farming family, but they’ve taken a slightly different approach to making wine in the valley. Instead of focusing only on the high end, they’re one of the very few spots willing to craft some custom crush styles for people. Basically, you can pay them and they’ll make a barrel or two of wine for you. Sometimes, the people who hire them, don’t follow through like they would hope and a winery that typically produces wines that sell from $40 up into the $90 range, has some extra bottles ready to go.
That’s pretty much how this ended up in your shipment this month, dumb luck plus well, I’m around enough (the winemaker next door, is a friend).
St Helena, much like Yountville actually, is known as a great stop if you’re a tourist, but it isn’t known for its grape growing prowess. That’s largely because the vineyard space in and around St Helena exists in other AVA’s. To the west, Spring Mountain is better known. To the northwest, it’s Diamond Mountain. To the east, Howell Mountain comes up pretty quickly.
Given all the mountain AVA’s that border St Helena you’ll probably guess, the town and the AVA sits at the northern part of Napa Valley, a spot where the valley has started to narrow significantly. In comparison, when you drive up the 29, Calistoga looks like a wide open expanse of freely available soil. Additionally, it’s damn hot. Seriously, there have been days that I’ve been happily walking along in Yountville, or taking my 5 year old to what amounts to one of the best kids parks in Northern California….only to try and eat in St. Helena and we find, it’s HOT. Like 10 degrees warmer at times than the rest of the valley.
In many ways, I feel like this wine is a good microcosm of what’s happening in St. Helena. Warmer weather does not equate to thicker and jammier wine, like most people think and expect. Warmer weather causes grapes to shut down a bit during the warmest summer days. The vines, want to conserve their energy and won’t impart as much sugar and other goodies to the grapes. Thus, a lighter styled wine than you’ll see in the next AVA to the South, Rutherford.
Does that mean I don’t like St Helena AVA wines? Not at all, unlike other regions, there are more affordable vineyard sourcing available here. While Rutherford grapes have quickly run up above $10,000 per ton, St. Helena is still sitting at about 40% of that.
People tend to compare St. Helena and Calistoga, of course they’re next to each other. Calistoga has almost all volcanic soils (and some of the greatest hot springs in America I might add) and St. Helena tends to have better draining soils. Again, this doesn’t stress the vines as much, quite honestly, not as good for wine….however, it does allow yields to be a bit better, again helping to create some excess grapes and therefore wine.
Technically, this is an excess wine. BUT, it was made for someone. No, I don’t know who exactly. BUT again, I know who made it. The folks behind Judd’s Hill have a pedigree, and therefore I’m happy to drop it into my wine club.