Thursday, July 12, 2012
$80 for a bad wine? My unsuccessful chat with a winemaker
I was in Napa Valley recently tasting wines at a typical nouveau winery, purpose-built with a house attached, no expense spared, etc. Their Cabernets were decent and priced at the going rate of $100 a bottle.
This is not going to be a screed that Napa Valley Cabs are overpriced. Commodities are worth what the market will pay. I think Rolex watches are too expensive, but I'm not their clientele.
The owner was there; the winemaker, a consultant not an employee, was not. The owner, who had recently been to Bordeaux, was clearly proud of her wines after just 2 or 3 vintages and of Napa Valley, pronouncing, "Bordeaux can't do this" as soon as I had the first sip of very ripe fruit in my mouth.
The winery also makes a red blend, priced at $80, also not unusual for Napa Valley. One vintage of this was decent. But a second was a failure: it smelled overripe, of roasted fruit, but tasted thin. It didn't deliver any pleasure at all. I learned that the winery had problems with its Cab that year and didn't make one, so all the Cab grapes ended up in this wine.
A lack of pleasure might be acceptable in a $20 Napa wine, although the best course might have been to sell it in bulk to a big company that could blend in some fruity Central Valley grapes. But for $80, especially when you consider what people want when they pay $80 for a Napa Valley red blend -- generous fruit -- this wine seemed to have the potential to destroy the brand of a relatively new winery.
The owner wasn't the easiest person for me to deliver this opinion to; she added to her disdain of Bordeaux as we talked over lunch. But I had the opportunity later that day to visit with the winemaker at his own winery. So I gave him my opinion then.
I learned that the Cab was declassified because, after a cool summer, a sudden 115-degree day had ripened the sugars and begun to shrivel the grapes before the flavors developed. The winemaker felt a need to harvest but he knew the grapes just weren't that good.
But he was defensive about the wine. For one thing, it wasn't the $100 Cab, it was the cheaper red blend. Plus, "It reflected the vintage," he said.
I admire that kind of statement from Burgundy -- even though I don't buy 2003 Burgundies (and am beginning to feel that way about '09 Burgundy whites.) Yet Napa Valley and Burgundy have different clientele. I don't believe Napa red drinkers want to hear about vintage variation: they just want to taste the deep dark cherry fruit, the kind of thing about which the winery owner said, "Bordeaux can't do this."
I tried to make my point to him. He conceded that my analysis of the aroma/flavor profile of the wine was accurate. But even without the owner there, he defended the $80 price point. One reason is that the winery was expensive to build and there hasn't been much cashflow. The revenue from a few hundred cases of an $80 retail wine is not easily foregone.
I don't go to Napa Valley to argue with people*; it's the reason I hadn't told the owner in the first place. But I also don't like to see businesses undermine themselves.
* I do that here.
So I'd like to get your opinion on whether or not the winery is harming itself with this smells roasted/tastes thin $80 red blend.
I know the winemaker will see this post. I don't know if the owner will; she had no idea who I was and apparently doesn't read anything about wine except her winery's Advocate and Spectator ratings. But I suspect that somebody who does know her will read it, and if there's useful information in the comments, could point it out to her.
What do you think, folks: should she sell this wine for $80?