Buyer Beware!

napa valleyVeteran blogger Alder Yarrow recently completed a survey of wines from Napa’s new blood–producers who joined the Napa Valley Vintner’s Association during the past 5 years.  His summary contains many points of interest for people interested in the future of Napa.

But three quotes stood out.

Napa is largely pricing itself out of the average wine lover’s budget. And let’s be clear, when I say wine lover, I’m not talking about the average American wine drinker, who studies show spends around $15.66 on average per bottle. I’m talking about people willing to spend $25-$50 on a nice bottle of wine. Those folks can no longer afford to drink the average Napa Cabernet.

Yes, the costs of land, water, building supplies, labor, and grapes continue to rise in Napa. But as Yarrow points out, this doesn’t explain the “eye-popping” price of Napa Cabernet or red blends, which averaged $113.50 in this survey. It’s not the cost of production but the psychology of prestige that’s driving prices:

In Napa, the price of wine has become a signaling device that plays right into our psychology and creates a vicious circle of ever-inflated prices in which every new entrant to the market tries to position their wines, via price, against their perceived (or more accurately, their desired) competitors.

It’s a game that I believe ultimately hurts everyone, and if not curbed somehow, will ultimately result in lots of producers not being able to sell all their wines each vintage.

This resonates with my observations about Napa. The last time I did any significant tasting in Napa, 4 years ago, I left very skeptical that their reputation was sustainable. To be sure there is lots of good wine made in Napa, but at those prices it must be more than good. I found very few wines that were distinctive. In a competitive global market flush with interesting wines from around the world, including up and coming regions in the U.S., I find little justification for spending well over $100 on Napa Cabernet.

And then there is this striking remark:

Of the roughly 75 wines I tasted and considered for this piece, 25 of them were low enough in quality that I did not choose to feature them or their wineries. Seven of those wines rated below 8.5 on my scoring scale were all priced above $120 per bottle.

I don’t like those odds. $120 is a lot of money to pay for a leap in the dark. If you’re going to buy Napa, you better know the producer.

One comment

  1. I stopped buying (and enjoying) Napa Valley wines, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon, more than 20 years ago. They mostly lack charm and balance, and those prices! “Napa, the new Bordeaux.” I’ve been a sommelier for more than 4 decades, and my enjoyment of them has waned every decade since. There are far too many other choices for me.

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