Six glasses stood arrayed in an arc on the place mat, offering me tastes of Napa Valley’s past, present and future. At the head of the room, one of California’s most celebrated winemakers waved at a presentation with photos and maps of Beckstoffer To Kalon, Napa Valley’s most storied vineyard, and another in Coombsville, the valley’s newest and most buzzworthy official appellation.
This was a wine nerd’s dream: a chance to meet Paul Hobbs and taste his Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon from the 1998 and 1999 vintages. The other four wines were loftier: two vintages each of single-vineyard cabernets from Beckstoffer To Kalon and the Nathan Coombs Estate. Just over a dozen members of the trade — sommeliers, retailers and writers — sat around the long table in the basement of the Old Ebbitt Grill, oblivious to the lunchtime crowd of tourists and lobbyists above us. For 90 minutes, we were, in effect, in Napa Valley.
We swirled, sipped and spat (mostly) while Hobbs described his career, which has paralleled much of California’s modern wine era. He started in 1977 as an intern at Robert Mondavi Winery and became one of the original “flying winemaker” consultants, making wine in Argentina, Armenia and, more recently, the Finger Lakes in New York. Yet as he discussed the climate and soils of Napa, I found my thoughts increasingly pulled back home. I couldn’t relate to the discussion, because I knew what the wines cost.
The current release of the Paul Hobbs Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, a valley-wide bottling meant as an introduction to his signature wines, averages $120 a bottle on Wine-Searcher.com. The Coombsville is $400, while the Beckstoffer To Kalon, fueled by the vineyard’s history and the reputation of its owner, Andy Beckstoffer, costs a whopping $500 per bottle. (Hobbs’s second label, CrossBarn, includes a Napa Valley cab around $50.)
Hobbs acknowledged the conundrum of price.
“It’s really a shame that the market dynamics have driven the price of fruit, and of the wine, out of reach,” Hobbs said. Napa Valley has run out of land suitable for vines, which drives the price of existing vineyards higher. Any new billionaires seeking to live the vintner’s dream will pay an average of about $300,000 for a single acre of planted vineyard. New plantings have to be “net zero,” meaning an equal number of acres have to be ripped out. And developing a new vineyard often means leveling mountainside forests and rejiggering the slopes. That’s an expensive and controversial proposition, requiring heavy investment in equipment, labor and lawyers.
Napa cabernet sauvignon is a wine for the 1 percent. It’s not meant for the rest of us. It’s a trophy for the rich, something to be flaunted as much as enjoyed.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Napa cabernet. It was the first wine I fell for back in the 1980s, when $25 a bottle seemed exorbitant. My inner geek does somersaults at the prospect of sussing out the nuances of a Stags Leap District cab vs. one from Coombsville. My weary soul loves being wrapped in the plush velvet of an Oakville, while my mind races with the stimulation of Spring Mountain. There are 16 demarcated American Viticultural Areas within Napa County, each with its own story to tell. But I can’t afford them.
Hobbs quoted an industry rule of thumb that the price of a bottle of wine should be the price of a ton of grapes divided by 100. He said he pays $50,000 for a ton of Andy Beckstoffer’s cabernet from To Kalon, thus the $500 price for the bottle. According to the 2017 California Grape Crush Report, the average price for a ton of Napa Valley cabernet grapes was just over $7,500, meaning the average bottle price would be $75. (In contrast, the statewide price for cab averaged $1,552, or about $16 per bottle, given rounding error.)
Yes, some larger, older companies such as Robert Mondavi Winery (now owned by Constellation Brands) produce reliable Napa cabernet around $30 a bottle, and they make enough that it’s easy to find. Many more fall under that $75 average, but even at $40 or $50, they are still expensive special occasion wines. The most elevated ones, including any from To Kalon vineyard, are made in small quantities, and anyone who wants them better have deep pockets.
There is a market for them, of course. “International buyers seem to recognize To Kalon as Napa Valley’s best vineyard,” Hobbs said. “It wasn’t that way 20 years ago.”
Then he sighed and said, “If it weren’t for the tariffs, I could sell a lot of To Kalon to the Chinese, because they know it.”