I've been noticing a trend among California's two priciest red grapes in recent years. Productions are getting smaller and smaller; the number of labels is getting larger and larger.
There are perhaps 800 individual bottlings of Napa Valley Cabernet, according to our best guesstimates, the important thing being that that's a lot of competing brands (including labels cannibalizing their own sales with competing cuvées).
Here’s another striking figure: Sonoma County may have 500 individual bottlings of Pinot Noir. The numbers continue to grow rather rapidly. Consider that some wineries (Siduri, Kosta Browne, Lynmar) already have close to a dozen individual bottlings.
Sonoma—which includes the Russian River Valley, the Sonoma Coast (covering nearly half of Sonoma) and a slice of Carneros—has the largest acreage devoted to Pinot Noir, with about 11,000 acres; Monterey is second, in the 8,000-acre range. Napa, by comparison, may have close to half or more of its 45,000 acres of vines planted to Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordeaux varieties, or about twice Sonoma’s Pinot acreage.
There are certainly parallels between the markets for Napa Cabernet and Sonoma Pinot. Increasingly, both wines are being made in smaller quantities, with a greater emphasis on terroir. And the quality-levels of the two wines are closer than ever.
There are some big differences too, however. Sonoma Pinot, more so than Napa Cabernet, is vineyard-driven. The cult of the guru winemaker doesn’t play the same role in Sonoma as it does in Napa. Also, Pinot is a solo act—one grape, one wine; Cabernet needs a supporting cast of grapes and rarely flies alone.
Sonoma doesn’t have the muscle Napa does, either. You can see it in the numbers. When Napa vintners move into Sonoma, as they increasingly are, you see bigger production numbers. Napans can sell more because they have more clout with distributors.
You can see the disparity in vineyard prices per acre as well. When Russian River Valley's Amber Ridge Vineyard was sold to Nickel and Nickel in 2007 for $4.1 million, or about $130,000 per acre, it was one of the highest prices ever paid for Sonoma vineyard land.
Compare that to Francis Ford Coppola's 2002 purchase of the 46-acre J.J. Cohn Vineyard in Napa for $32 million, Stanley Kroenke's 2006 purchase of Screaming Eagle for an estimated $300,000 an acre, Jayson Woodbridge’s eye-popping $6 million paid for just 5 acres of actual Napa vines in 2008. The list goes on.
There are also different mindsets among drinkers of Sonoma Pinot and Napa Cabernet, and they go well beyond a preference for varietal character. Fans of Pinot Noir pay closer attention to individual sites than Napa Cabernet drinkers, and find Pinot the more versatile of the two wines. The broader Sonoma appellation Pinots don’t hold the same allure for them as the single-vineyard Pinots do.
Whether all those single-vineyard bottlings are merited is up for debate, but they help explain why the number of Sonoma Pinot Noir bottlings is rapidly catching up with the number of Napa Cabernet labels, despite roughly half the acreage under vine.
Jay J Cooke — Ripon CA — July 14, 2011 7:00pm ET
Troy Peterson — Burbank, CA — July 15, 2011 1:59am ET
Eric Hall — Healdsburg, CA — July 15, 2011 7:59pm ET
Bill Leavitt — Overland Park, KS — July 21, 2011 7:21am ET
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