In this ongoing series, I halt at the gates of the world's finest appellations, where most wines start at $40, and find a way to slip past for $20 or less.
"I spent 10 years down in the Central Coast," Harry Hansen, head winemaker at Sterling Vineyards in Napa Valley, said. "I made Paso Robles Cab, I made Central Coast Cab, and it's always tough to sell your wine against Napa Valley Cabernet. There are just some things that are so good that even if you pay a little bit more for them, they're worth it."
Perhaps there's no substitute for the real thing in this case. (I previously recommended bargain alternatives to Châteauneuf and Champagne from their kin terroirs: Lirac, across the Rhône, and Burgundy's "Golden Gate.") But as I told Sauternes lovers on a $20 budget, sometimes the real thing is just the thing for your wallet.
John Buehler of Buehler Vineyards makes three Napa Cabernets: one at $45, one at $35 and one at $25 ("often discounted to $19.99"). Sterling has a $75, a $65 and a $25 bottling (which can also be found on sale). My colleague James Laube rated the most recent vintage of both intro cuvées, the 2009s, 88 points, very good on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale. A search of recently rated Napa Cabs shows they're not alone, but in somewhat rare company. It's possible, then, to buy a bona fide Napa Valley Cabernet at $20. But you have to find the wineries with the combination of know-how and networks, starting with the grape sources, to get the job done.
"We're not paying $4,500 or $5,000 [a ton] for Napa Valley Cabernet; we're paying something less," said Buehler. The estate is on Howell Mountain, but Buehler's other grape source is a grower down in the valley—"a former garbage man, a practicing Buddhist monk and a certified public accountant"—who is also his best friend. Relationships go a long way in this business. Buehler's also had three decades to build distributor relationships, so "we don't have to devote any marketing expense or travel and entertainment. We just ship it."
Sterling sources from 20 vineyards, all the way from Oak Knoll to Calistoga at the north end of the valley, for its $25 bottle, "Sterling has relationships that are 15, 20 years old with some growers," said Hansen. "Continuity is really important."
AVA labeling regulations only require that 85 percent of fruit be grown in the AVA. At Sterling, fruit from Alexander Valley in Sonoma, which typically commands lower prices, sometimes makes it into the $25 bottle.
Next, it helps to have scale. Both winemakers concurred that it would be a challenge to stride into Napa with nothing but a wallet and a pair of shears and start making $20 Napa Cabernet. Sterling made 62,000 cases of its entry-level Cabernet alone in the current 2009 vintage. "I would find it difficult to believe that at 5 or 10 tons you could drive a good grape price," said Hansen. "You'd get eaten up by all kinds of costs and they wouldn't just be grapes." Among those are the facility rental, trucking, bottling and more.
And, of course, Hansen and Buehler make each of their three tiers of Cabs differently. "You can't do it all in French oak and have a $25 bottle of wine," said Buehler. "We run really lean in terms of manpower; we do it all in-house from soup to nuts."
Sterling will often blend press wine—the product of an extra squeeze of the grapes—into the $25 Cab, but not always. The wine is generally less coddled in the winery than the higher-end Cabernet, which is all "hand-sorted, cluster-sorted, gently destemmed, berry-sorted, a mix of techniques including punch downs, barrel fermentations, traditional pump overs, extended maceration. It's kind of a more artisanal process," said Hansen. "You'd appreciate at $25 that's not how you go about making a wine when you're talking about tens of thousands of cases." Still, since he's dealing with different subappellations around Napa, plenty of attention is given to the fermentation regimes even of the lots destined for the basic Cab.
Sterling, Buehler and a few others are proof that with proper cost control and able networking, you can make honest-to-goodness Napa Cab at a friendly price and profit. As Buehler put it, "We didn't get caught up in that frenzy of looking over the fence and saying, well if your wine's worth $50 then my wine's worth $60."
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