I had hoped to taste the first Levy & McClellan Napa Valley Cabernet today, and I came very close. But when Martha McClellan arrived in my office in Napa this morning, she was missing one thing—the 2004 barrel sample I wished to try.
The wine didn't make it, because it had just been racked this week, she explained. McClellan and her husband-partner Bob Levy decided it wasn't ready to be shown.
When wine is racked, it's moved from one container to another, usually barrel to barrel, or barrel to tank, before it's bottled. The process clarifies it. Unracked wines are usually cloudy and contain sediment from the bottom of the barrel, and racking unsettles the wine, masking its true character.
The wine, a blend of 92 percent Cabernet Sauvignon with small amounts of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, will be bottled soon. Meaning I won't be able to taste it for at least two months—wine needs to 'rest' for a period after it's bottled so that it can come together.
Many of you have asked me about this wine since I wrote about it earlier this year, and while I can’t say what it tastes like, I can share a few thoughts.
It's the most controversial new wine to come from California this year, thanks to its $350 a bottle price tag—a sum that puts it behind Screaming Eagle, at $500, yet equal to Harlan. It’s an audacious move on behalf of Levy & McClellan.
Those interested in buying the wine can try to order it on Levy & McClellan's website. While the wine may be sold out already, with many people seeking 12-bottle cases and larger format bottles, the couple is hoping to make three-bottle cases available to about 1,200 people. So far, more than 700 people have signed up to buy the wine, which must be paid for in advance.
Of course the wine is expensive, some might say outrageously so. It’s out of my league, and frankly, even the owners couldn't afford to buy their wine, or even drink it on a regular basis.
That said, Levy and McClellan are both stellar winemakers. Levy is the winemaker for Harlan and Bond; McClellan is winemaker for Sloan and, as of 2006, winemaker for Blankiet as well. The couple has mortgaged their home in St. Helena to finance their dream venture, and it’s unclear whether it will ever turn a profit.
Planted in 1999, the vineyard produced enough grapes to make wine in 2002 and 2003, yet the owners didn’t think the wine met their standard of being at least as good as Harlan and Sloan. They're counting on '04 to make a successful debut.
“It’s a hard thing,” McClellan said of their business. “We want to give [our] customers the quality level that we’re accustomed to [with Harlan and Sloan]. “We live in a modest house and we’re doing [this business] with laptops on the dining room table.”
Living up to the Harlan or Sloan standards comes at a price—small crops, at two tons per acre, with extreme selection in the vineyard and from the barreled wines.
I asked McClellan if the $350 price is intended to maximize their profits and perhaps minimize those who will flip the wines at auction. It’s easy to image this wine selling for two or three times more in the auction market.
“We’re charging what we think the wines is worth,” McClellan said. “People do with the wine what they want to [and flipping] is not something we can do anything about [and it’s] not something we worry about.”
She compares making a wine like this to creating a piece of art; it will appeal to some, yet be beyond the means of most.
The steep price tag has drawn the ire of at least one potential customer who wrote Levy & McClellan, complaining, in effect, “How dare you,” said McClellan. “We knew it was a risk [and we] knew it would cause a reaction.”
Others, she adds, are both supportive and understanding. “They’ve said ‘good luck, we’re excited for you guys.’”
This year’s first big conversation piece will be released next year.