Napa's Drive to Succeed
By James Laube, senior editor
Look beyond the monumental edifices, the sweeping, terraced vineyards, the diverse soils and intricate microclimates. Peer past the many famous names and faces that have left their marks on the land and its wines. Forget the romance of time trapped in a dusty old bottle and consider this: It's the competitive spirit, as much as any other single factor, that has made Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon America's preeminent wine.
Napa Valley Cabernet would not be at the exalted height it occupies today were it not for its fiercely competitive environment and the rivalrous spirit that drives its winemakers. It's not just in Napa Valley, of course. It's everywhere in wine. The goal of growing better grapes and fashioning better wines is the engine that drives our modern wine world.
Because of its small size, Napa Valley serves as a focal point that magnifies this effect. The image is of laid-back, countrified winemakers pulling together in an "all for one and one for all" atmosphere. While part of that image is real--Napa Valley vintners are indeed a tight-knit, goal-oriented group--beneath the surface is a genuine desire to be the best and produce the greatest wine.
One illustration of this is the Napa Valley Wine Auction. Each year, vintners square off to see who can put together the most expensive lot of wine. The auction provides a format for this rivalry while simultaneously generating reams of publicity for wines that garner top bids (and the auctioning of these rarities raises millions of dollars for local heath care).
Napa Valley has long been home to ambitious sorts, but its edges have been sharpened in the past few decades, with scores of new wineries, vineyards, owners and wines battling for recognition. After Prohibition, the valley stagnated, and for nearly 40 years not much happened. Vineyard acreage was modest, with few wineries. A few prominent wineries survived--Beaulieu Vineyard, Beringer, Charles Krug, Louis Martini--but demand for their wines was meager, and prices were essentially flat for years, even decades. You could buy a BV Private Reserve 1939 for $1.45 a bottle in the early 1940s. A bottle of 1949 cost $1.82. A bottle of BV 1959 sold for $3.50. And this was Napa's elite Cabernet.
Even in the 1960s, when interest in planting vines and making wine reemerged, progress was slow. Cabernet acreage remained restricted to a few sites on the valley floor, with a dozen or so key winery labels. Today, if you count every bottling, including wineries that make three, four or five different Cabernets, there are perhaps 300 individual Cabernets that carry the Napa Valley appellation.
Although Napa Valley is highly respected by wine lovers globally, it took decades to establish its name and credentials. Most of the Napa's notoriety came from uniformly high-quality wines, and the symbol of that excellence was Cabernet. Once winemakers understood that Cabernet thrived in Napa Valley and could allow them to gain international acclaim, they set their sights on Bordeaux. With all its great estates and prestigious wines, Bordeaux provided the perfect rival or model--take your pick. What better way to measure progress, both at home and abroad, than seeing who made the better wine, in your neighborhood or in the world?
Today, the rivalry among Cabernet producers is unprecedented. Bordeaux may have its strict hierarchy, but in Napa Valley it's still a wide-open game. And in fact, the market is so diverse and accepting of different styles of Cabernet that virtually everyone can win, as long as the wines sell.
Winemakers study microclimates with amazing precision, noting subtle changes in soil composition and training vines with exacting care. Countless experiments are conducted with different yeast strains, vinification and fermentation techniques and barrel-toasting. Vineyard managers and winemaking consultants have never been in greater demand. Winemakers are constantly looking for any detail, however small and seemingly insignificant, that might somehow make their wines a little richer, more complex or more detailed than the next. What better illustration of the competitive spirit than the individuality of wine labels and bottle shapes? What better demonstration of superiority than charging higher prices than your neighbor?
It may be maddening to try to secure every delicious Napa Valley Cabernet, the way you could 20 years ago. But the number of tremendous Cabernets is astonishing, and the reason why there are more and better wines can be summed up in one word: competition.
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Tuesday by a different Wine Spectator editor. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives.
(And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns written just for the Web, visit Laube on Wine.)