A Record Cabernet Price?

Apr 28, 2006

How does a wine get priced at $265 a bottle?

One way is to pay $26,500 a ton for the grapes.

Paul Hobbs stopped by my office in Napa today to taste two of his 2003 Cabernets. He’s going to be on my Expressions of Napa Valley Cabernet panel at this year’s California Wine Experience, and we wanted to taste two wines he was considering pouring.

Hobbs, of course, is one of the hottest winemakers in California these days, with an amazing string of great vintages that cut across the board – from single-vineyard bottlings of Cabernet, Chardonnay, Merlot and Pinot Noir, from both Napa and Sonoma appellations. He also makes wine from Argentina, where he is a consultant.

The two wines we sampled were the 2003 Hyde Vineyard Carneros Cabernet ($100), which has a wealth of rich, layered fruit flavors and touches of black olive and herb, with elegant, fine-grained tannins. It’s a cool-climate Cabernet, but achieves enough ripeness to routinely earn outstanding reviews.

The other wine was the 2003 Stagecoach Vineyard Cabernet ($175), which comes from the Stagecoach Vineyard in the hills above Oakville and northwest of Atlas Peak.

It tastes more like the mountain-grown Cabernet that it is. It’s darker, richer, more intense and more structured than the Hyde. "Massive" comes to mind.

Both wines are delicious.

Then I remembered hearing about what Hobbs paid for his 2002 Oakville To-Kalon Beckstoffer Vineyard Cabernet.

First, this is another fantastic Hobbs Cabernet, with wonderful aromas of black cherry, blackberry, currant, violets, mineral and light toasty oak. Those flavors coat the palate with a rich, dense, multifaceted array of flavors. The tannins are bold and concentrated too, though ripe. This is, I wrote last year, a potent young stallion of a Cabernet, with an exotic spicy finish. I rated it 94, but it’s improved since then.

Why the $265 price?

Hobbs explained that he paid the vineyard’s owner, Andy Beckstoffer, $26,500 a ton, which both he and I believe is a record for Napa Cabernet. In 2002, he bought eight tons of Beckstoffer Cabernet, and like many vintners, he uses a price-per-ton ratio to arrive at his retail price. When you pay that much per ton, you simply take the last two zeros off the price, and that gives you a rough bottle cost.

Winemakers who pay $4,000 a ton should be able to price their wines at about $40 a bottle. Those who pay $5,000 a ton would retail their wine for about $50.

Not everyone uses that formula, of course. Supply and demand and image are factors in any winery pricing strategy. Moreover, wineries that grow their own grapes arrive at their per-ton costs based on what it costs to farm their grapes.

“I grew up in the farming business, so I really didn’t have any problem paying Andy that price,” Hobbs said. The crop in 2002 was about 2.7 tons per acre, and Hobbs made about 600 cases.

It’s an expensive wine, he said, but also a wine of exceptional quality.

United States California Red Wines Cabernet Sauvignon
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