Safari to Sell Sierra Cabernet

Jun 26, 2007

I was at a party a while ago and a bottle of wine caught my eye. It had what one might consider a behemoth of critter labels—a colorfully etched bull elephant with its tusks crossed.

The wine was a 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon from El Dorado, in the Sierra foothills, and it sells for $28 a bottle. It’s pretty good—balanced and flavorful, aged in French oak (1,600 cases). The wine showed up in yesterday's blind tasting and earned a nice review. Yet it has a checkered story with a curious brand persona.

The tusk-some pachyderm is part of the Safari portfolio, started by Las Vegas-based real estate developer Carl Ross, who is a big game hunter, with a daughter named Safari and vines in Cool, Calif., the Sierra site where the wine came from.

Ross launched the brand in 2000 and also grows and makes Merlot and Zinfandel under the same label. Technically the wines are single-vineyard, though the label doesn't indicate that. Scott McLeod of Rubicon Estate (owned by Francis Ford Coppola) in Napa Valley made the 2002 Safari wines from Ross's grapes. He is familiar with the quality of the grapes having purchased them for Coppola's other labels.

But for some reason this vintage was never released, and it has rested in a warehouse until recently.

What makes this a curious marketing challenge is that few people know anything about Safari, and frankly, there isn’t much to know. The most important features—the wine’s quality and price—are both good. But the brand name and the labels are quirky, and once these wines are sold, that may be the final safari for Safari. There are young wines in barrel ear-marked for bottling that may or may not be appear under this label.

I've heard that many people who try the Cabernet like it. But some buyers are skeptical about the name, the appellation and the fact that it is a 2002 vintage that's been sitting around for two years. That shouldn’t be a detriment—the extra bottle age is a plus—but for some it is. People wonder: if a wine’s that good why hasn’t it sold?

In this instance, without having tasted it, or knowing McLeod made it, a consumer is left to guess about the quality and whether $28 for a 2002 El Dorado Cabernet with an etched elephant flashing its tusks on the label is worth a try.

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