How new generation wines achieved cult status in Napa Valley

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Raj Ahluwalia, MD, on the fascinating story of new-generation winegrowers who took on the old guard and now find themselves turning into “classics”.  

Wine Maker Benoit Touquette explains a point at Beckstoffer Las Piedras Vineyard

Napa Valley, where Bordeaux varietals (including cabernet sauvignon) still dominate the landscape, came into prominence as a premier grape growing region in the 1970s following the Judgement of Paris which saw them preferred to French wines in the historic blind tasting conducted by Steven Spurrier. After a setback in the 1980s due to a phylloxera epidemic and subsequent replant, wine production has steadily soared and has seen Napa become one of the greatest winemaking regions of the world.

There have been several changes in viticultural practices and techniques since those early days. Practices such as meticulous pruning, trellising, crop thinning and other vineyard management techniques have allowed growers to maximize the quality of their wines. Crop thinning, for example, allows the berries to develop more intense flavour, which translates directly to deep, intense and very expressive wines.

In an increasing number of high-end wineries, quality is stressed over quantity, with a lower production of wine. It is not unusual to have some wineries produce merely 200 cases of one wine. In 2012 the level of wine reached a qualitative high, primarily due to drought-like conditions which proved to be ideal for wine grapes. The following year, 2013, was widely regarded as the best growing season in Napa Valley in nearly four decades.

To take a step back, the 1990s saw a particular shift in the perception of ultra-premium Napa Valley wines. A few prominent internationally known wineries, based on exclusivity and soaring ratings by critics, came to be known as cult wines. They include Screaming Eagle, Harlan Estate, Colgin Cellars (SI cover story, May-June 2017), Bryant Family and Scarecrow, amongst others. These wines have continued to occupy a rarefied space amongst Napa cabernets.

Subsequently, a new generation of vintners slowly started to flourish and to directly compete with the “Old Guard”. This was partly due to the difficulty in obtaining the cult wines (the waiting list for Screaming Eagle, can be as long as 10 years) and the outrageous cost, which is upwards of $2,000 a bottle for some labels on the secondary market. The new generation winemakers are now selling very highly rated wines at sometimes a fraction of the price of the wineries mentioned above. They are some of the best wineries that you may never have heard of but they are the future of the Napa Valley. In addition to making great wine, what defines these wineries and their owners is a “non-cultish” approach to winemaking. The wine producers are accessible, their wines are readily available through a wine list programme and the prices for the wines (at least for the time being) are not stratospheric.

This is an abridged version of the original article in print.

Featured Wineries listed below:

Pictured among the vines, a bottle of Fairchild Beckstoffer G-III Cabernet Sauvignon

Realm Cellars  Founder: Juan Mercado, Winemaker: Benoit Touquette. 

Bevan Cellars, Proprietors: Russell Bevan and Victoria De Crescenzo, Winemaker: Russell Bevan. 

Fairchild Wines, Proprietors: Lawrence Fairchild, Winemaker: Phillipe Melka.

Carter Cellars, Proprietor: Mark Carter, Winemaker: Mike Smith. 

 

 

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