Elin McCoy

The lux­ury brand­ing (and price) of Napa Cab dis­turbs – and re­pels – me

Decanter - - LETTERS - Elin McCoy is an award-win­ning jour­nal­ist and au­thor who writes for Bloomberg News

If you’re ped­dlIng a new napa Caber­net that costs $1,250, then pour­ing it in the rar­i­ties bar at the lotte new york palace on Madi­son Av­enue is highly apro­pos. It’s a place for peo­ple who can spend se­ri­ous money on wine.

I was there to sam­ple a pre-re­lease of Beaulieu Vine­yards’ 2013 rar­ity (yes, that’s re­ally its name), of which 1,500 mag­nums were made. poured from a $500 de­can­ter, the wine was lus­cious and pow­er­ful, with dense com­plex­ity and a 90-sec­ond fin­ish (I timed it), yet showed the bright fresh­ness typ­i­cal of this vin­tage. It also boasts 15.5% al­co­hol. But I kept think­ing about the price ($625 for a 750ml bot­tle), whether the wine was worth it, and the du­bi­ous con­cept of ‘lux­ury wine’.

The re­lent­less lux­ury brand­ing (and price) of napa Cab dis­turbs – and re­pels – me. In this high-net-worth re­gion, where only the megarich can snap up land, it’s de rigueur to slap a $200-plus price-tag on a new wine with zero pedi­gree. The taste is pre­dictable: lush tex­ture and op­u­lence and of­ten lit­tle in­di­vid­u­al­ity.

Surely the cult wine phe­nom­e­non that started in the mid-1990s, with its em­pha­sis on mail­ing-list-only avail­abil­ity, was the be­gin­ning of pro­mot­ing napa Cabs as ‘lux­ury prod­ucts’ based on rar­ity. peo­ple who get what they want crave what they can’t have.

‘lux­ury’ is now the mar­ket­ing term for napa Cabs with au­da­cious prices, and it im­plies scarcity (a tiny pro­duc­tion) and the ex­clu­siv­ity to tap into drinkers’ dreams. As BV’s rar­ity demon­strates, a su­per-heavy bot­tle nes­tled in a pol­ished wooden box adds to the ex­pected im­age.

I see three dif­fer­ent vi­sions of ‘lux­ury’ wines play­ing out in napa. one is the su­per-cu­vée ‘crafted’ from vine­yards across the val­ley. Call this the anti-ter­roir ver­sion. The epit­ome is the Tusk es­tate red, ‘cus­tom de­signed to fit your life­style… the next great lux­ury brand’, by star wine­maker philippe Melka. The 2013 comes from seven vine­yards in five ap­pel­la­tions. The es­tate pro­motes ex­clu­siv­ity by be­ing an in­vi­ta­tiononly pri­vate club and sell­ing the wine solely to mem­bers, who also get priv­i­leged win­ery ex­pe­ri­ences. Bot­tles fetch about $870 on the se­condary mar­ket. The founders’ goal isn’t to com­pete with other high-end Cabs, but with other lux­ury brands.

Another ap­proach is more ter­roir-ori­ented, the wine made from a sin­gle vine­yard, with the num­ber of bot­tles lim­ited by place rather than ar­bi­trary scarcity. This group in­cludes stun­ning wines, such as Har­lan es­tate. But a sur­pris­ing num­ber of the val­ley’s ex­pen­sive sin­gle-vine­yard Cabs taste aw­fully sim­i­lar. unique­ness of taste doesn’t seem to be re­quired for a lux­ury prod­uct.

The third type is the one-off, which brings me back to BV rar­ity, only the fifth bot­tling in the win­ery’s rar­ity Col­lec­tion since 1968. The 2013 is a se­lec­tion of the best 12 bar­rels of Caber­net Sauvi­gnon and petit Ver­dot har­vested and vini­fied to go into the win­ery’s ge­orges de la­tour pri­vate re­serve, long its flag­ship wine. The first su­per-pre­mium Cab in napa, its his­tory goes back decades and some vin­tages are leg­endary. The grapes for rar­ity, so I heard, come from sev­eral of BV’s old­est vine­yards, all on the ruther­ford Bench.

This new wine fol­lows the pat­tern of pre­miere napa Val­ley, an an­nual trade bar­rel auc­tion to which winer­ies do­nate six cases of a one-off cu­vée that com­mand up to $1,000 a bot­tle pre­cisely be­cause they are so rare.

Is BV’s rar­ity six times bet­ter than the win­ery’s vel­vety ge­orges de la Tour pri­vate re­serve 2013, which I also tasted and can be had for just over $100? The an­swer, in my hon­est opinion, is no. The rar­ity name tells you what you’re pay­ing for.

yet, among som­me­liers and wine geeks, an al­ter­na­tive sense of what rar­ity and ex­clu­siv­ity mean is emerg­ing. The ‘uni­corn’ wines they fetishise get sta­tus from be­ing a re­flec­tion of place and cul­ture, and are de­pen­dent on per­sonal ex­per­tise to know what they are and how to buy them. It’s called con­nois­seur­ship.

luck­ily, napa still has Caber­nets like Cori­son's Kronos Vine­yard that aren’t just lux­ury prod­ucts. I wish there were more.

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