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