San Francisco Chronicle - (Sunday)
Has Napa Cabernet become too perfect?
Some worry a band of star consultants is making the region’s wines taste the same
Thomas Rivers Brown is arguably Napa’s most in-demand winemaking consultant. He’s the mastermind behind some of the valley’s most highly regarded boutique brands, like Schrader and Outpost. Two new resorts, the Four Seasons and Stanly Ranch, hired him to help them build brand-new wineries on-site. Historic heavyweights Robert Mondavi and Far Niente recently brought him on to advise on one-off projects.
How many wineries does Brown have his hands in? Even he has lost count. “Maybe 45,” he ventures.
Among the wine cognoscenti, it’s a widely accepted tenet that anything Brown touches turns to gold. The critics fawn: He’s received over 50 perfect 100-point scores from publications including the Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator. Ardent fans will buy any wine made by “TRB,” sight unseen.
His star may be burning brightest at the moment, but Brown, 50, is not entirely without peers. He’s part of an elite order of Napa winemaking consultants that includes Philippe Melka, Mike Smith, Andy Erickson, Aaron Pott, Celia Welch, Julien Fayard, Jean Hoeflinger, Sam Kaplan, Tony Biagi and Heidi Barrett. These professionals have been sought after for years. But now, it feels as if having one of these star consultants on board is more than an advantage for a new luxury Napa winery — it’s a de facto requirement.
That demand has grown in tandem with the cost of doing business in Napa, Brown suggests.
“These investments are now so expensive that they’re nervous to hand it over to just anyone,” says Brown of new winery owners. “It’s like, ‘we just put $100 million into this, we have to hire me or Philippe.’ ”
This economic reality has driven a situation where more of Napa’s wines are becoming concentrated in the hands of fewer winemakers. It’s led many observers to wonder: Is that making all of Napa’s wines taste the same?
Wine and money have always been inextricable, but America’s most famous wine region has a unique relationship to its own wealth. Owning land and making wine in Napa Valley is a singular kind of status symbol, pursued by the richest people in the world from video-game moguls to former NFL team owners. Much has been written about the valley’s socalled “lifestyle vintners,” who are perceived as happy to throw money at a winery without caring much about whether it will ever deliver a return.
The expense of getting into the game has never been greater. Vineyard land in Napa’s top areas now sells for $300,000 to $500,000 per acre, according to Jordan Bentley, a Realtor and partner in St. Helena’s Wine Country Consultants. It can stretch close to $1 million per acre for the most sought-after pockets, Bentley says. New wineries require a parcel size of at least 10 acres, per county rules.
Because real estate costs so much here, because of rigorous restrictions on development, because demand is higher than supply — for these and many other reasons, Napa Valley
wines tend to be expensive. How expensive? By one conventional measurement — the price of grapes as tracked by the USDA — the average price of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon this year should be $80 per bottle.
That’s a costly bottle for most people, and yet it still belies the pricing that’s become commonplace in Napa’s uppermost echelon. Of the 46 Napa Cabernets rated 96 points or higher by Wine Spectator within the last year, the average price is $345. Only seven cost under $200.
This pricing, which predates the current wave of inflation pervading the U.S. economy, reflects the willingness of wealthy consumers to pay for these wines. And it rests on the reputation, painstakingly built by the Napa wine industry over decades, for high-quality — some might say perfect — wine. That’s where Napa’s elite consultant winemakers come in.
The job of a winemaking consultant was not always so common. It used to be that every winery, pretty much, employed a regular winemaker: a full-time employee who worked for just one company.
That started to change around 1995, says Philippe Melka, who got his first consulting jobs in that year. “The ’90s were booming,” says Melka, who currently has about 25 clients. “A lot of people from other industries realized the wine business could be a good business.”
Titans who had made fortunes in real estate, software, banking and other fields bought land here, and they needed winemakers — but, if the property was small, maybe not a full-time one. The first true star consultant was Michel Rolland, who initially gained acclaim in his native Bordeaux in France and eventually began working with wineries around the world, including several in Napa such as Harlan, Darioush and Merryvale. (Disclosure: I was once an intern at a winery owned by Rolland in Argentina. I saw but never met him.)
By 2003, Rolland was working with more than 100 wineries in 12 countries, according to a Decanter article from that year. That geographic expanse earned him the nickname “the flying winemaker,” which some of his critics used pejoratively, implying a lack of seriousness. The argument, essentially, was that Rolland was flitting all over the world, making wines that fit his particular mold, and thereby erasing the nuances of each individual vineyard. (He did not respond to a request for comment.)
Rolland’s influence was the subject of a 2006 documentary, “Mondovino,” which portrayed the globalization of wine with skepticism. In the film, Rolland shares culpability with wine critic Robert Parker, who is likewise perceived as inciting a global homogenization of wines — often