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Thursday Thorns: The Report Card
Does Cabernet Need Saving? Has Chardonnay Failed?

By Stephen Eliot

A couple days back, I stumbled across and was very much taken with a discussion on Tom Wark’s Fermentations site of a recent Wines and Vines editorial by Leo McCloskey of Enologix. It seems that Mister McCloskey has raised a warning to Napa Valley Cabernet producers to institute a formal “classification” system whereby to differentiate Napa from California and, presumably, afford some hierarchical ranking of the Valley’s Cabernets. The reason for such warning is what Mr. McCloskey believes is the immanent commoditization of Cabernet and resultant loss of quality, a scenario he likens to what happened California Chardonnay over the past decade. A classification system, he offers, is the best way in which Cabernet can be saved. McCloskey’s article, while not very long, is rife with ideas for debate. The issue of “classification”, what standards might be used and just who would do the classifying is a fascinating one, and Tom Wark has more than a few observations well worth noting. I have a few of my own but will save that topic for another time, as I am both puzzled and troubled by the very premise of said need and question whether Cabernet requires saving and that Chardonnay has failed because it was not “saved”.

The gist of the argument goes something like this: California Chardonnay in general and Napa Valley Chardonnay in particular declined in quality (and worth?) over the last decade due to New World overplanting, and Cabernet is heading down the same path. The “proof” we are offered of Chardonnay’s diminished state is a loss of profits on the part of growers, a 50% reduction in 90-plus scores by the Wine Spectator over the last decade, and a randomly tossed-in desultory comment from the New York Times that Chardonnay’s “almost effortless popularity as a mass-market white also brought it the mark of infamy.” Huh? First, I see no problem with well-made mass-market wines, and I constantly hear those in the business of wine bemoaning the woefully small base of Americans who make wine a part of their daily diet. That Chardonnay is tasty and easy to drink even when inexpensive does not strike me as being a bad thing much less a “mark of infamy”. It may make it a necessary target of wine snobs and self-impressed arbiters of vinous truth, but the more casual drinkers now, the more connoisseurs tomorrow, at least so it seems to me. I would argue further that there are more world-class Chardonnays being produced in California today than at any time in the past. We taste them week in and week out, and have been doing so for more than thirty-five years. Admittedly, the number of fine Napa Valley Chardonnays may not have grown appreciably in recent years -- and I wonder if McCloskey counts Carneros as part of Napa -- but the list of accomplished offerings from such districts as the Russian River Valley, the Sonoma Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands and Santa Barbara County, to name but a few, has been significantly lengthened over the last ten years. Just because the discounters and big-box stores are stacked to the rafters with $6.00 plonk, names like Ramey, De Mol, Paul Hobbs, Morgan, Freestone, Chasseur and the like have not disappeared from the market, and I cannot see that the prices of the best bottlings have gone through the floor. And, those price analyses that include data from the last couple of years must make allowances for temporal recessionary forces that have little to do with commoditization. If the relative dearth of “new luxury Napa Chardonnays” may be real, might it actually have more to do with the fact that there is simply less Chardonnay being grown on prime Napa Valley vineyards, vineyards owned by those who have figured out that Napa Valley proper is one of the finest patches of Cabernet Sauvignon dirt on the earth?

Does Cabernet need saving? Somehow, the notion that great Napa Valley Cabernet will without some sort of official classification be lost in an avalanche of cheap, nameless and faceless mass-market wines seems silly at best and cynical at its heart. That, too, is food for thought and will be revisited sometime next week.

Until then, Mr. Wark earns an “A-minus” for a provocative and recommended piece on how classification might go, even if I wish he had cast a more questioning eye the premise behind it.

Mr. McCloskey gets a “C-minus” for positing what is likely an impossible solution to a problem that, for me, is never clearly nor convincingly shown to exist.


No Subject
by Sherman
Posted on:12/30/2010 12:55:25 PM

Mr. McCloskey seems to be providing an answer in search of a question -- and no, Napa Cab doesn't need to be "saved." There are still a huge number of Napa Cab producers that have survived the worst economic downturn in 70 years, so the marketplace has spoken.


The only evidence I've seen of the "commoditization" of Cab is in the form of good quality Cab at lower prices. This makes it a good introduction to the vast segment of the market (85%, in my experience) that neither cares about classifications, appellations or any of the other "geek quotient" info the other 15% of the market (i.e., the enthusiast portion of the market).

As you said, more drinkers on the entry level of the market eventually leads to more enthusiast drinkers and those people will eventually support the high-end of the Cab market.

And more Cab is planted in Napa than Chard for simple economics -- Napa is known for its quality Cab, so that's what garners more money for the growers and the wineries. Assuming that the same people who can afford to pay $175 for a bottle of Napa Cab can pay that for Kongsgaard Chard, the situation remains that there is much more production of Cab in Napa than Chard. 

As you also stated, perhaps the reason is that Napa growers have figured out that they have some of the best Cab-growing terrain in the country. How much Chard is grown in Bourdeaux?

Most of the "commodity" Cabs that I've seen in the marketplace (I work in both retail and wholesale wine sales, BTW), have been from areas *other* than Napa. So while they may be riding the coattails of Napa, Napa still commands the premium price.

If/Once the economy rebounds a bit, I believe that most of the "Commodity Cabs" will dry up, while the majority of the premium Napa Cabs will continue to produce -- and maybe take a price increase! 

Saving Cabernet
by Christian Miller
Posted on:1/3/2011 4:37:20 PM

Well put, gentlemen. Even a cursory comparison of California acreage and pricing reports vs. sales over the past 15 years would argue against "commodification." Surprisingly for such a quant jock, Mr. McCloskey does not indicate how he arrived at his conclusions, statistically speaking. But could you pass up a chance to join Tom's "Committee of Elders"? >:^)

Re: Saving Cabernet
by Stephen Eliot
Posted on:1/5/2011 5:57:53 PM

Christian...the simple answer to your question is that I even though I have been doing this for over thrity years, I am just not ready to accept any title that has the word "elder" in it. 

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