To consider California as a single wine-producing region is rather like treating France or Italy as one giant vinous homogenous territory. With more than 900 miles of coastline, from San Diego in the south to Crescent City on the northern border with Oregon, and 600 miles of this under vine, California boasts huge natural variation of latitude, altitude, aspect and soil types – the consequences of ancient tectonic events.
The net result is a variety of microclimates that begets a huge number of tiny estates, making minuscule volumes of world-class wine that can fetch significant prices. Furthermore, the wines are so delectable in youth that they are often consumed on or shortly after release, creating a supply squeeze that dovetails with increased demand as the wines realise their actual qualitative potential, which can take 20 years or more for the Cabernet-based wines.
Despite this diversity, at the very top end, the relatively small enclave of the Napa Valley still dominates when it comes to fine wine. And having long been available domestically only through individual wine clubs or direct-to-consumer models, more and more of Napa’s stunning wines are finding their way on to the global market as a new generation of owners and winemakers look to reach out across the planet.
Many of their traditional domestic buyers are ageing, already with deep cellars and offspring less willing to pay top dollar for new releases. This – in addition to the owners’ desire to see their wines rubbing shoulders with the biggest names of Europe on the tables and in the cellars of the cognoscenti – sees a natural widening of the market that, with a little more education and understanding, is likely to lead to a rise in consumption and thus prices.
From an investment perspective, as my colleague Matthew O’Connell, Bordeaux Index’s head of investment, wrote for cluboenologique.com recently: ‘We believe the outlook for US wines is largely positive and that the broader “rare Napa” category is a sleeping giant. The question with such segments is always when the catalyst will come for a market step change – in this case, the combination of education and distribution changes driving significantly greater demand.’
Having long been available domestically only through direct-to-consumer models, more and more of Napa’s wines are finding their way on to the global market
For this reason, Matthew recommends Ridge Monte Bello (despite recent price gains) and a few of the rare names such as Harlan, Colgin and Sine Qua Non, with a more cautious approach to Screaming Eagle and the rarer names in Napa. ‘The region definitely merits close observation over the next two to three years, and more ambitious investors could start to take positions in the lesser-known Napa wines, assuming even the current price per case is not a deterrent,’ he says.
My remit here is broader, spanning wines to lay down and eventually drink. Regardless of investment potential, the following all merit a place in any collector’s cellar.
The big four
In essence, the Harlan story is one of maverick prescience and a long, relentless dedication to perfectionism that has few modern parallels. Because Harlan Estate is not on any maps, directions to the winery come with references to trees and gateposts rather than Google ‘pin drops’ or GPS coordinates. Occupying an eagle’s-nest overlook in the hills of western Oakville, this amphitheatre vineyard, while relatively small, is divided into innumerable steep hillside plots planted primarily to Cabernet Sauvignon. Since the estate’s foundation in 1984, the Harlan family has overseen more than a third of a century of rigorous selection and development that has crystallised into one of the world’s most iconic and ageable wines. Distribution is strictly controlled; among recent releases, the current vintage, the 2017, trades at around £2,900 per three-bottle case, while the 100-point 2016 has already risen more than 20% to around £3,250 for three bottles.
Surely on a level with Petrus and DRC in the pantheon of ‘world’s most famous wines’, Screaming Eagle has become one of the most exclusive and most sought-after bottlings for collectors. Founded just two years after Harlan, it wasn’t until 1992 that the debut vintage was released – to the surprise acclaim of 99 points from Robert Parker (‘one of the greatest young Cabernets I have ever tasted’). With its vineyards located on the eastern side of the valley where the Oakville Crossing meets the Silverado Trail, at the foot of the Pritchard Hill section of the Vaca Mountains, it benefits from incredibly complex soils and some stunning old vines that combine to fashion an unforgettable Cabernet experience. As an outlier in price, at an average of around £7,500 for three bottles, the opportunity manifests with recent 100-point vintages such as 2018 and 2015 trading at £6,800–7,300 for three bottles, while the equally ranked 2010 and 2007 are some 15–20% above this.
In the late 1960s, Christian Moueix, son of the eponymous Bordeaux company’s founding father Jean-Pierre, travelled to California to study. Having arrived back home in 1970 to manage the family’s great châteaux, he longed for the warmth of the West Coast. Returning to the States in 1981, he discovered that the legendary Napanook Vineyard, responsible for some of the greatest wines to be made in California during the 1940s and ’50s, was for sale. He entered into a joint venture with the owners before buying them out in 1995, elevating this exceptional but underdeveloped terroir into something that could produce one of the great wines of California and, indeed, the world. Dominus was born under the premise of ‘Napa terroir but with a Bordeaux spirit’. One of the few top-end Napa wines to be made in good volume, it is liquid enough to have the market set prices through active trading. The perfect-scoring 2015 looks an opportunity at £2,400 per six, some 50% below the 100-point 2013.
Ridge Monte Bello
Not a Napa Valley wine but arguably the most famous Cabernet from outside that region, Monte Bello is a true California first growth. High atop the Santa Cruz Mountains south of San Francisco, California’s coolest Cabernet-producing area, the Monte Bello vineyards are just 15 miles from the Pacific, range from 1,300 to 2,700ft above sea level, and boast complex limestone subsoils, the likes of which are not found in either the Napa or Sonoma valleys. Wines have been made here since the 1880s, but the vineyards fell into disrepair during Prohibition. They were resurrected in the 1940s before the modern story of Ridge began in 1959, when a group of Stanford Research Institute scientists decided to take over. Under the genius Paul Draper, their hippie-inspired hands-off winemaking showed exactly how good the terroir here was. Monte Bello is a wine of intense purity, power, finesse and chalky minerality, with staggering ageing capacity – hence it can be slower to gain in price. Recent releases were around £1,000 for six bottles, while a mature high-scoring vintage can fetch twice that price.
Napa Valley born and bred, Mark Aubert made his name at some of the region’s finest producers. At legendary estates including Peter Michael and Colgin, notably working under the great Helen Turley, Aubert encountered some of the finest Chardonnay and Pinot grown on the West Coast. A Burgundy obsessive, he was wildly driven by the belief that he could find ‘grand cru’ sites for Chardonnay in Sonoma and certain parts of Napa; working hand in hand not only with his wife Teresa but also Ulises Valdez (considered by many to be the finest grape-grower in Sonoma), he has set about doing just that. His vineyards are planted and managed plot by plot, clone by clone, and harvested and fermented piece by piece in order to maximise the potential for each site. Accessing stock as early as possible is the key here, because prices rise sharply after release, even if they do tend to stabilise somewhat immediately after. Most wines are available in the region of £150 per bottle.
Founded in 1996, DuMOL works with both estate and leased vineyards of distinction across the Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast and Carneros (where the Napa and Sonoma valleys separate at the southern base of the Mayacamas Mountains). Viticulturist and winemaker Andy Smith, now with 20 years’ experience at DuMOL, is committed to the vision of site expression. It therefore takes time, working with each individual vineyard, to discover its defining characteristics. And it can take even longer to make sure the right winemaking techniques are being employed in order to show sensitivity and highlight the vineyard characters in the wine. While the wines of DuMOL compete with the very best in the area, they remain extremely well priced. At under £400 for six bottles on release, the current 2018 vintage is more of an investment in the cellar than the portfolio.
There are few bigger names in California winemaking than Steve Kistler. Having started his career jobbing with Ridge, Kistler founded his eponymous estate in 1978, and his world-class Chardonnays have been fixtures on top restaurant wine lists for decades. While he was making top Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays from his Russian River sites, Kistler had long been in thrall to the coastal vineyards of western Sonoma, at the extremes of where Pinot could be grown. The cooler days and warmer nights made it a very different environment from the sheltered Russian River Valley, and the fruit, which ripened more steadily and maintained more freshness and purity of character, made for wines of a very different profile, more akin to Burgundy than anything else from the north of the state. In 2011, Kistler founded Occidental Winery, where he produces world-class Pinot Noir from the Freestone-Occidental area. As with Aubert, securing stock on release is vital; the single vineyard 2018s are available in the region of £480 per six, while 2012s or 2010s can be as much as 40% above this.
Don Hartford is one of many legal eagles who have taken the leap from court to vineyard. Alongside his wife Jenny, daughter of the late California wine scion Jess Jackson, Hartford farms some of the most spectacular and rugged vineyards across Sonoma, producing world-class Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Many of the vineyards are at such climatic extremes that they can take until late October or even November to ripen, meaning the wines are driven as much by intense freshness as by luxurious California fruit. There is no doubt that they are following a trajectory set by the likes of Kistler, Kongsgaard and Aubert – and while the quality is incredible, the prices are yet to catch up. The downside of that, of course, is that tiny volumes and friendly pricing mean very little is available later. The range extends to more than 20 wines – from £180 per six for the estate wines, to £500 per six for some single-vineyard cuvées.
Sine Qua Non
In the early 1990s, Manfred and Elaine Krankl began to explore the potential for Rhône varieties in vineyards just north of Santa Barbara, founding the now-legendary Sine Qua Non estate. Based primarily on Syrah and Grenache, not only did the results themselves push the boundaries of how wines could taste, feel and develop, but Manfred Krankl’s artistic, naturally rebellious personality showed through in the bottles and labels. Produced in tiny quantities and selling to a cult-like mailing list of committed fans, each wine carries a unique name in each vintage, and their distinctive, often controversial labels have lifted them into a new realm of collectability. While the ultra-rare magnums and double magnums are hugely sought after, the most impressive price gains are made by the 75cl bottles, which are far more likely to be consumed. Prices are hugely affected by Wine Advocate scores, with serious premiums for 100-point vintages; on release they are around £1,650 for six bottles, but mature vintages can fetch double this or more.
They say the apple rarely falls far from the tree, and this is certainly true of Nikolas Krankl, son of Elaine and Manfred of Sine Qua Non fame, and his Fingers Crossed label. But while the focus here is on the same varieties prized at SQN – Grenache and Syrah, along with a little Roussanne – and a certain amount of the ‘wine as art’ philosophy surrounds the project, Nikolas is no mere copycat. Krankl and his wife Julia have not shied away from the natural ripeness delivered by hours of perfect California sunshine, but they have added a more Old World-inspired restraint to their wines. They are clearly inspired by the legend of SQN – and there are far worse inspirations to take, let’s remember – but they have their own unique style. Production levels are below 500 cases, and we predict huge things for them, even if it is too early to tell how they will perform price-wise.
The next big names
Grace Family Vineyards
It might sound ridiculous to talk of Grace Family Vineyards as being ‘next’, given that it was one of the ‘modern originals’ of Napa Valley, being planted in 1976. But with the sale of the estate to a young couple – Kathryn Green and her husband Jeremy – expect even greater quality developments ahead. Comprised of the tiny Estate and Cornelius Grove vineyards west of St Helena (close to Colgin’s famous Tychson Hill Vineyard) and the Blank Vineyard further south in Rutherford, Grace Family Vineyards is managed by old friends master gardener Kendall Smith and winemaker Helen Keplinger. Together, they fashion tiny-production Cabernets that, while deeply loved domestically, seem likely soon to be propelled on to the world stage. A five-case lot sold for $35,000 at this year’s Premiere Napa Valley auction, so new limits have been set; time will tell where the new owners look to position themselves.
Having made his fortune with his family construction business back in Canada, in 2001, Cliff Lede (pronounced ‘lady’) threw himself into life in the Napa Valley with the acquisition of an estate on the corner of the Stags Leap District and Yountville AVAs. Lede bought 60 acres of serious, high-quality vineyards on loamy soils, followed by a group of long-desired hillside vineyards next to Shafer’s Hillside Select blocks. These southwest-facing plots on shallow volcanic soils brought to Lede’s mind the famous Robert Louis Stevenson quote ‘Wine is bottled poetry’, which is why he renamed the collection of plots The Poetry Vineyard. But this is Napa, so Lede – who cut his wine teeth drinking first growths while listening to classic rock – named the individual plots The Rock Blocks: Sultans of Swing, Sympathy for the Devil and Ziggy Stardust. The ambition is here, so expect prices to head north as demand and fame grow.