In focus: California Cabernet

The Sine Qua Non room at Hedonism in Mayfair

Perhaps the more important question is whether or not California’s big five and beyond have true ageing potential; as this is often considered the mark of a fine wine. While many of California’s cult Cabernets are too young to be able to prove themselves over time, older vintages from the likes of Heitz, Dunn, Stag’s Leap and Château Montelena are proving increasingly popular at auction.

Macy Pigman of Christie’s New York says: “The auction market for the upper echelon of California Cabernet is exceeding expectations, and we’re seeing a resurgence in demand for 30- to 40-year-old Cali Cabs as collectors and critics begin to discover the unbelievable ageing potential these wines.” Viner stocks California drops dating back to the 1930s at Hedonism, and is confident about their ageing potential.

“I have been lucky enough to try several wines from the 60s and 70s from the likes of Heitz, Inglenook and Mondavi, and they have all been exceptionally good and very fresh,” he says. Cathy Corison’s elegant expressions are often used to highlight the ageability of California Cabernet. Bartle of Roberson says: “Corison ‘89 is a superb example of a mature Napa Valley Cabernet that has retained its acidity and fruit character, making it great to drink now or 20 years from now.”

Single bottles of Harlan sell for US$900 on release

For Dave Allen of The Vineyard Cellars, the ageability of top California Cabernet depends on the intentions of the winemaker when creating it. “Those made with a view to ageing will certainly do so, but those made to be voluptuous in their youth will struggle after 15 years,” he says.

But it’s not only ancient Cabernets that are attracting attention at auction. The allure of the big five is so strong that recent vintages are generating eye-wateringly high hammer prices. Just last month three bottles of the 2010 vintage of Screaming Eagle fetched US$10,625 at a Christie’s auction in New York.

The same auction saw three Screaming Eagle wines from the recently released 2016 vintage sell for US$7,500, fuelled by rumours that the 2017 vintage may not be released at all due to fears of wildfire-induced smoke taint. The winery’s inaugural 1992 vintage, made by Heidi Peterson Barrett, still has pulling power.

Last month a pair of 1992s went under the hammer for US$15,000 at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong. The fact that the big five don’t tend to hold back a lot of stock is only adding fuel to the fire. “The lack of library stock in a period of rising demand has undoubtedly helped to push prices northward,” says Gibbs of Liv-ex.

While the likes of Harlan and Screaming Eagle make so little wine that the idea of holding a sizeable chunk of it back each year would be counter-intuitive, a growing number of California estates are waking up to the benefits of nurturing a wine library. John Williams of Frog’s Leap has held back 10% of his stock each year since his debut vintage in 1981, to be able to prove that his wines age gracefully. Having heavily invested in the fine wine side of its business, E & J Gallo is looking to build up its library stock, particularly of its Louis M. Martini Monte Rosso Cabernet.

“This is top of mind for us. In some markets our distributors have built a library of our wines to be able to put on vertical tastings. Having a library of back vintages is an important way of gaining visibility in the on-trade, particularly at fine dining restaurants,” a Gallo spokesperson said. Jackson Family Wines, meanwhile, has started putting aside as much as 25% of the annual production of Vérité, with the aim of re-releasing the wines at a later date with they are ready to drink.

“Our library programme was created in response to certain vintages of Vérité getting snapped up really quickly, so we’re forcing the hand of the market a bit. We’re going for the long-term decision rather than the short-term gain,” says brand ambassador Dimitri Mesnard MS. With Scarecrow and Screaming Eagle’s chief winemakers having moved on to launch their own projects, might we soon see a slew of new ‘cult’ California Cabernets threatening to topple the big five from their throne?

Lawrence Fairchild with his new ‘cult’ Cabernet, Perrarus

“Napa is a very close-knit community and people tend to follow the path of a winemaker, so Heidi Peterson Barrett’s new small production projects like La Sirena, Kenzo and Lamborn are all gaining traction, as are those made by Napa legends Andy Erickson and David Abreu,” says Christian Manthei of The Wine Treasury, who was astonished to chance upon dozens of Napa Cabernets he didn’t recognise priced upwards of US$200 at a grocery store in Oakville during a recent buying trip.

Alistair Viner of Hedonism flags up Russell Bevan’s PerUS as a winery to watch, while importer James Hocking describes Philippe Melka’s Moone Tsai as a future classic.

However, California’s fine wine future won’t necessarily lie in Cabernet. “I think Pinot Noir will start to command as much attention as Cabernet, as producers work out how to get the best from this fickle grape in California,” predicts Dave Allen of The Vineyard Cellars, who believes the likes of Kutch from the Sonoma Coast and Domaine de la Côte in the Santa Rita Hills are poised for their moment in the sun. While most estates need to prove themselves with a 20-year track record before they can enter the fine wine canon, some labels lay claim to being a ‘cult’ wine off the bat.

In August, Lawrence Fairchild (pictured), a Washington insider during the Reagan years, and now a wine entrepreneur, released 300 magnums of a 2015 Napa Cabernet called Perrarus (meaning ‘exceptional’ in Latin) priced at US$3,500 a pop, which he describes as being “the Ferrari of wines” with “the wild energy of a leopard”. The magnums were allocated at random to members of Fairchild’s mailing list.

How long the likes of Ridge and Opus One can continue their upward trajectory on the secondary market remains to be seen. Justin Gibbs of Liv-ex has already noticed that the price appreciation “at the very top of the California tree” is slowing. However, with limited supply, critical success and a run of good vintages, the top drops from the Golden State are helping to expand collectors’ wine horizons and prove that, in sensitive hands, California is more than capable of creating wines that can stand shoulder to shoulder with the best of Bordeaux.

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