Trendspotting: Napa Cab is King

I leave Napa Valley today for about my 90th wine-purchasing trip over the last 15 years. The first seven years was when I was chairman of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. I used the state’s purchasing power as a retailer of more than 600 stores and created the Chairman’s Selection program — purchasing ultra premium wines from producers like Far Niente, Phelps, Fisher Coach Insignia, Landmark and many others at very hot prices. I’ve enjoyed the transition to my own company, Newman Wine, and have found purchasing and finding value for the wine consumer extremely rewarding.

There are very few certainties in life other than death, taxes — and that Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is king.

There are several interesting trends in the wine industry, but the interest and demand for Napa Cabernet is breathtaking. While popular varietals like Merlot and Syrah continue to take it on the chin, there seems to be no limit to the growth of Napa Cabernet, which has captured the imagination of the American wine consumer. While there is beautiful Merlot and Syrah being grown in the Valley, these varietals have too often produced inconsistent wines and I see no signs of resurgence of interest. That’s too bad, because there’s some great value in these and other Bordeaux varietals. And by the way, that’s not to say there aren’t some gorgeous Bordeaux blends being produced.

In Napa Valley, the tiny 2010 and 2011 crops were followed by three bountiful harvests: 2012, 2013 and 2014. Since Napa is a relatively small viticultural area with limited space, the demand for Cabernet still far outstrips supply with bulk pricing at a premium. Labels that rely on the bulk market are struggling to fill the production pipeline while keeping retail price points intact. The growth of the ultra premium Cab segment continues to be robust. I’m often presented with new luxury labels with a $50 to $100 price point of aspiring proprietors and vintners who dream of creating the next Harlan, Scarecrow or Screaming Eagle. Most of these new brands will fail, as the success rate is extremely competitive. And even with Cabernet pricing tight as a drum, I’ve sampled many Napa Cabs below $30 that are spectacular.

2010 was a vintage of decent quality but it was a small crop. 2011 was a very challenging “winemaker’s vintage” where Mother Nature did not cooperate. But with the pretty 2012 vintage hitting stores and the even better 2013 vintage rolling out, there will be even more excitement for Napa Cabernet in the future. It’s early, but the weather and fruit in 2014 also presented for a bountiful crop and signs indicate this will be a vintage of exceptional quality. After harvest, Napa also received much needed rain. While it’s hard to predict weather patterns, if 2015 yields another solid crop that would make four consecutive vintages of good quality and size. This string of bumper crops could even surpass the quality of the four straight vintages of 1994-1997 that received strong accolades. Even with these large crops, I believe the appetite for Napa Cabernet will continue. Pricing will either stabilize or go up.

With the sophistication in technology, winemaking techniques and the quality of vintners, Cab lovers are in for a special treat. The taste profile of big, rich Napa Cabernet has captured the imagination of wine lovers — and the quality will get even better. While Napa has been king of Cabernet, expect this trend to become even more amplified over the next several years.

 

Jonathan Newman is widely recognized as a leader in the wine industry. As chairman of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, he was the nation’s largest wine buyer and brought a number of popular innovations to bear, including the Chairman’s Selection program and opening of local stores for Sunday sales. Jonathan has also received significant accolades from leading industry magazines. Follow Jonathan Newman on Twitter at @NewmanWine and visit his website: http://www.newmanwine.com.

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