The New Grand Cru of California

For ambitious winery owners, the magnetic lure of California is as strong as ever. And while Napa and Sonoma remain pre- eminent, the richness and diversity of the terroir is now becoming more and more apparent right up and down the coast. A decade ago, it might have been difficult to make a case for Paso Robles claiming a place in collectors’ cellars. But if you haven’t yet tasted the wines that Justin Smith is making at Saxum, or Stephan Asseo at L’Aventure, it’s time to clear some shelf space.

Napa and Sonoma, of course, were the lodestones for the first great wave of pioneers that came out west 50 years ago. In many cases, they still are. Scott Becker and Benoit Touquette, for example, took over Napa’s Realm Cellars barely a dozen years ago, and they are now making wines of astonishing calibre. The MacDonald brothers have only a handful of vintages under their belts, but they come from ancient Napa stock. Russell Bevan, whose Tench Vineyard parcels share a boundary with the rather better-known Screaming Eagle, is in the first rank of California winemakers. Claude Blankiet has been in Yountville since the mid-1990s (though it’s Dominus, whose land his overlooks, that is the more recognised name).

Here we’re presenting a collection of wines with impeccable credentials from this next generation of California prospectors, right across the state. Our criteria for inclusion are simple: the wines must come from the very best terroir, they must be made with the utmost attention to detail and they must be capable of long ageing; in short, they must be wines that no serious collector should ignore, but that might not yet be on many collectors’ radars.

Some producers are conspicuously absent. We haven’t profiled Bruce Phillips at Vine Hill Ranch, for example, because the Oakville vineyard’s profile is high enough already; likewise the ebullient Daniel Daou in Paso Robles. There’s no room to discuss wineries such as the excellent (and already acclaimed) DuMOL in Russian River Valley; then there’s Oakville’s Futo and St Helena’s Dana, both of which are crafting poised and ageworthy Cabernets. There are many more: Luc Morlet (consultant to Peter Michael Winery), whose Oakville Cabernet Coeur de Vallée has, like Andy Erickson’s Favia, just been taken on by La Place de Bordeaux; Rosemary Cakebread’s fine Gallica; the intriguing Ashes & Diamonds in Napa and Terre et Sang in Santa Barbara.

This is a new golden age for California. As Matt Thompson of UK importer Four Corners Wine says, ‘There’s a new generation embracing the region’s history while forging its own path of innovation and refinement. There’s never been such a collective striving for perfection.’

‘I’m the thorn in Christian Moueix’s side,’ Claude Blankiet jokes. His vertiginous Yountville vineyards overlook those of Moueix’s Dominus, one of Napa’s most exalted wineries, planted by the Bordeaux grandee in 1982. Blankiet’s 16 acres (6.5ha) of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc were planted on a mix of sandstone, basalt, white volcanic dust and clay soils by viticulturist David Abreu and the equally renowned winemaker Helen Turley in 1996. The vineyards rise and fall around the Swiss-Burgundian’s Gothic mansion with multiple different aspects. Winemaker Graeme MacDonald (one of Napa’s rising stars – see MacDonald Vineyards, overleaf ) makes six wines here, from the Mythicus Cabernet Sauvignon to the Rive Droite Merlot blend, all showing the hand of an accomplished vigneron who knows his land backwards. Long hot days and cool nights add to the complexity, and – this being Napa – the quality is in the detail: they use not one, but two ultra-accurate optic sorters. ‘We harvest up to 30 times, one side of the row, then the other. We pick exactly what we need at any moment,’ Blankiet says. Compelling wines from some of the finest terroir in Napa.

Napa Valley’s ‘Super-Seconds’

A review by Antonio Galloni The Wine Advocate (December 2012)

There is no way to ignore it; prices for Napa Valley’s top wines are high. Screaming Eagle is $850 a bottle, a 13% increase, the 2009 Harlan Estate is $750 a bottle, a whopping increase of 50% over the 2008. Napa Valley’s top estates now face the same problem as Bordeaux; the wines have become too expensive for restaurant wine lists. A $500 bottle at the standard 2.5x restaurant markup is, well, you can do the math. That is not a business with a sustainable future, at least not in this country and in this generation. At the same time, producers know they have to have a presence on restaurant wine lists, hence the explosion over the last few years of wines that retail in the $80-90 price range and that can therefore be sold in restaurants in the $250 price range, still a lot of money, but doable. The best of these wines, which I call Napa Valley ‘Super-Seconds’ are in fact, super. In top vintages, the best second-wines from top wineries are better than the vast amount of main labels. These are my favorite ‘Super-Seconds.’ All but two retail for less than $100.

Napa Valley’s Best ‘Super-Seconds’

Araujo Altagracia
Blankiet Prince of Hearts
Bryant DB 4
Dominus Napanook
Futo OV
Harlan Estate The Maiden
Screaming Eagle Second Flight


Blankiet Estate – “From Jeans to Juice”


Publicists get naturally wary when pitching clients who have distinguished themselves in one industry while positioning them in another. Some career moves have obvious relationships (drill sergeant to gym coach, for example), whereas others might appear disparate on the surface but share subtle relationships upon meditation. Deep meditation. Like, say the relationship between winemaking and acid wash jeans.

Such is the career legacy of Claude Blankiet. Once known as the man who introduced stonewashed jeans to the American market (among other techniques of artificially distressing and aging denim — from sandblasting to hand-tooling), he and his wife Katherine have enjoyed continuing success in wine since establishing Blankiet Estate in 1996. They’ve received scores of 95 points or more from such luminaries as Robert Parker, who has lauded their wine as “world-class, combining the extraordinary power of the site with an unbelievable elegance and definition.”

In other words, Blankiet has gone from faking vintage jeans to making vintage wines. On the surface, this might seem casual word play, but the notion actually bears out in Blankiet’s critically-lauded work, then and now. Essentially, he’s seeing what natural materials can do, be they textiles or 16 acres of vineyard in the western foothills of the Mayacamas mountain range overlooking Yountville in Napa Valley. The change from jeans to juice, however, did require some adjustments.

“I had to kind of slow down. I really enjoy that. All my life before this, the pace of business was always my decision,” says Blankiet, a contemplative man whose native French accent (his name is pronounced blahn-kyay) adds a certain worldly panache to his observations. “Here, we have to work with the pace of the season. Working with nature at this point in our lives is an improvement.”

For a man who had perfected the art of accelerating aging techniques in textiles, ceding control to nature and its often time-intensive processes was initially an adjustment for Blankiet.

”It’s challenging, but it’s what l like in life. I enjoy asking a question and not necessarily getting the answer that you expect,” he says wryly “From the very beginning, our idea was to satisfy personal interest and curiosity.

The idea was to plant just a small vineyard to make wine for our friends and ourselves, and perhaps sell wine to a few restaurants. The commercial aspect was not at all in the picture.”

Indeed, as one might glean from Blankiet’s wife and business partner Katherine, the winery represented something of a partial retirement. “The romantic notion of a having a simple ‘country life’ has long disappeared says Katherine with a laugh. “We’re very busy.”

Given Blankiet’s proclivity for excellence in whatever passion presently drives him, he wanted to create wine at a “high-level.” This meant conducting a three-year search for the right piece of land and sourcing the best talent available to realize his vision. “I wanted to get the best talent I could right away because I knew my limitations. I knew about wine inasmuch as I was a good consumer and a good taster, but I didn’t know how to make wine,” recalls Blankiet, whose first eight vintages were made by Helen Turley, followed by Martha McClellan-Levy for the 2006, 2007 and 2008 vintages, with assistance from world-renowned consulting enologist Michel Rolland. Since 2009, former Château Latour maître de chai Denis Malbec has served as winemaker. Moreover, acclaimed viticulturist David Abreu has overseen the development of 16 of 46 acres of vineyards, whimsically dubbed “Paradise Hills.”

Throughout the volcanic soils are planted Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, with Merlot taking up residence in a layer of alluvial clay left by the natural drainage of streams running from the mountain range. The combination of terroir, talent and technology (all vinification is conducted on-site using state-of-the-art equipment) results in palate-pleasing wines of expressive and complex character. (The 2007 Paradise Hills Vineyard Proprietary Red is of particular note, not least for its impressive notes of dark mocha, dark coffee, black currant and a quiet minerality).

“In my industry before, I was the link between designers and chemists. Those people usually don’t talk to each other – they use different parts of the brain,” says Blankiet. “For whatever reason, I was able to navigate those two worlds and be comfortable in either one. I can hopefully do it now between the farmers, people who work the land, and the people who make the technology which is quite innovative in America.”

Blankiet is no slouch himself when it comes to innovation. Among his accomplishments are a technique for decolorizing indigo in denim processing by means of ozone—an oxygen-based gas that he now uses to fend off mold, bacteria and fruit flies. Likewise he developed a “fingerprinting” system to authenticate fine wines and prevent fraud via “bubble tags.” Blankiet has also experimented with rosé production by using the juice bled from his 2006 harvest and fermenting it in new French barrels; the results garnered critical plaudits.

Blankiet describes himself as an “instigator” when it comes to working with his team. “I was always questioning, ‘What if? What if?’ Some winemakers like that, some do not,” he laughs. “Some winemakers and viticulturists are very enthusiastic about my approach of trying new things.”

Though Blankiet Estate has produced more wine in years past, now Blankiet prefers doing smaller case releases (often less than a thousand cases of its flagship proprietary red a year) and enjoys the support of a loyal list of wine club members.

“In spite of the stressful situations that you have sometimes because of weather or pests in the vineyard, learning to work with nature had definitely been rewarding for us,” says Blankiet.

“You have to try to have fun and believe in what you’re doing. That’s the approach we try to have here. We don’t make a lot of wine – but that’s what it takes to do it right.”

Blankiet Estate Ranks #2 in Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 Tasting

Last September FINE The American Wine Magazine organized a large horizontal tasting of 2007 Napa Cabernet in the Napa Valley. After tasting blind over forty Napa Cabernets from the region’s very top producers, they were convinced and impressed. Blankiet Estate, Paradise Hills Vineyard 2007 ranked second in the prestigious line up.

Blankiet Estate featured in The Napa Wine Project

Blankiet Estate

Passion for the vineyards and wine runs up and down the Napa Valley but for some reason we’ve met several truly impassioned individuals with vineyards in and around Yountville. Take Blankiet Estate for example; owners Claude and Katherine spent several years searching for particular hillside vineyards on the western side of Napa Valley. In 1996 they located hillside property from what used to be part of Domain Chandon’s holdings and they began developing the vineyards. This is prime vineyard property and it is surprising that it was never developed as such considering it sits right above Dominus Estate and one of Napa’s most historic vineyards, the Inglenook Vineyard.

As with a number of vineyard sites in and around Yountville on the western slopes of the Mayacamas mountain range, there is an unbelievable amount of rock that forms the hillsides. It’s volcanic ash, white and fairly porous – parts of Blankiet’s vineyards are literally covered with this white rock. As a result the vines have to certainly struggle for nutrients – 15 year old vines almost look stunted in places within a number of blocks. Contrast those with much more fertile growing conditions on the valley floor and you have vines significantly larger.

Claude calls his vineyard “a puzzle of microclimates” and terroir; it is certainly that. It is surprising in such a small area how the temperature varies throughout the property. Various exposures and soil types change dramatically. 16 vineyard acres are planted – Jim Barbour originally developed 2 acres of the vineyard and David Abreu planted, developed and continues to manage the additional 14 acres. Cabernet Sauvignon is the largest planted varietal with Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot also grown on site.

“Always ask questions – do not become complacent, remain curious,” – these are mantra’s that Claude has followed throughout the development of his vineyard. He came to enjoy wine later in life (although he did grow up in Burgundy). With a long career running a textile finishing company (stonewashed jeans) that was known for its innovation – Claude carried that innovation over to developing his vineyards and winery.

Some notable ideas were developed and implemented in his own vineyard. During very high heat spikes in the summer it is critical that the grapes do not reach certain temperatures as essentially they will start “cooking”. Blankiet developed a misting system used during such heat spikes and this system can be controlled on a block by block basis. Claude had seen this idea used to keep people cool in places such as Palm Springs and essentially applied the same principle to his vineyards. This system does require some water use but he is lucky to be sitting above one of the largest aquifers in the Napa Valley. Looking for a way to protect the grapes from infrared energy during heat spikes, they tested a wide variety of shading materials. After trying numerous options they found a material that worked well and each year during the later part of the summer strips of this material are rolled out and placed over the fruit zone only – depending on the individual blocks or vineyard exposure.

The first vintage was produced in 1999. Each year harvest takes about 6 weeks due to all the “mini” harvests they make. Individual rows or parts of blocks are roped off based on when the fruit is ripe. Only that section is picked during each of the mini harvests. Every cluster is hand inspected several times – in the vineyard and when it reaches the sorting table. Sorting is based on a cluster by cluster basis and only the most ripe berries drop off the end of the sorting table and make it to fermentation. The sorting requires a certain patience; only 3/4 of a ton is usually processed per hour. Both Claude and Katherine work the sorting table each time grapes are brought into the winery.

The attention to detail and micro management in the vineyards carries over into their winery operations. The winery is state of the art, clean and very functional. Nothing goes to waste – they even keep 150 ml bottles of wine for topping the barrels. Blankiet Estate focuses on a two flagship wines each year, both proprietary reds; their wines are neither fined nor filtered and 100% new French Oak is always used during the aging. The style of their wines have changed over the years, in part depending on the winemaking team.

The 2007 Proprietary Red Wine Paradise Hills Vineyard (60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot) is an elegant wine with more red than dark fruit showing on the palate. The bouquet is clean with a nice floral component (lavender). It is a rich wine but has a beautiful balance to it. Expansive flavors of black fruits including blackberry and black current complete the rounded mouth feel. A balanced structure of moderate tannins completes the very pleasing finish.

The 2008 Proprietary Red Wine Paradise Hills Vineyard is predominately Cabernet Sauvignon with some Merlot and small amounts of Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. This is the current release at the time of this review. It is dark ruby in color with sweet vanilla, hints of browned sugar and rich black fruit on the bouquet. This wine is lively from both the bouquet to on the palate. Compared to the 2007 vintage which is more refined, this is a bigger and more voluptuous wine. It shows a rich expression of their vineyards fruit with significant complexities of flavor.

Their 2009 vintages feature a “Right Bank” styled predominantly Merlot as well as a Medoc styled wine (mostly Cabernet Sauvignon with some Merlot). We tried a barrel sample of both wines – for young wines they are already coming together quite well. A second wine is called the Prince of Hearts and always features one of their personal art pieces as the label.

Blankiet Estate also makes tiny quantities of a Rose, available at the winery or through their mailing list only; this is an atypical Napa Rose. One of our favorite Rose’s in the valley is made by Notre Vin – it is no surprise that Notre Vin’s winemaker is also Blankiet’s winemaker (Denis Malbec). Blankiet’s 2009 vintage is made from Merlot by the Saignée method (bleeding juice from the tanks). This wine is aged in all new French Oak. The oak is there but it’s not overwhelming as you would think. The wine is dark salmon in the bottle with a very slight amount of residual sugar left which is barely perceptible. This bouquet is very clean, floral with notes of raspberry; for a “rose” it is a big wine with good depth of flavor.

We have seen a lot of vineyards and talked to many vintners throughout Napa as we’ve worked on this project. It is always refreshing to yet again be inspired by both the vintner (Claude) and what they have accomplished (the estate & dedication to their vineyards and quality wine). Total production is about 1500 cases each year (varies from vintage to vintage of course) and much of the wine is sold through their mailing list. Each bottle is labeled with a Prooftag which guarantees its authenticity (use of microscopic bubbles generates a three-dimensional code unique to each bottle) which can then be verified online or with a smart phone. To join Blankiet’s mailing list and for more information visit: http://ww.blankiet.com.

Yountville, Behind The Castle Walls

Remaking History

When Claude and Katherine Blankiet bought 46 acres in Yountville in 1996, they aspired to build a world-class winery and a home in the Renaissance style. A decade later. they have achieved their goals and then some: Blankiet Estate vineyards have yielded a cult Cabernet that retails for more than $150 a bottle. and the couple’s home, Castello de Paradiso. is a testament to old-world craftsmanship.

‘Our goal was to create something that looked old, but not phony,’ says Claude, who grew up in Dijon, France (just a short walk from the castle of the Duke of Burgundy). A collector of art and antiques, Claude and his wife Katherine, a former antique store owner, have amassed a world-class collection during their 25 years together. Before pulling down roots in Yountville, the couple made frequent visits to Napa Valley. As oenophiles of the highest order, the Blankiets shared a vision of vineyard living and dreamed of developing their own wine.

To fight fakes, wine is paired with tech

By Ryan Flinn, Bloomberg News

April 11, 2010

As a collector of rare and expensive wines, Claude Blankiet suspects that he’s drunk at least a few fakes without noticing.

Wine counterfeiters make it hard to tell whether you’re really drinking the vintage indicated on the label, he said.

And because high-end wines can fetch thousands of dollars, the incentive to create fake is huge, said Blankiet, who makes his own highly rated Bordeaux – style blends in the Napa Valley.

“How do you know it’s a real wine? If you open up a ’45 Mouton, is it a ’45, or a ’95?” He said. “When he gain can be achieved quickly and that easily, people actually do it.”

To combat counterfeiting, wineries are combining the ancient art of winemaking with cutting-edge technology. They’re putting radio-frequency ID tags inside labels, embedding microscopic material into the ink printed on the bottles, and even carbon dating wine to ensure authenticity.

It’s an arms race with the counterfeiters, who are attracted to the industry because of the soaring prices or rare wines at auction. In the past five years, prices of the 100 most sought-after wines have increased almost threefold, according to the Liv-ex (London International Vintners Exchange) fine-wine index.

“It’s almost like the housing boom”, said Neil Ivey, a sales manager at Payne Security in Washington , D.C., a firm that develops anti-counterfeiting measures for the wine industry.

At a Zachys Burgundy auction in San Francisco last month, a 30liet bottle of 1959 Chambertin Armand Rousseau fetched $48,400.

Payne relies on a special ink printed on a tag that goes over the bottle’s foil capsule. Wineries can use a handheld reader that receives a signal from the ink. That verifies the bottle came from the right place.

Verifying authenticity

Blankiet doesn’t want drinkers to have doubts about his own wine. Since 2005, every Blankiet Estate bottle has included a special seal with a pattern on it that can’t be replicated. The technology was designed by Prooftag SAS in Montauban, France. If the bottle is opened, the tag is destroyed. Buyers can verify the tag is authentic by logging on to a Web site. “Each tag is like a finger-print,” Blankiet said.

Chuck McMinn, the owner of Vineyard 29 is working with a Coral Gables, Fla.-based IProof to incorporate RFID tags into the foil covering his corks. “We do recognize that our wines are sought after,” said McMinn, who founded Covad Communications Group Inc. in 1996, before moving on to wine. “So we’ve taken a number of steps to make it a headache for the copiers to try and go after our wines.”

Checking legitimacy online

McMinn also will let buyers verify the provenance of the wines themselves. Mobile phones with RFID readers, which are widely available overseas and should start appearing in the United States soon, will let customers do just that, he said.

“When you scan it with a cell phone, it will call up a specific Web page for the specific wine you just bought,” McMinn said. It can also be set to show customers the winery’s tasting notes or offer food paring suggestions.

Another way to determine the vintage of an older bottle: the so-called bomb pulse. Nuclear weapons testing during the 1050s and early 1960s almost doubled the amount of carbon-14 isotopes in the atmosphere, said Graham Jones, a professor who specializes in wine and horticulture at the University of Adelaide in Australia. That concentration, called the bomb pulse, can be measured from that time, he says.

The bomb pulse provides a clock for dating biological materials formed after 1955, Jones said. Grapes grown during those years – and in the decades after – retain a ”memory” of the particular vintage.
The memory is still there when grapes turn into wine, he said. The wine industry is behind other fields in ad opting anti-counterfeiting technology, Ivey said. Tobacco, pharmaceuticals and ID-document companies have made it a higher priority, he said.

“It certainly isn’t at the stage yet where we’re seeing security divisions within wineries that think about nothing but protecting their brands”, Ivey said. “It’s usually a person or two who kind of acknowledges within a winery that there is problem.”

Billionaire collector William Koch has spotlighted the risk of buying counterfeit wines. Koch who has a 40,000-bottle cellar, sued auction houses Christie’s International Plc, Acker Merrall & Condit for allegedly selling him fakes.

Jefferson’ counterfeits

The lawsuits started in 2006, when he filed a complaint against German wine dealer and former pop music manager Hardy Rodenstock, who sold wines he claimed had once belonged to Thomas Jefferson,
Koch says the “Jefferson bottles” were counterfeits.

“The people who are counterfeiting are getting more sophisticated as time goes by,” said Charles Curtis, head of North American wine sales for Christie’s in New York. Christie’s will give a refund to a customer who suspects the purchased bottle is a fake, he said. “It definitely wasn’t an issue 10, 20 years ago,” Curtis said. “But I don’t think it wasn’t being done, I just think it was less well reported.”

Classifying Californian Cabernet

By Simon Woods – August 30 2005

Using the original price-based 1855 Bordeaux Classification rules, SIMON WOODS continues our series on global wine reclassification and ranks California ‘s top Cabernets.

Bordeaux has a price-based classification, so why can’t California? (Or Italy or Australia, etc, which we will also classify in coming issues). It was with this thought in mind that I began a very entertaining, often frustrating, trawl of auction records and wine lists to come up with an 1855-style classification of the Golden State’s wines, in which price, not quality is the sole criterion for inclusion.

Make that the Golden State’s Cabernet-based wines. Why? Simply because at the top end of the scale, they outnumber other styles. Apologies to fans of Californian Pinot Noir and Chardonnay , as I realise that wines from Kistler and Marcassin sell for prices higher than many of the Cabernets in this ranking. And apologies to Syrah enthusiasts – I wouldn’t be surprised if, in 20 years time, a case could be made for including several Syrahs. Colgin Estate has just released its 2002 IX Syrah at $125 (£71) a bottle and, with a Robert Parker rating of 95 (and a similar score for the yet-to-be-released 2003), demand is sure to be strong. But at present, Cabernet blends dominate the high price list, so that’s what I’ve focused on.

But if a $125 Syrah had been included in the ranking, it wouldn’t have been anywhere near the top of the list. Looking at the similar exercise I did for Bordeaux in the July 2005 issue, there are a number of wines in that classification available for less than $50 (£28) a bottle. In contrast, the typical price for the wines at the bottom end of this list is $100 (£57). A wine at $125 (£71) would appear in the fourth tier, and ones that appear among the ‘first growths’ regularly sell for $300 (£170) a bottle or more.


Again thinking back to the Bordeaux classification, you may remember that a number of châteaux, which were far from household names, succeeded in elbowing more renowned producers down, and often off, the list. The same has happened on this occasion, and for similar reasons. The interlopers then were the so-called garage wines; here they are the cult Cabs.

As with garage wines, there is no hard and fast definition of a cult Cabernet. However, major parts of the equation are that the grapes come from one of the top sites in Napa ; a renowned consultant, such as Heidi Peterson Barrett, Philippe Melka or Mia Klein is involved; yields are minuscule (quantities seldom exceed 1,000 cases a year); and the release price is a minimum of $100 (£57) a bottle. As for the wines, the fruit is usually ultra-ripe and the oak classy but plentiful – just the sort of style to attract high marks from Robert Parker and the Wine Spectator team.

(Just as an aside, anyone interested in having their very own cult Cabernet might like to look at www.crushpadwine.com/my_cultcab.html – a company that will make a wine to your specifications for $9,900 per barrel, or $33 (£19) a bottle.)

The minute quantities of the cult wines made present a problem when doing a pricing exercise like this. Take the king of cults, Screaming Eagle , which is released at $250 (£143) a bottle. The only people able to buy it at that price are those on the mailing list (all cult wines have mailing lists, usually with waiting lists, and occasionally with waiting lists to get on the waiting list). Anyone else who wants to buy some has to wait for those who did receive their three-bottle allocation to put it into auction. When you discover that the going rate on the open market for Screaming Eagle is more than $1,000 (£570), it’s no surprise that many bottles make their way into the salerooms. As one person put it, it’s as if Screaming Eagle was giving buyers $750.


It’s this escalation in price that marks out the true cult wines (and which has made doing this classification somewhat difficult). Screaming Eagle is the most sought-after of these, but there’s a following for all of the first growths. The least known of these, as well as the newest arrival, is Blankiet Estate, owned by French couple Claude and Katherine Blankiet. Their vineyards were developed by David Abreu, while superstar winemaker Helen Turley and her viticulturalist husband John Wetlaufer are in charge of production. Their first vintage, 1999, amounted to just 100 cases of wine. A cult in the making if ever there was one.

Cynics might wonder what the point is of making such a tiny quantity of wine. They might also raise eyebrows at the vogue at some wineries for single-vineyard bottlings. Wouldn’t it be better to produce a larger batch of just one wine rather than smaller amounts of several cuvées? Maybe such people should compare the Californian approach with that of Burgundy rather than Bordeaux, where no one bats an eyelid if a domaine bottles six different wines from Vosne-Romanée . And even at the heady prices asked, these wines are selling. Confidence is returning to the market after the post-9/11 lull and, as America’s outdated interstate shipping laws are relaxed, more and more well-heeled wine lovers will be clamouring for the latest must-have wine. According to a recent article in the New York Times, three times as much wine at $60 (£34) and above is being sold today as five years ago, and the figure is expected to triple again by 2010.


And the truth is, quantities are increasing. Just among the first growths, Harlan Estate now has the Bond label (which features among the second growths), Bryant is looking for new vineyards for expansion, while Colgin is introducing new wines that could outclass those from the Herb Lamb vineyard. Blankiet’s first vintage may have yielded only 100 cases, but production now is closer to 1,000 cases each of Cabernet and Merlot . It’s still not a vast amount, but in a place like the Médoc , where some well-known châteaux produce more than 20,000 cases a year, is very much the exception rather than the rule in the fine wine world. For this Californian classification, there are just 11 of the 68 wines where production exceeds 5,000 cases each year (see box, left).

The expansion at some wineries may have a restraining effect on the market for cult wines, according to Robert Sleigh, head of Sotheby’s wine department in New York. ‘The price is allied to scarcity, and while Harlan Estate and Screaming Eagle are still attracting buyers, we have noticed a cooling off with other cult wines. As quantities of some rise, people suddenly find themselves being offered a place on mailing lists that were supposed to be impossible to get on, so there’s no longer the need to buy at auction.’

He adds that marks from the critics are still very much the driving force behind his California sales. ‘There are lots of people with money to spend but without the time to do their own research. It is unfortunate, but they need guidance from an expert, usually Robert Parker. Personally, I love Harlan, but if I were looking for good value – if wines at these levels can ever be good value – I’d go for Ridge Monte Bello [4th growth], Opus One [3rd] and Mondavi Reserve Cabernet [5th].’


So how will a similar list look in 20 years? Nobody knows. The long-established producers, such as Ridge, Diamond Creek , Mondavi, Caymus, Phelps, Beaulieu Vineyard and Heitz, do feature on this list but, in price terms at least, they have been leapfrogged by a host of newcomers.

For the purposes of this classification, I only included wines that had been around since at least the 1999 vintage, since when dozens of producers in Napa alone have had their first vintage. Some of these will be content to release their wines at ‘only’ $50 (£28)a bottle, while others will have loftier ambitions. Napa will probably maintain its dominance of top-end Cabernets, but as land prices continue to escalate, maybe we will see more of an expansion into other regions.

Whatever happens, watching the progress will be exciting. California has come an awfully long way in a short time, and the only certainty is that we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Simon Woods ranks California’s cult Cabernets

For each winery, I’ve chosen the top cuvée. Wines in brackets are those that could also make a claim for inclusion in this ranking but have debuted since the 1999 vintage. Production of all wines is less than 1,000 cases. The price range is an average cost per bottle over several years. Wines are in descending order of price.*

First growths: $300+ (£171+)

  • Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley – £1,225 (£697)
  • Bryant Family Pritchard Hill Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
  • Dalla Valle Maya, Napa Valley (also Cabernet Sauvignon)
  • Grace Family Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
  • Colgin Herb Lamb Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley (also Tychson Hill Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon; Cariad)
  • Harlan Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley (also The Maiden)
  • Blankiet Estate Paradise Hills Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
  • Abreu Madrona Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley

Second growths: $175 – $300 (£100 – £171)

  • Barbour Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
  • Schrader Beckstoffer Cabernet, Napa Valley
  • David Arthur Elevation 1147 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
  • Shafer Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District, Napa Valley
  • Pride Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, Napa Valley (also Claret Reserve)
  • Hourglass Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
  • Araujo Eisele Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley (also Altagracia)
  • Gemstone, Yountville, Napa Valley
  • Bond Vecina, Napa Valley (also St Eden; Melbury; The Matriarch)
  • Peter Michael Cabernet Sauvignon Les Pavots, Knight’s Valley
  • Beringer Bancroft Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley (also the Cabernets from Chabot Vineyard; St Helena Home Vineyard)

Third growths: $130 – $175 (£74 – £100)

  • Opus One, Napa Valley
  • Joseph Phelps Backus Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville, Napa Valley (also Insignia)
  • Merus Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
  • Robert Foley Claret, Napa Valley
  • Diamond Creek Gravelly Meadow Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley (also the Cabernets from Volcanic Hill; Red Rock Terrace; Lake)
  • Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cask 23 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
  • Vineyard 29 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
  • Caymus Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
  • Portfolio Limited Edition, Napa Valley
  • Hartwell Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
  • Groth Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, Napa Valley
  • La Sirena Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
  • Pillar Rock Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
  • Heitz Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
  • Paul Hobbs Beckstoffer-Tokalon Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
  • Jones Family Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley

Fourth growths: $110 – $130 (£63 – £74)*

  • Barnett Rattlesnake Hill Cabernet Sauvignon, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley
  • Behrens & Hitchcock Kenefick Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
  • Cardinale, Napa-Sonoma Counties
  • Château Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
  • DR Stephens Moose Valley Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
  • Fisher Wedding Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma County
  • Galleron Morisoli Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
  • Kathryn Kennedy Cabernet Sauvignon, Santa Cruz Mountains
  • Lewis Cuvee ‘L’, Napa Valley
  • Lokoya Diamond Mountain District Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley (also the Cabernets from Rutherford; Howell Mountain; Mount Veeder)
  • Niebaum-Coppola Rubicon, Rutherford, Napa Valley
  • Pahlmeyer Proprietary Reserve, Napa Valley
  • Paoletti Non Plus Ultra, Napa Valley
  • PlumpJack McWilliams Oakville Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, Napa Valley
  • Ridge Monte Bello, Santa Cruz Mountains
  • Rudd Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville, Napa Valley Vine Cliff Private Stock 16 Rows Limited Edition Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville, Napa Valley

Fifth growths: $100 – $110 (£57 – £63)*

  • Beaulieu Vineyard Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
  • Cosentino M Coz Meritage, Napa Valley
  • Deerfield Ranch DRX Meritage, North Coast
  • Dominus, Napa Valley
  • Duckhorn Patzimaro Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
  • Dunn Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain, Napa Valley
  • Far Niente Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville, Napa Valley
  • Karl Lawrence Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
  • Lancaster Nicole’s Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley
  • Nickel & Nickel Stelling Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville, Napa Valley
  • Quintessa Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
  • Robert Mondavi To Kalon Vineyard Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
  • Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
  • Spring Mountain Reserve Red, Napa Valley
  • Viader Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
  • ZD Wines Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley* Prices for the 4th and 5th growths are so similar they are listed alphabetically.

SIMON WOODS is a wine writer and author, and Wine International’s First Taste columnist

Thanks to the New York wine departments of Christie’s and Sotheby’s for their help and to Vineyard Cellars in Berkshire for supplying the bottles for photography.

Dinner and wine tasting at NoMad, NYC April 2015

“I knew it the moment I first tasted the wines from barrel. Two thousand ten had the potential to be a great vintage for Napa Valley. It was so obvious. The wines had great color, intensity, freshness and persistence, much of that the result of an unusually cool, long growing season by Napa Valley standards….

…Flight One focused on three reference-point wines from Yountville, each stunning in its own right. Blankiet’s Proprietary Red was all finesse”

Dinner and wine tasting at Bar Boulud , NYC January 2015

“This recent dinner at Bar Boulud provided a great opportunity to check in on a handful of California classics. All of the wines were terrific, but the Napa Valley Cabernets stole the show….

…Four truly spectacular Napa Valley wines take things to another level Blankiet’s 2009 Proprietary Red wraps around the palate with voluptuous, silky fruit and exceptional overall balance. Although delicious today, the 2009 will continue to thrill those lucky enough to own it for at least another 10-15 years.”

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