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.

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