While the world continues to tackle the outbreak of Covid-19, we at Wine Lister are trying to continue with “business as usual” – at least as far as is possible, while also thinking of all our friends in wine regions and markets that are struggling in this uniquely difficult time. This of course includes California – that idyll for sunshine and free love as featured in many a hit song and many a hit wine list.
Of all fine wines from the New World, offerings from California have succeeded in grabbing the attention of fine wine collectors, with some even reaching “cult” status. With this in mind, we are California dreaming this week, and examine below the wines from California’s foremost regions – Napa and Sonoma Counties.
Both production areas offer an abundance of top-quality wines, though at a price. The high prices of several Napa County AVAs, including Oakville and the Napa Valley, mean that its wines can appear expensive when compared to its sibling, Sonoma County.
The chart above shows the average WL Score and price (£) per bottle in-bond (when buying by the case) of the top eight AVAs in Napa and Sonoma Counties.
Two AVAs consisting only of white wines stand in stark contrast. Carneros is represented by four Chardonnays – Kistler Vineyards’ Hudson Vineyard, Ramey Wine Cellars’ Hudson Vineyard, Shafer Vineyards’ Red Shoulder Ranch, and Cakebread’s Chardonnay Reserve, earning an average WL score of 91.8. Accompanying its relatively low WL score is the second-lowest average price of all AVAs – c.£67 per bottle in-bond. This remains excellent value in the wider fine wine context, given that Chardonnay with similar scores from Burgundy can fetch up to c.£1,000 (for example, Coche-Dury’s Meursault Les Caillerets).
At the other end of the quality scale is Sonoma Valley AVA, represented by three Chardonnays from Kistler Vineyards. Its average WL score of 93.7 is the highest amongst its Californian peers. Considered a cult Californian winemaker, the Kistler Winery emulates the Burgundian “terroiriste” approach, committing wholeheartedly to wines that best reflect each individual plot.
The Napa County groups command a higher price tag on average than their Sonoma counterparts. Oakville’s selection of predominantly red wines holds the second-highest WL score, however its average price is over double that of the second most expensive region – Rutherford. This is explained by the presence of Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon, which, at an average price of £2,863 per bottle, drives the region’s quality-to-price ratio down. The mailing list model of Jean Philips’ low-production Napa Valley winery has amassed an incredible cult following of fine wine buyers, who seemingly seek access to the wine at any cost.
While Sonoma County may appear to offer the better value (with red wines such as Kenwood Vineyards Artist Series Cabernet Sauvignon, or Hirsch Vineyards Block 8 Estate Pinot Noir, to add examples to Kistler’s whites), Wine Lister’s top 10 Californian MUST BUYs are all from Napa County.
Of these, all are produced in the Napa Valley AVA except Screaming Eagle’s 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon. Dominus Estate achieves two mentions, with vintages 2013 and 2010 both featured. Perhaps unsurprisingly for the New World king of Cabernet Sauvignon, the top 10 Californian MUST BUYs includes just one alternative grape variety – Kongsgaard’s 2016 Hudson Vineyard Syrah.
Explore all 94 Californian MUST BUYs here.
While wines made in The Golden State are not as affected by vintage variation as their European counterparts, the 2013 vintage was for California as close to perfect as they come. The long, hot summer led to Cabernet Sauvignons with extreme fruit concentration and firm structure – a recipe for long-term cellaring. The vintage’s economic credentials seem equally promising, with Economics scores of the top five Californian reds from the 2013 vintage outperforming their respective wine-level average by 114 points (averaging 979 in 2013 versus 864 across all vintages).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the number one spot is taken by Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon. At 996, its Economics score is not only the highest of this week’s top five, but of all 2013s on Wine Lister (matched only by 2013 DRC Richebourg). It is also by far the most expensive of the five at £2,363 per bottle – over twice as high as the price of the other four combined. Screaming Eagle’s “mailing list” sales model teamed with tiny production quantities (7,800 bottles per annum on average) means that demand for this wine consistently outweighs supply. This could explain the wine’s strong presence on the secondary market, with 855 bottles traded at auction over the last 12 months (according to figures collated by the Wine Market Journal).
In second place is 2013 Pahlmeyer Proprietary Red. Interestingly, it has the lowest Quality score of the group. Indeed, its 2013 Quality score is 74 points lower than Pahlmeyer’s average (848). Contrastingly, the 2013 vintage receives its best ever Economics score of 979, boosted by a six-month price performance of 18.7%.
The third spot of this week’s top five is occupied by the only Pinot Noir of the group, Kistler Vineyards Pinot Noir, with an Economics score of 972. It is the only wine of the five to have been released before 2016, and thus the only one with a three-year compound annual growth rate (28.2%), whereas Economics scores for the other four 2013s are based upon price performance over the short term only. Kistler’s place in the top five 2013 Californian reds by Economics score is impressive, given its lower price point (£101 per bottle, compared with an £843 average for the other four wines).
The penultimate wine of this week’s top five is 2013 Scarecrow. Alongside its best ever Quality score (987), the 2013 vintage achieves an Economics score of 965, helped by the second-highest three-month average price (£663) and the best price stability of the group (with standard deviation of just 4.1% over the last 12 months).
Last but by no means least is Philip Togni Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, with an Economics score of 964. Though fifth for economics, it is number one for Quality, thanks to a 100-point score from Wine Lister partner critic, Antonio Galloni, who calls it “a majestic, towering wine… one of the wines of the vintage”.
With Burgundy having dominated our thoughts recently, we thought it was time for a change. So this week, our Listed section continues on its travels, this time stopping in the USA, to consider the country’s overall top five whites. However, whilst the landscape might be different to the Côte d’Or, the grape certainly is not. As might be expected, the USA’s top five whites are all Chardonnays – and all Californian.
Leading the pack is Marcassin Vineyard Chardonnay, with an excellent score of 918 – putting it amongst the very best on Wine Lister. Its score – 55 points above second-placed Kongsgaard Chardonnay – is the result of excellent consistency across Wine Lister’s three categories. Whilst it comes second in terms of Quality (927), it leads in the Economics category (968), and is well out in front in the Brand category (879). The dominance of its brand is the result of achieving the group’s best restaurant presence – both horizontal and vertical – and being the most popular of the five – it receives nearly twice as many searches each month on Wine-Searcher as the second-most popular wine in the group.
Next comes Kongsgaard Chardonnay (863). The cheapest of the five (£86 per bottle), it experiences the group’s second-weakest Economics score (873). However, it starts to climb back up the table with the group’s third-best Quality score (894), and cements its position with the second-best Brand score of the five (817).
The three final wines in the group are evenly matched, with just 27 points separating Kistler’s straight Chardonnay, Peter Michael’s Point Rouge Chardonnay, and Kistler’s Vine Hill Vineyard Chardonnay. The two Kistlers display contrasting profiles. Whilst the straight Chardonnay comfortably outperforms the Vine Hill Vineyard in the Quality category (892 vs 805), the roles are reversed in the Economics category, with the Vine Hill Vineyard’s very strong three-year CAGR (16.5%) helping it to an excellent score of 951, c.70 points ahead of the straight Chardonnay. In the Brand category, despite achieving very similar scores, again they display contrasting profiles. The straight Chardonnay is over twice as popular as the Vine Hill Vineyard, but features in half the number of the world’s top restaurants.
Peter Michael Point Rouge Chardonnay – the USA’s fourth-best white – has a somewhat topsy-turvy profile. It enjoys the group’s best Quality score (933), but the worst Brand and Economics scores (641 and 827 respectively). Thanks to an extraordinary three-year CAGR of 47.7% it is also by far the most-expensive of the five, with a three-month average price of £457.