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auberge du soleil

The Restaurant at Auberge du Soleil has a wine list with more than 1,400 selections, including 325 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons.

Affordable Rich Reds

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Wine drinkers are introducing their palates to Napa Valley Cabs priced under $100.

By Kristine Hansen October 2015 Wine

Two decades ago, a bottle of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon priced under $100 on a wine list might have made a serious wine drinker pause. The assumption: It must not be worth drinking.

But in the current unraveling of an economic recession, that skeptic eye is no longer. Cabs from this storied region that aren’t the cult classics or that don’t cost more than the food bill are just as coveted.

Nowhere is that more true than at The Restaurant at Auberge du Soleil Resort, tucked into Napa Valley’s posh resort. Kris Margerum, sommelier and director of wine, presides over a wine list of 1,400 selections, including 325 Napa Cabs. “We carry more Napa Cab than anything else,” he says. “I’m always looking for things that are coming in at or under $100.” However, he notes that Napa’s “sweet spot” might be closer to $150, given that most visitors are on vacation and apt to spend more.

“My favorite trend is top Cabernet producers who are making a second-tier wine,” Margerum says, pointing to Vineyard 29 in St. Helena, California, as one example. Its Aida Estate Cabernet Sauvignon runs $300-plus per bottle on a wine list, while the Cru series hovers around $90–$98 (or $21–$25 a glass). “You still get a sense of what Vineyard 29 is about, but there is more approachability,” he explains.

“The sweet spot I’m seeing around the country is $100, with some pedigree,” says Craig Becker, director of winemaking and viticulture for Somerston Wine Co. Its Priest Ranch Winery Cabernet Sauvignon runs just under $100 on a wine list. Napa Cabs costing around $150 on a wine list, Becker says, aren’t enticing diners—prices either below $100 or over $200 (catering to a more wealthy demographic) are.

“The recession really changed the game. People pay attention to what they spend and also to quality,” says Michael Trujillo, president and director of winemaking at Sequoia Grove Winery in Napa Valley. “Millennials are even more bargain-savvy and less media-driven and cult-wine-driven.”

Despite rising land prices in Napa Valley—a region considered a cornerstone for producing high-quality Cabernet Sauvignon and where real estate prices have nearly tripled in the last 20 to 30 years—some winemakers and winery owners have a firm hold on affordable pricing. That’s because they own the land where the fruit is grown and aren’t subjected to price swings in contracts with grape growers.

“Because we control it from top to bottom, there are efficiency gains,” says Becker, who strives to source 3 tons of fruit per acre and manages 26 vineyards [1,615 acres total] in Napa Valley for the Priest Ranch Winery label. Keeping labor in-house, as opposed to hiring contractors, he says, “you don’t have all that overhead you have with farm-labor contracts.”

The notion of sipping a Napa Cab has long carried credibility with diners because it’s a highly recognizable match between a grape varietal and a grape-growing region. This only helps sommeliers and wine directors when promoting wines from lesser-known producers, or those costing less than $100 a bottle.

“Napa is the one American appellation where guests consistently view its quality as a region worth the price, regardless of an affordable price tag or a more exalted tariff for the wine,” says Laura Williamson, a master sommelier and wine director at New York’s Mandarin Oriental and its Asiate restaurant, where modern American cuisine like seared Hudson Valley foie gras with strawberry umeboshi stands on par with the elevated wine selections.

“This marketing power is similar to what Bordeaux enjoys, as a region able to command high prices. Napa wines almost always take zero effort to sell,” she says. “Even boutique growers, who are not widely recognized due to tiny supply, excite guests and spark intrigue.” 

“The coasts have really started to embrace American wines. For a while it was esoteric regions in Europe,” says Tom Powers, who will open a wine bar in Chicago’s West Loop this fall called The Lunatic, The Lover & The Poet. Consumers are more educated about Napa Valley geography, too, and might know the difference on the palate among Calistoga, Stags Leap District, or Mount Veeder. One of his favorite affordable Napa Valley Cabs is from Bennett Lane Winery in Calistoga.

There’s a fine line between offering a wine list full of undiscovered wine and one that features only recognizable wines. His goal is to offer both, to satisfy customers who want to geek out over wine and receive advice from the wait staff, and those who wish to sip from familiar labels. “People don’t necessarily want to be educated every time they go out,” Powers says. “People are looking for wines they know and trust.” Sometimes, however, it’s as simple as sticking to a region the customer knows and trusts, too.

At a recent tasting at Sequoia Grove’s tasting room, its Cabernet Sauvignon—with some fruit sourced from esteemed Napa Valley vineyards like Healy and Beckstoffer’s Georges III—costs around $65–$80 a bottle.

Rarity and limited production levels are what drive up the price on a Napa Cab, Trujillo says. “We grow a lot of our own grapes so we’re not at the mercy of inflation and command for the commodity of the grapes. The key is to be in control of your destiny.” Roughly 75 percent of Sequoia Grove’s grapes are grown in estate vineyards.

“We’re not after that one-hit wonder or going through the glass ceiling in terms of price,” Trujillo says. “We want our brand and our wine to get traction, slowly and surely.” High scores will often drive up a wine’s price.

Like many Napa wineries, Sequoia Grove offers many price tiers. Managing one’s own grapes is a way to parcel out the fruit in the best way possible. What Trujillo calls “the crème of the crème” are used in Cambium, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc that runs about $210 to $230 on a wine list. Lesser-quality grapes might go into a fun, affordable blend only sold through the tasting room.

Frank Family Vineyards—in Calistoga, California,—employs the multi-tier process, too, in its winemaking, with the Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon on the lowest end, making 25,000 cases each year. It sells for $95 a bottle at places like Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar. The Fruit in the Winston Hill wine ($275 on a wine list) comes from the esteemed Rutherford appellation.

The fact winery owner Frank Rich owns 250 acres of planted vines, of which 180 are red-grape varietals, keeps the cost down. “We farm the land, we bought the land, so we can get the grapes a little less expensive. It’s getting more and more expensive to buy grapes. We’re fortunate we own a good chunk of them,” winemaker Todd Graff says. Like Sequoia Grove, having a mediocre harvest doesn’t mean all is lost: Those grapes can be blended into a Cabernet Sauvignon that also features Merlot and Cabernet Franc.

“We really focus on trying to have a Napa Valley Cab under that three-digit number—$100 is a lot of money,” Graff says. “If you eat out a lot, have a couple of entrées for $20 each, the wine is the biggest amount.”

Yet no matter the price, diners will never waver in their love for Napa Cabs.

There truly is an intense demand currently for all of Napa,” Williamson says. “Therefore, affordable options from Napa, such as selections under $100 on restaurant wine lists, move incredibly well.”