When it comes to American wine regions, none has more prestige than Napa Valley.
Though the region only accounts for 4% of California’s wine production, Napa wine generates $34 billion in business and is responsible for more than 190,000 jobs in the U.S.
Its high value in the American market isn’t a coincidence. Since winning the famous Judgment of Paris in 1976, when Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays beat the finest wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy in a blind tasting, Napa has become synonymous with outstanding quality wine.
But with prestige comes power, and with that, higher demand and high-end price points to match.
It’s becoming harder for average drinkers to get their hands on a worthwhile bottle without breaking the bank. At the Napa Valley Vintners 26th annual Premiere Napa Valley wine auction in February, the 2020 red wines sold at an average of $234.
“Napa wines are expensive, and they’re expensive for legitimate reasons to a certain point. We live in a high-cost area, and everything costs a lot of money,” says Tom Gamble, a third-generation farmer and owner of Gamble Family Vineyards.
He adds, “But people should still be able to discover Napa wines without paying $100 or more for it. There’s still a market for people who just want to put something good on the table, and we should be able to make that for them too.”
Gamble’s solution? The Mill Keeper, a new wine project of reasonably priced bottles intended for drinking right now. The Mill Keeper’s Cabernet Sauvignon is $80, while the red blend — a classic Bordeaux blend — costs $60. The rest of the lineup, including a white blend and a Chardonnay, range between $28 and $35. Meanwhile, wines under Gamble Family Vineyards can reach as high as $140.
Launching a new line of sustainable wines while keeping prices down and minding the environmental impact didn’t come without some strategic thinking. What came of it was a decision to repurpose dropped fruit.
“The farmer in me was thinking about what I could do with these dropped grapes. The birds will eat them, and they’ll get reincorporated into the soils, and that’s not a loss. But to make wine out of it? Would it be hard to do so?” Gamble says. “And it was hard to do so, but we spent several years figuring out how to make a nice wine out of them, so all that hard work doesn’t go to waste. And it makes your vineyard more productive.”
To make the wines palatable, Gamble used dropped grapes from later in the harvest to ensure riper fruit and blended it with grapes usually harvested across multiple vintages. The softened, older wine mellows out that sharp, young wine, and after a little bit of aging, everything comes into balance to create a premium quality table wine.
“We knew we were on to something because the first several years when we were experimenting with the dropped fruit and determined that it wasn’t quite right yet, we would sell the wine on the bulk market. The people we sold to had no problem buying it. And we got good prices for it,” Gambles says. “It took some time, but we finally got it right enough to say, ‘Let’s put it on a shelf.’”
“…people should still be able to discover Napa wines without paying $100 or more for it. There’s still a market for people who just want to put something good on the table, and we should be able to make that for them too.”
Sticking to the vision
Though Gamble has created a second line of wine to accommodate premium price shoppers, some wineries have purposefully kept prices down since launching.
With more than 200 vineyard acres across Napa Valley and Sonoma, vintner Robert Sinskey has found a way to keep the prices of his Robert Sinskey Vineyards wines relatively low for more than 30 years.
“We believed in integrity, and we wanted to make wines people wanted to drink. And we wanted to make wines that chefs wanted to drink. And so, our pricing strategy had to do more with making sure that it was in the sweet spot for restaurants and average consumers. So we were never in that $250 Napa wine category,” says Sinskey.
Since 1991, wine production at Robert Sinskey has been 100% organic and biodynamic, and yet a bottle of the winery’s Pinot Noir hasn’t risen above $50. By staying true to his mission, Sinskey’s fostered a loyal fan base and credits the community support for his ability to maintain prices despite rising inflation and production costs industry-wide.
Rising costs all around
However, Sinskey doesn’t deny that it will likely get more challenging to keep the prices of his products down as drought, wildfires, and the long-term effects of climate change affect the region.
“I think agriculture, in general, will face a lot of pressure in the future,” Sinskey says, noting that as more corporations enter the fold in Napa, small family wineries are even more at risk.
“There’s no doubt about it — it’s becoming harder and harder for small family wineries to remain in Napa. Everything I’m doing is trying to put an underpinning in this financially for my family to continue,” Gamble says.
The next generation
Despite the challenges, there is a feeling that there will always be a place for quality bottles at affordable price points. The proof is the winemakers that have popped up in the region who shy away from traditional grand estates, allowing them to focus their efforts and money solely on production. Small family wineries like Matthiasson, Hoopes Family Vineyard, and Grounded Wine Co. are among those leading the way.
“The younger crowd that came up through the system all hang out together. They collaborate. They bootstrap it. They make really great wine in warehouses and garages,” Sinskey says.
And there’s a younger generation of drinkers to accommodate. Winemakers are anxious to reel them in by creating quality wines at reasonable price points.
“My hope is that millennials can discover Napa with these wines and begin their journey,” says Gamble. “But the most important thing is to show that Napa can make an enjoyable wine at a relatively reasonable cost.”
Grounded Wine Co. California Cabernet Sauvignon 2020 (~$15)
Napa native Josh Phelps launched Grounded Wine Co. with the intention of producing approachable, quality, terroir-driven wines that mirror the place and the community he’s been a part of since childhood. The result is a collection of clean and balanced wines that showcase the best of what California has to offer at a relatively low price point, like this Cabernet Sauvignon. Ripe with black cherry aromas, the wine evolves into a melody of black fruit, oak, and spices on the palate with grippy tannins that hold it all together.
The Mill Keeper Napa Valley Chardonnay MV (~$28)
Elegant and approachable, this Chardonnay is bright and fruit-forward with aromas and flavors of citrus and stone fruits. Subtle notes of oak, vanilla, and fresh acidity balance the fruit while the texture remains soft and silky. Though medium-bodied, this wine is easy to drink, with a refined finish that lingers.
Matthiasson Linda Vista Vineyard Chardonnay 2020 (~$34)
Made with organic fruit grown behind winemaker Steve Matthiasson’s Napa Valley home, this Chardonnay is a drinkable basket of apples, peaches, and melon. The wine is refreshing with minerality and mouthwatering acidity with a fleshy soft body and creamy texture that makes it wash down all the more smoothly.
Post & Beam by Far Niente Napa Valley Chardonnay 2020 (~$36)
With its fresh floral and tropical fruit aromas, Post & Beam Chardonnay is a consistent favorite among wine critics — Wine Spectator gave the wine a 90-point score. Structured and complex with layers of citrus and stone fruit flavors, the wine displays bright minerality with a juicy, mouthwatering finish.
Robert Sinskey Vineyards Los Carneros Pinot Noir 2017 (~$50)
A red wine for the dinner table — this youthful and bright Pinot Noir puts the complex in complexity. Alluring aromas of red berries and plum lead while the palate is immersed in flavors of purple flowers, sage, and cooking spices. The wine has depth with firm tannins and a lengthy finish that lasts forever. The potential for cellaring is high.