Writing from the edge of the Russian River in Sonoma County
The wine writer for the Wall Street Journal recently shared her thoughts regards the high prices in Napa wine and tourism drawing a response from the San Francisco Chronicle that shared where you can get a bagel for $2.50.
WSJ Wine Columnist Can No Longer Afford to Visit Napa
The wine writer for the Wall Street Journal, Lettie Teague shared her thoughts and frustrations with the high prices that have become the norm in Napa wine and tourism and shared her perspectives and those of others on the changing region.
“The Napa Valley in California is one of my favorite wine regions, but I’m not sure I can afford to visit Napa today”, she opined
With Napa’s newest hotel (Stanly Ranch) offering a base rate of nearly $1,300 a night, she has gotten the feeling that the region’s main crop is cash, not grapes. The no-frills hotel she used to stay in (a room overlooking a gas station) now charges more than double than pre-Covid times and she’s concerned that,” today’s valley is less familiar and certainly much less attainable for wine lovers like me.”
The priciest place to rest your head might be the Four Seasons Resort and Residences that opened in Calistoga last November with a midweek room rate of $1,675—before tax- and offers the opportunity to “experience the grape to glass lifestyle as never before.” The resort’s owner paid $177.5 million for the Four Seasons in December 2021 and it was noted as “one of the highest valued hotel transactions ever.”
The average price of a Napa Valley hotel room has soared 51% in 2021 over 2020, according to a spokesperson for Visit Napa Valley, putting it about 20% above what it was prepandemic.
Teague expressed her concern regards rising costs; “I can’t help feeling that the region’s main crop is cash, not grapes.”
A local tour operator who has been driving winery guests for over a decade acknowledged that the Valley has changed a great deal, “The tourism prices are far more aggressive than we’ve ever seen,” he said.
I should note that Route 29, the only two lane road through Napa and wine country is jammed from end to end on Saturday and Sunday.
The cost of tasting wines has taken a decided turn upward as well. According to Sarah Elliman, co-founder of CellarPass, a winery reservation platform, “Tasting fees have been on the rise at a significant pace in Napa Valley since 2016, on average rising 25% or more.”
Here’s a short list as an example of costs for tastings:
At Cliff Lede Vineyards in Yountville, a fee of $60 per person currently buys four one-ounce tastings of the winery’s current releases. A couple of three-figure options include tastings of four reserve wines and a vineyard tour.
Spotswood Estate Vineyard & Winery, in St. Helena, charges $75 to taste three wines—waived with the purchase of six bottles of Spotswoode Estate Cabernet. The price has remained constant for about five years, said president and CEO Beth Novak Milliken, “We want to keep it real,” she said. “We’re underpriced compared to our peers.
Wine maker Tor Kenward noted his $150 “basic” tasting, is an affordable option including tastings of 4-5 wines and a “small, curated” cheese plate. Ms. Milliken must have been referencing Kenward’s $900 Black Magic Cabernet tasting, that includes a variety of wines, lunch and a vineyard tour. He, too, acknowledged that Napa pricing has gotten out of hand. “Maybe I’m part of the problem,” he said. “Is it going to blow up in our faces? I don’t think so, but it may hurt us down the road.”
At Heitz Cellar in St. Helena, up to four guests at a time can enjoy “wine, food, scenic explorations” with the Vineyard to Bottle Experience, priced at $1,000 a person. It includes visits to two of the winery’s vineyards, followed by a tasting in the Salon at Heitz Cellar of current releases and older library wines.
April 28, 2022 Breaking News – The wine writer for the SF Chronicle, Esther Mobley has posted a response that agrees with the perception of high costs and justifies them due to the cost of land, staffing and the fact that there are people who will pay whatever the freight is. She also shared a place where you can get a bagel for $2.50, a room for $500/night and tastings for under $50.00
I too have discovered the rather high cost of tasting wine in Napa County and will suggest that it’s one of the reasons we don’t visit there very often, Sonoma County is much more reasonable.
But fear not my loyal readers your pal Woody has some secret spots that are in the heart of Napa wine country where you can share the Napa ambiance without the Napa prices, so be sure to reach out if you’re planning a visit.
The Lady Is a Legend
I became aware of Zelma Long when she first surfaced in the Sonoma wine industry during the mid-70’s, about the same time I was beginning to learn about wine and food. She was most visible to me her during her short stint at Domain Chandon, the sparkling wine producer and I’ll tell you my Chandon story later.
Winemaker Zelma Long is an icon of the industry. Before women became a significant force in wine and before winemakers were cloaked in the veneer of celebrity, Long was pushing the industry forward, seriously laboring on such tasks as developing superior winemaking techniques and enhanced vine growing. Now 77, her career continues to be a blend of adventure seeking, knowledge honing and expertise sharing in all corners of the globe. The lady is a legend. As one of the female pioneers of the development of viticulture in the United States, she is highly acclaimed, and has been a mentor to numerous aspiring female vintners in California.
“She learned so fast from every source – me, other winemakers, books and magazines – that she was soon qualified for not just one job but three positions: winemaker, wine chemist and microbiologist.” – Mike Grgich former co-worker and pioneering owner of Grgich Hills Estate Winery
Mondovi – Simi – Chandon
An early hire at the Robert Mondavi Winery, Long paved the way for other women to be successful in what was a male-dominated field. But she shies away from making too much of her gender. ‘I didn’t feel constrained as a woman working at Mondavi – only occasionally with people from Australia and France who acted surprised that a woman was making wine. It was more hilarious than anything else’.
We were able to meet and greet Ms. Long at a recent presentation offered by The Sonoma County Wine Library Association and she was gracious enough to share some time for an interview with me even though she was about to leave on a three week trip to Italy the next morning.
“I’ve been making wine for over 50 years so it’s fairly easy to have a lot of experience” she smiled, when asked about what she’s best known for. “I started hands-on working in the lab doing testing and literally writing orders for equipment I wanted to work with, starting at the bottom and working my way up”.
“My goal as young person was to make the most of who I am, what I am and what I have by simply waiting for opportunities,” Long explained. “I was enjoying what I was doing and learning from it. One of my skills is to be able to work at the finest detail of winemaking and then to back off and look at the broad picture for an individual winery or a wine region and then focus on a new direction”.
Strangely enough she does not have a favorite wine from all of her past experience but she did relate to me that during Covid closure she and her current husband spent time in their cellar where they discovered a 1970 petite Syrah from Robert Mondavi and a 1991 Sauvignon Blanc from Long Vineyards (a winery that she and former husband started in 1977). She expressed to me how surprised she was that both wines were still strong and lovely being especially surprised regards the Sauvignon Blanc (not known for being a good aging wine). Long shared with me that she came to the conclusion, “…that we don’t think enough about how good old wines can be! She commented. “I wasn’t really aging these wines for any reason except that we had a lot of wine, she smiled.”
I took the moment to share with her my advice to people who have found a bottle they liked to buy three or even a case and open a bottle now and then over the course of some months or a year so you come to better understand how wine ages and gets better with time.
She laughed and said that’s such great advice and explained that when she started out she didn’t have enough money to buy three bottles of any wine “So I have all of these old single bottles and only wished I had lived by your advice.”
Imagine, Woody the Wine Guy advising a wine legend.
So as to my Domaine Chandon story; I had discovered the sparkling wine in the mid-80’s and we served it at our wedding in 1986 (36 years in May). We became Chandon Club members in 1988 (but it wasn’t like today’s wine clubs) and as a result we were invited to parties several times a year at very nice Chicago restaurants and even a sunset cruise on Lake Michigan.
We scheduled one of our trips to wine country to be present for the drawing at the winery for a contest that we had entered. We had become such good friends with the winery PR folks that they shared with us after the fact, that they had discussed “drawing our name” as the trip winners because we were there and it would have been a great marketing story. I believe we got a bottle of wine as a consolation prize.
We remained very good customers until the winery was sold to an investment group and the club went away and they down-graded the wine blend from the specific “Carneros” designation to a generic “California” blend that changed the flavor of the wine.
Clean Wine is a Manipulative Term and Now The Feds Agree
The federal government issued a statement warning wineries against using the term “clean” on their labels to imply health benefits, marking a major victory for truth in wine advertising. The federal government issued an official guidance warning wine companies against using this term on their labels or in their ads because it constitutes a misleading health claim.
“We’re responsible for ensuring that labels are not misleading to the public,” said Tom Hogue, director of the Office of Congressional and Public Affairs at the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). Just as a wine label can’t promise to cure your headaches or increase your energy, it also isn’t allowed to use the word “clean” to imply that it’s healthy for you.
The clean-wine controversy exploded in 2020 when the actress Cameron Diaz launched a wine brand called Avaline, which traded heavily on claims of being “clean.” The wine was actually industrially produced plonk, capitalizing on the connotations of that word — which might suggest to consumers that the grapes were grown organically, or that the wine was produced with minimal chemical intervention — without having anything to back them up.
Since then, the term has proliferated in wine-marketing literature. Brands like Good Clean Wine advertise “no headache” and say you’ll “feel good” tonight and tomorrow morning. Usual Wines proclaims on its website that clean wine is “made from organic grapes with no added sugars, colors, or fillers” and claims its wines will strip away hangovers.
Wines labeled with words like “organic” and “biodynamic” must meet specific certification standards, but “clean wine” is essentially meaningless.
The TTB’s statement is merely a clarification of the existing rules. The bureau’s goal is to make it as easy as possible for alcohol producers to do the right thing, Hogue said.
San Francisco Chronicle
A New Red Blends List
Red blend wines are the one of the most popular wines in today’s market due to the quality you get for a lower price point. While blended wines can have more than ten different grapes combined to create the finished wine the blending of quality grapes from various regions often produces highly regarded results.
I find that a majority of red blends are Zinfandel based but with the glut of bulk wine still in the market place it’s not unusual to find Cabernet, Merlot and Petite Syrah in the blend also.
I reached out to three of my wine manager type buddies to gather their most popular bottles and found the Marietta Old Vine Red to be a top seller in NorCal as well as Chicago and it’s been one of my favorites for a long time.
And while it’s not a blend so to speak, we have also enjoyed the Soborn Estate Amador County 2019 Old Vine Zin @ $9.49 to be one of the tastiest wines we drink on a regular basis and you can’t beat it for the price.
The Bottle Barn
Barry Herbst, Wine Buyer – Santa Rosa CA
These are our most popular red blends under $20
Marietta OVR $13.49
Bedrock Shebang $9.99
Meeker Roller Coaster Red $9.99
Badger Hound Red Blend $12.49
Hearst Red Blend $14.99
Stephen Vincent Crimson $12.99
Ray Denton, Wine Manager – Elmwood Park IL (Chicago)
These brands that should be widely available:
Locations CA 9 Red Blend by David Phinney – $17.99 – This is the ultimate Prisoner killer, made by its creator.
My all-time favorite, the OG of red field blends, Marietta Old Vine Red, $14.99
From Washington, a 19th century Bordeaux knockoff, Hedges CMS Red, $14.99 also one of my favorites
From Tuscany, a Bobby Stuckey (from Little Nell) project that really over delivers, Scarpetta Frico Rosso, $9.99
The mother of all red blends is Valpolicella, my go to from there, Tommasi Valpolicella Rafael, $13.99 Great value in nice food wine
A really cool blend from Yecla in southern Spain, Compania de Vinos Atlantico Gordo, $13.99
Jeff Sukowski, Wine Manager – Forest Park/Lombard IL.
Gen5 Ancestral Red 2018 – 88/100 Wine Enthusiast – “Very fresh, forward fruit flavors of blueberry and blackberry make this wine instantly appealing and easy to drink.” 9.99
Guarda Rios Red Blend 2020 – This wine is produced by, a family-owned wine estate in Portugal’s Alentejo region, “Ripe vine fruits, blackberry, chocolate and vanilla on the nose followed by juicy acidity in the mouth with ripe, supple tannins and notes of black olive, tobacco on the palate.” 12.99
Marietta OVR Red Blend Lot 72 – 92/100 James Suckling – “A ripe, juicy red with blackberry, mushroom, old-bark and tobacco character. Full-bodied with round tannins and a flavorful finish. Mostly zinfandel. Drink now.” 13.99
90+ Cellars Lot 113 Big Red Blend 2019 – 89/100 Famous Score – Fat aromas of cassis, blackberry and plum with traces of vanilla and cedar – 9.99
Matthew’s Blackboard Red Blend 2018 – 92/100 Famous Score – This red wine is a combination of many common Bordeaux varietals – 55 Cabernet Sauvignon, 38 Merlot, 5 Cabernet Franc, 1 Malbec, 1 Syrah. 19.99
That’s my Whine and I could be wrong…
Woody Mosgers, cooks, caters, writes, drinks and matches wine and food in Santa Rosa Sonoma County at www.woodythewineguy.com