Will Napa Valley Cabernet Be Saved By Ranking It?
He probably knows more about the chemical composition of great wine than anyone else alive and he puts this information to use through his consulting firm, Enologix. He is also a keen observer of market condition in the wine industry. He’s also a very creative man with a variety of fascinating notions.
Recently McCloskey issued a press release that did not get the attention it deserved. In the November press release, McCloskey outlined the coming comoditization of Cabernet Sauvignon. Essentially, he points out that much more Cabernet is being planted around the world. In addition, worldwide winemakers know how to make good wine from this variety. The result is that so much Cabernet Sauvignon is continually being produced around the world that eventually this varietal, like Chardonnay before it, will beome a commodity. When that happens prices go down. We’ve seen this with Chardonnay and, as McCloskey points out, we innevitably will see it with Cabernet Sauvignon.
While not a bad thing for consumers, this downard price pressure on Cabernet Sauvignon wines is a decidedly bad thing for Napa Valley producers, particularly those producing wine in the up to $75 or so category. Napa producers have much higher fixed costs than producers in Chile, Australia and even Sonoma and Temecula. That means the potential for decidedly lower margins for Napa Valley producers.
Those in Napa able to sell through their $150+ Cabernets may not have the same problems. They’ve established themselves, for one reason or another, as justifying these unusually high prices.
So, what is Napa Valley to do about this semi-apocolyptic change in the marketplace for its #1 wine?
Buried at the very end of McCloskey’s press release was the answer. And it is a fascinating proposition:
“Worldwide over-planting creates an oversupply, resulting in a downward trend of lower prices that cannot be avoided without classification or regulation of the type found in Europe.”
“CLASSIFICATION OR REGULATION”!
Let’s be clear what is being suggested here. Classification is another word for “Ranking”, as in “This is of a higher order than that”. This notion of classification is hardly unknown in the world of winemaking and grapegrowing. There is the classification of producers (such as in Bordeaux), the classification of vineyards (such as in Burgundy and the Douro) and the classification of regions.
It’s important to note that no where in the United States is there any official quality-based ranking or classification going on where wine is concerned, despite the fact that the Old World winemaking regions, often the model for American winemaking practices and procedure, have embraced the idea of rankings, classifications, and regulation of production methods.
I am fascinated by both the idea of classifying Napa Valley in some way and by the fact that it will never happen in any official or semi-official way.
That an official or semi-official ranking of Napa Valley Cabernet will never happen is not simply a matter of being too busy to have gotten to it yet that there has never been any kind of quality classification of vineyards, producers or appellations in America, let alone Napa Valley. It’s a matter of Americans being generally opposed to state-imposed or official hierarchy.
We see this peculiarly American tendency to avoid official hierarchy and its related notion of freedom of conscience on display throughout our history. So much of the early immigration to American shores was motivated by a stifling and official class system in England that prevented individuals from rising up beyond their class. We see it in Roger Williams’ objection to the Massachusetts Bay Colony religious leadership’s lack of tolerance for religious freedom and his insistence on freedom of conscience and separation of Church and State. We see it in American revolutionaries’ objection to being dictated terms by the Mother Country’s Parliament without access to representation. We see it in the U.S. Constitution’s Senate, which puts all states, regardless of size on equal footing.
While Americanss general disposition against hierarchy is not universal as seen in its history of racial discrimination and the informal and formal hierarchies that supported it’s long established race-based policies, this dichotomy of American inclinations where established hierarchy is concerned is part of the American character and traditions.
Where business is concerned, however, Americans have rarely stood for official statements of quality where subjectivity is at issue. Yes, we have classifications of beef and milk. But consider that the USDA Beef grading system stands on the nearly universally accepted notion that higher marbling in beef produces greater flavor. Plus, the USDA Beef Grading structure is voluntary. Milk is graded, but the notion of “Grade A” milk is built on objective standards that are motivated by health concerns. Furthermore, no specific milk or beef producers, nor any beef or milk producing regions have been officially singled out as better at it than their peers.
Where ranking is done in the world of American business and commerce, particularly where consumer products and aesthetic issues are concerned, it is almost always done outside of official channels. It is most commonly found in the world of art and is the realm of critics. In the world of wine, it is critics that have taken up rankings and classifications, most recently in the form of the 100 point scale.
It’s not that Americans are opposed to ranking things. It’s that they are opposed to official and particularly governmental quality rankings.
There is no current movement among consumers or within the wine industry to create any set of classifications, whether it is of producers, vineyards or appellations. Nor is there even a movement to regulate how wine is produced within any set of boundaries as there exists in many parts of Europe. Nor will there be as far as I can see. The very notion of government telling a winemaker in Sonoma Valley or Napa Valley how many tons per acre of Cabernet grapes they may produce and still be able to place “Sonoma Valley” or “Napa Valley on the label would be seen as an unprecedented intrusion into the natural freedoms the American grapegrower and winemaker has come to enjoy and take for granted.
If you think the uproar over the proposed federal law (HR 5034) to give alcohol wholesalers hyper control over the American wine marketplace has been severe inside the wine industry, try to tell an American winery owner they can’t produce more than 6 tons of grapes per acre and still put “Napa Valley” on the label or that they are required to age their wine in oak barrels for a particular amount of time before calling it “Napa Valley or that their Napa Valley Cabernet is of a lesser quality than their neighbor’s down the road. The outcry would be deafening.
All that said, the idea of how a classification system for Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon might be undertaken is a hugely fascinating notion that deserves exploration for the simple sake of slaking the thirst of wine lovers to examine wine in its every permutation.
What has to be understood upfront is that any classification of Napa Valley Cabernet is an exercise in assessing quality. Assessing quality is an objective activity only in the smallest part. For example, red table wine is not supposed to be oxidized and all browned up. That’s bad wine. An over abundance of certain microbes in wine is equally understood to be bad. But both of these examples as well as others we can think of are pretty low bars over which winemakers need to jump to make palatable wine. Here we are talking about what characteristics amount to GREAT wine…wines that can obtain the highest classification. We are talking about subjectivity in quality analysis.
More than anyone, McCloskey understands the idea of quality analysis. Through his consulting firm, Enologix, Leo has been able to formulate various mathematical models and identify chemical characteristics that define highly rated wines by both national wine critics and winemakers. His service is and has been used by a collection of remarkably successful and well known wineries across the globe. In other words, McCloskey is well aware, as most wine lovers should be, that certain kinds of wine are more highly prized than others for the specific characteristics they deliver. While this is not to say that this currently accepted set of characteristics generally applied to “quality” wines will always remain the same in the future they are today, it is a fact that at this moment they are what they are.
What’s also interesting is that the general assessment of today’s critics as to which type of wines are of a higher quality tend to be the same wines that winemakers will identify as those of a higher quality. Again, McCloskey knows this. He regularly gathers together winemakers from specific regions to blindly assess the quality of a collection of wines hailing from the winemakers’ same region. He’ll tell you that the winemakers favorites tend to match up with the favorites of the national critics.
The point is that if we start to go down the path of allowing critics to create a classification of Napa Valley’s best Cabernet producers and if folks object to giving national critics this power, you are likely to wind up with a similar classification even if you give the job over to winemakers.
Of course the key to creating any kind of classification of producers or vineyards in Napa Valley is objectivity by those making up the classification. McCloskey has an interesting idea about this. He has outlined them at the 2007 TASTE3 Conference at which he spoke about this issue and that can be watched here on YouTube.
However, in a wide ranging conversation with me, McCloskey threw out the possibility of a Think Tank comprised of Emeritus Wine Trade Individuals. Imagine an organization that has the overall mission of bringing together winemakers, vineyardists, marketers and others who, after having worked in the wine industry for many years and now find themselves either at the end of their career or in retirement, are granted a chair at this Think Tank where they work to bring members of the industry together, share ideas, and generally promote cooperation within the industry.
As McCloskey points out, there really is nothing quite like this in the wine industry, even while many other industries have such bodies. And in McCloskey’s view, this just might be the kind of organization that could put an objective and well reasoned spin on a classification of vineyards or producers in Napa Valley that, if well promoted and adopted by members of the industry, could help prop up Napa Valley Cabernet in the face of price pressure brought on by commoditization of the variety.
Now, of course this would not be an official or government sanctioned kind of classification. But, were it supported by the majority of Napa Valley winemakers, by the Napa Valley Vintners, by the Napa Valley Grapegrowers, and by the media, it would likely be supported, most importantly, by consumers. Plus, it would deliver the added benefit of creating a new and vital area of discussion for wine lovers—as though they don’t have enough already.
Whether a body of old and accomplished fuddy duddies or another type of body that determines a classification system and goes about the business of doing the classifying, the important issue is how a ranking of the best Napa Cabernet producers or vineyards is accomplished. Let’s be clear that their is no objective criteria that delivers a verdict on what wine is better than another.
Price based classifications measure the supply and demand curve.
Quality Assessment classifications measure the palates of a specific group
Assessments of vineyards based on terroir characteristics such as in the Duoro amount to subjective determinations of what style of wine is most desirable since certain terroir characteristics (Elevation, vine density, wind, temperature) deemed to be favorable will tend to promote a particular character of wine.
And so, since any classification of quality is subjective, I wonder why we don’t just give over the business of classifying wines to to those folks who are doing it anyway and who appear not to be slowing down in their willingness to grade wines and who dont’ seem to be losing any measurable audience where the grading of wines is concerned: The Critics.
Here’s what I’d like to see. I want to see McCloskey’s Wine Industry Emeritus Think Tank created. It’s a damn good idea all on its own whether they are involved in the business of ranking and classification or not. But instead of this Committee of Elders doing the ranking and working of classifying producers or vineyards, they are charged with selecting an anonymous collection of wine critics to have the honors. What’s critical in all this is that the critics chosen by the Committee of Elders is kept anonymous. Once any member of the Critics Classification Circle is confirmed by a member of the circle or an elder, that critic is removed from the process.
Anonymity is important for all the reasons you think it is, not the least of which is the matter of outside influence. Most important, however, is that the Wine Industry Elders that select the Critics are trusted. This trust is only created by seeing the vast majority of the Napa Valley wine industry give their vocal support to the Committee of Elders.
Once this happens, and once the Elder can go about outlining the parameters that ought to be used to assess quality (ex: years making wine, volume criteria, quality, etc), the Critics can go about announcing their classification and issuing updates on an annual or basis or such.
It’s all quite fun and and interesting to think about, particular for wine geeks, despite the fact that it will never come to pass. And this brings us back to the point of McCloskey’s press release: commoditization of Cabernet is coming and with it the downward price pressure on Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Recall that keen observer McCloskey noted that without some sort of classification system or sent of production regulations, there is little the Napa Valley can do to stop this downward price pressure that is coming.
I think he’s right.