Affordable Rich Reds

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

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

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.


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