Napa Valley’s Sauvignon Blanc is like a canvas ready for a painter to get to work.
“It’s a real winemaker’s wine,” longtime Napa Valley winemaker Jac Cole said. “It allows you to express yourself.”
Kristin Belair, winemaker at Honig Vineyard and Winery, said she never expected to be as excited about Sauvignon Blanc as she is today.
“It’s got this amazing range of flavors – you can go tropical, citrus all the way to those more savory ... bell peppers flavors ... It’s such a food-friendly wine and goes so well with so many of the cuisines we have,” she said.
The winemakers were among the members of the St. Helena Star/Napa Valley Vintners Tasting Panel who gathered at CIA Greystone in St. Helena to sample recent vintages of Napa County Sauvignon Blanc in May.
“If I had to say one word it would be ‘diversity,’” said Roman Montanez, marketing program manager at the Napa Valley Vintners, after tasting the 23 wines from 2017 and 2018. “I like the fact that it is so diverse; that you can have a wine that you sit and have with oysters or something when you’re hanging out poolside and you want to enjoy on its own.”
Unlike Sauvignon Blancs from Sancerre in France, which are typically flinty and minerally, or from Marlborough in New Zealand, which are famously over-the-top tropical, Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc can be whatever the vintner makes of it.
“You can make a really bright, fresh fruity, racy wine or you can make a more subtle and complex one that you can age,” Belair said.
And that presents an opportunity for the people who sell the wine.
“There is no typicity here” in the tasting lineup, said Jamie Jamison, general manager of Brix Restaurants and Gardens, which routinely keeps about 25 Napa County Sauvignon Blancs on the list. “That’s a big thing when you’re selling wine. When you’re talking about Sauvignon Blanc, it does have typicity everywhere in the world. We haven’t found that yet, which is, I think, a really great thing, that we can still have a whole toolbox of ways to do it.”
Both cocktail and food wine
The wide range of styles and flavors means that recommending a Napa County Sauvignon Blanc to customers is a snap, said Michael Martin, general manager of St. Helena’s Market restaurant.
“If we’re in a restaurant, people use Sauvignon Blanc as both – both as a cocktail wine as well as a food wine,” he said. “And when they ask me what do you recommend for Sauvignon Blanc, my response back to them is 'What do you plan to do with it?”'
But at the same time, that broad diversity poses a marketing challenge.
“If I buy a Sancerre, I know what I am getting. If I buy a Marlborough, I know what I am getting. But if I buy Napa, I’m not sure what I am getting, unless I know the producer,” Cole said.
Belair, however, says consumer tastes are changing, becoming more experimental, meaning that for Napa County Sauvignon Blanc, “The time is now.”
The popularity of Sauvignon Blanc has even led a few producers to attempt to make super-premium versions of the wine. Where most bottles might sell in the $20-$40 range, a few producers are taking their wines to $100 or more. They are experimenting with extreme techniques, such as preventing exposure to oxygen throughout the production process to bring out flavors that just aren’t possible in traditional methods.
“You keep it from oxygen exposure, you get into a different range of flavors and aromas, and I find that really fascinating to kind of walk that line,” said Chris Phelps, winemaker for Inglenook/Ad Vivium. “Keep the freshness but also have some of this flavor that only comes from keeping it away from oxygen.”
That high-end experimentation, however, is likely to remain a niche collectors market, the restaurant managers say, since consumers are unwilling for the moment to fork over three-figure sums even for great Sauvignon Blanc.
Market, for example, has a couple of bottles available at $50 or more, Martin says, “That are absolutely amazing, beautiful, varietally correct Sauvignon Blancs from Napa Valley that aren’t selling because of the price point. People, in our experience, will pay anywhere on a bottle from $30 to $45, maybe.”
Sauvignon Blanc threatened
As with many grape varieties that thrive in Napa County, that lower price tolerance from consumers is posing a threat to Sauvignon Blanc, which simply can’t compete with the higher price that the iconic Cabernet Sauvignon commands.
“We have had a lot of vineyards that have gotten removed ... beautiful Sauvignon Blancs that have gotten replanted to pretty marginal Cabernet,” Belair says.
A look back at the county’s annual crop report tells the tale. The percentage of the county’s total wine acreage occupied by Sauvignon Blanc has remained relatively constant over the last 40 years, at around 6 percent, but the gap between the prices that farmers can command has changed dramatically.
In 1980, a grower was actually somewhat better off planting Sauvignon Blanc, which brought in an average of $842 per ton, while Cabernet brought in just $615. By 1995, that had flipped, with Cabernet worth $1,578 per ton while Sauvignon Blanc stagnated at $823.
In 2017, the comparison wasn’t even close, with Sauvignon Blanc bringing in $2,282 per ton and Cabernet commanding $7,871.
Fortunately, Jamison said, there are still some “really great people who understand the soil types and say that Cabernet really isn’t producing well here, let’s plant Sauvignon Blanc. The Sauvignon Blanc does really well.”
That also means that the quality of Napa County Sauvignon Blanc is getting higher, consulting winemaker Tom Rinaldi said.
Compared with the past, he said, there is “much more meticulous attention in the vineyard ... people are really paying attention to Sauvignon Blanc in the vineyard.”
And that’s just fine with Rinaldi, who said the grape’s versatility makes it his go-to wine at home.
“My wife calls it our house water,” he said.