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22 Mar 2024 | Randy Kemner


I recently took a stroll in our domestic Cabernet Sauvignon department searching for a solid, affordable Cabernet, preferably from Napa Valley, that we could feature in a gift basket design.  What I discovered was alarming.  Premium Napa Cabernets started around $75, with many established brands well over $100 a bottle.  Who, I wondered, can afford to drink these with any regularity?

It led me to recall writing about sudden Napa Valley Cabernet price hikes in the late 1990s, when baby boomers were furiously discovering America’s most prestigious wine varietal and climbing all over themselves to squirrel them away in their new wine fridges before their buddies did the same.  When we opened our doors at the end of 1995, Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon sold for $23.99.  The next vintage, it was offered at $34.99, then the following year $59.99, and a year later $64.99.

I knew that customers who had regularly been enjoying Caymus Cabernet for 20 years would stop buying it except maybe for their birthday or an anniversary.  What business could survive sluffing off 90% of their customer base?

At the time I issued a warning:  as soon as wine consumers learn what I had learned, namely that there is a whole world of affordable red wines outside of California, and that many, many of them perform better with the foods they were eating, you, Napa vintners, may lose your customers for good.

It turned out I was only half right.  The attraction of the wealth and prestige of Napa Valley was a powerful one, and with the exception of the years following the Great Recession of 2008, Napa Cabernet prices continued to either hold steady or rise. And yes, many of our customers flocked to the red wine values of Spain, Portugal, Greece, Italy and non-Burgundy and Bordeaux France.  South American wines were also on the rise, Malbec in particular providing rich, earthy, full-bodied wines at comparably low cost.

The rise of Napa Valley Cab prices continued, even more dramatically, in the post-pandemic period.

Is there no end to what people will pay for Napa Valley prestige?  Are there enough customers out there to buy out year after year of $150, $250, $350 Cabernets?  Or will American consumers finally say, “enough!” as they did with 1st Growth Bordeaux futures after the 2009/2010 vintages?

There are now ominous signs that demand for high-priced California wines may be diminishing, with some alarming statistics emerging about 2023 depletions.  Some industry folks are worrying to the extent of “hair on fire” that the market has fallen out for super-premium wines.  They cite a few glaring factors:

  1. Young adults are not drinking much wine.  The reasons cited are expense, perceived health risks associated with alcohol consumption, preference for craft beer and spirits, Dry January and Sober October campaigns, a turn toward Natural Wines among some, and—gasp!—increased cannabis use.  And cannabis doesn't have any calories.
  2. Baby Boomers—who fueled the rise of premium wine drinking in the 1980s-2000s--are getting old, many retired and living on fixed incomes, some giving up alcohol due to poor health. Many have simply aged out of collecting fine wine, and--gasp!--increased cannabis use.
  3. Fine Dining is in crisis, having never recovered from the pandemic. Many new restaurants, heavily weighted to ethnic (non-European-style) cooking, are not wine-friendly foods, and those that are (Lebanese, Greek, Italian) perform better with Mediterranean wines, most of which are fractions of the price of top Napa Valley Cabernets.
  4. There are still lingering post-pandemic supply chain issues that haven’t been completely worked through.

The price of a wine signals its prestige, and Napa Valley vintners are loathe to reduce their retail prices lest they lose face to their peers.  During downturns in the past, wineries would simply discount their wines to restaurants for premium glass-pours, who effectively hid any discounts from the public due to restaurant markups.  Now that fine dining restaurants are fewer and far between, even that method of blowing out a vintage may not be available to them.

So winery warehouses remain fuller, vintages are backing up, yet recognizable labels continue to offer outsized pricing, at least for now.

I suppose there aren’t enough people drinking more affordable Italian, Greek, Rhone, Loire, Alsace, Spanish, Portuguese, Croatian wines to put a dent in domestic production.


But I am.  Jack McLaughlin, a longtime friend and obsessive home chef, invited Dale and me over for the classic dish cassoulet, the southwest French version of pork and beans.  I brought a couple red wines I had recently discovered and they were smashing.  A few weeks earlier, Samantha Dugan had made cassoulet for a Saturday tasting she hosted featuring wines from the Southwest of France.  Among my favorites of that tasting were a new $14 Cahors Sam acquired (2019 Chateau la Coustarelle Cahors made from Malbec/Merlot) and a $23 Madiran (2016 Domaine Berhoumieu Madiran “Charles de Batz”) so tasty, and dare I say, polished for a Tannat/Cabernet, if more people tried either wine at home, they may never drink Napa Cabernet again!

Or maybe they were just the right wines for the rich Tarbais bean (Rancho Gordo Cassoulet Beans), lamb, duck confit and sausage casserole that accompanied them.  Maybe that’s why I enjoyed these wines so much.

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