Napa Cabs Need to Watch Their Backs (Washington Wine on the Rise While the Economy Tanks)

Vinted on September 30, 2009 binned in California wine, wine publications


Hey, Napa Cab.  Yeah, you. 

You better watch yer back!

That’s the underlying theme that I gleaned from a recent report by research group Wine Opinions.  The report was introduced at the last Wine Industry Financial Symposium in Napa.  There’s been a good amount of interesting discussion on the ‘Global Interwebs’ about the report’s list of top wine bloggers, measured by how frequently the blogs were visited by the wine industry respondents who contributed to the report survey.  I should note that the top 2 bloggers in the report (Eric Asimov and Eric Orange) aren’t technically bloggers… which probably says something about wine blogging but that’s fodder for another post (or another blogger)…

Anyway, the report, titled Tracking the Trends of the Wine Trade, collects the views of wine trade insiders (mostly male, and mostly Boomers) on the current state of affairs in the world of wine.  Outside of the report’s take on the movers & shakers of the wine blogging community, not much has been mentioned about the report’s implications on the wine industry itself, and on Napa wine in particular, or more specifically on Napa Cabernet

This is where it helps to know one of the report’s participants, because the report potentially says a lot about how the wine industry, and its customers (that’s you) are viewing Napa Cab right now.  The Wine Opinions report has a message for Napa Cab. 

And that message is… Watch your back… Washington is fast at your heels…

Consider this excerpt from the report, which graphs where wine industry insiders are going for alternatives to luxury (read: pricey) Napa Cabernet Sauvignon during this time of “economic recovery (click the image to ‘embiggen’):

That’s right, folks – in lieu of consumers having to skimp on mortgage payments to fork over enough dough to feed their luxury Napa Cab habit, wine industry types are seeing Washington as a viable alternative to supplying over-achieving Cab for not-so-luxurious price points.  Sonoma, Napa’s oft-underappreciated and often more down-to-earth neighbor, comes in a close second.

Check out what some of the respondents had to say as quoted in the Wine Opinions report:

“My customers are moving away from Napa Valley Cabernet because they get better value from other regions such as Walla Walla, Washington.”

“There are too many ‘me-too’ Napa Cabernets on the market and Sonoma offers a great alternative with a solid reputation for quality wines.”

“Napa Valley Cabernets are the best in the world but have been overpriced. There are a tremendous number of quality Napa Valley Cabernets in the $35-$40 range.”

And my personal favorite:

“Washington State is swarming with boutique wineries and they have a great terroir for balanced Bordeaux style wines.”

That one is particularly interesting because it suggests that WA is offering a different style of wine for the Consumer who might be both wallet fatigued and palate fatigued by Napa Cab.  Now, I love me some Napa Cab, but I also love me some WA Cab, and I really love me saving the depletion of my wallet.  Come to think of it, I especially love minimizing separation of my foolish self from my hard-earned cash when I’m buying either of those wines.

As for the question of whether or not consumers are ‘trading down’ from the luxury market in the first place, the Wine Opinions report leaves little to the imagination on that one.  The majority of wine industry respondents cited in the report are selling way less wine over $20, and way more wine under the $20 threshold:

While I haven’t gathered any detailed statistics myself, I don’t think I’m too far off to state that the Napa luxury Cab market has a lot of wine in the over $20 category.

As for the Wine Opinions report, is it sobering?  Yes.  Are the findings unexpected?  Well, not really – especially if you’ve been making, selling, or drinking wine from Washington state. 

Thoughts on WA vs Napa, over $20 vs under $20 value in wine, or value in Napa Cab in general?  Shout ‘em out in the comments!


(images: Wine Opinions)





  • Jeff

    This doesn't surprise me at all. Washington wines (and of course some suffer the same flaws as California), are a great combination of New World ripeness and bold fruit, matched up with better balance and more old-world style acidity. The "value" Washington wines that you can get are simply a much better deal and offer far more bang for the buck than Napa. Producers like Hedges, Whitman Cellars, Charles Smith and even huger producers like Chateau St. Michelle and Columbia Crest, all offer some great wines at right around 20$ depending on where you live. The same wines out of Napa…well, they're probably slightly out of whack/balance and closer to 50$. Why would you even bother with Napa?? It's generally over-priced for what it is.

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, Jeff. Not sure I'm willing write off Napa, but there's no denying that WA is producing some stunning QPR in their wines right now.

  • Jeff

    I wasn't writing off Napa entirely…I certainly like to visit Napa…it's just that for the price, I generally don't bother anymore. I've been consistently disappointed in the value categories by mediocre wine, and disappointed in the more expensive categories by the price…you can't win with Napa, unless you're lucky or rich enough to not care.

    Marlene–Yeah, what is up with California being so focused on itself?? I find it striking and odd how hard it is to find a good selection of Washington/Oregon wines in California.

    • 1WineDude

      No question that the concept of 'value brand' has a totally different context in Napa right now vs. outside of Napa.

  • Marlene Rossman

    As a wine columnist (Chef magazine), former sommelier, wine instructor and collector, I have been pimping the virtues of WA State and Oregon wine for many years.

    When I lived in NY (Manhattan, till 2002) it was almost as easy to get WA State and Oregon wine as it was to get Cali. NY's wine shops are still much more focused on Europe. Now that I live in California, it is almost impossible to get WA/OR wines in shops. I taught a class called: Taste What's Next: Wines of the Pacific Northwest and it sold out at 30 students with a wait list. People WANT to learn about WA/OR wines, but they are few and far between at retail. I had to order wine online and from wineries for the class.

    You can continue shouting out the virtues of these wines, but until and unless they are found easily (read: distribution channels) they are off the radar for most folks–Dottie and John at the WSJ included.

  • Steve Heimoff

    My bud and colleague, Paul Gregutt, who covers the Pacific NW for Wine Enthusiast and is the wine columnist for the Seattle Times, has told me forever that Washington State Cabs are more balanced than California. I don't get to taste a lot of them, but I can understand why consumers might be looking at them because they're not as expensive as Napa Valley. I think there is gonna be a big shake out in super-luxury Napa Cabs, with a lot fewer in the $75-plus range. But keep in mind, a lot of those wineries produce very little by case volume, so they may be able to last out the recession, especially if their owners are rich, which a lot of them are.

    • Jeff

      Paul has an awesome column…it was one of the first things that I regularly read when I started getting into wine, and he's right. I'm from Seattle, and there are so many awesome wines that are available there that aren't available anywhere else. Prices are already a lot higher than they used to be…but here's hoping that people stay relatively in the dark with Washington so that it doesn't get ridiculous like Napa….

    • 1WineDude

      You're probably right, Steve – the line might be shorter, but there's still a queue of people waiting for those wines at the same (high) prices. Having said that, some of the folks in that line (not all, as you rightly pointed out) may 'switch' and look for value elsewhere, like WA.

  • 1WineDude

    VERY interesting… a Napa preemptive strike?

  • Marlene Rossman

    I buy most of my WA/Oregon wines direct from the winery or on the internet…
    That's the only way get what I want. I have been collecting Quilceda Creek for over 10 years,
    way before the Wine Advocate gave the 2002 and 2003 100 point scores. Before the economic crash (last year)
    I had people asking me if I would sell a bottle of either. I do not buy wine to flip…just enjoy!

    Funny story: My husband was getting into the elevator of his office bldg when one of his partners came in pushing a box of Harlan in OWC. Elliot said to him, "I see you got your allocation." The partner knows that I am a wine columnist /educator, etc and says, "so what's your wife's favorite Cab? Elliot says QC. A look of puzzlement comes over the face of said partner and he asks if it is expensive. Elliot says, "it wasn't that expensive till Parker and co. gave it a one hundred score two years in a row, but Marlene has been on their mailing list for years." Now Elliot sees panic on the guy's face. He says, " One hundred points, Quilceda Creek? Where is it and how do you spell it?"

    • 1WineDude

      Ha! The sad lemming tendencies of points-chasers… :)

  • Nick Radisic

    Totally on the money. I own a small distributor in the NY area called Rad Grapes. We specialize in small production, artisanal wines and there is no question that amongst the NY wine shops and good restaurants we sell wine to there has been a growing awareness of the value that Washington represents over the last two years. We have just added our third Washington label, just introduced it into the market this week and had good sales right away. I agree, that Washington Cabs seem more balanced and somewhat more Bordelais in style than most Napa Cabs. Cheers.

    • 1WineDude

      The only question now is… how long before WA wineries get wise and raises their prices…?

  • Catie

    How long before WA wineries get wise and raises their prices…? Are you kidding? As it is, we get lots of people who keep telling us, especially in Walla Walla, that our prices are too high. After visiting Napa/Sonoma this summer, I tell them, if you think our prices our high, look at California. Maybe the complainers only buy Gallo jug.

    • 1WineDude

      I remember sitting at the Value panel discussion during the Napa winery visits at this year's Wine Bloggers Conf. and thinking "Uhm… why are we talking about wine value when we're sitting **in Napa**!??"

      I love Napa wines, but I hate what they do to my wallet!

  • RobL

    I've always been a bit chauvinistic, and like the French drink local wines, well…., anything within 200 miles. And keep track of whose value red wines seem to be the best. I started in the beginning with Hogue Cellars 1989 Merlot, a Wine Spectator 100 best of the year. Current favorite cheapo wine is Columbia Crest Two Vine Vinyard 10 Red, an odd combination of Syrah, Sangiovese, and Zinfadel – somewhere between a Rhone and Super Tuscan.

    • 1WineDude

      Wow – that 10 Red sounds intriguing. The "oddball" red combos seem to be making a run for it lately, which is great I think because they're adding some cool variety (ha-ha!) to the market.

  • Bernard

    With two bloggs touting WA wine quality, this one and the Pour, and numerous articles reporting that wine over $20 is slowish and wine over $50 is deadish Napa has their head in the pumice. Time to hit Taylor's automatic refresher for some fish taco's and a picnic table rewrite of the marketing plan. Reality bites.

    • 1WineDude

      Ha! True, but fish tacos rule! :-)

  • vinogirl

    I don't think the big boys in Napa are worried one bit…I'm working a $150 Reserve release day tomorrow and no one is concerned that it isn't going to sell…the people who could afford $150 wine before the economic downturn…still can.

    • 1WineDude

      You're probably right, but I'm guessing the bigger pinch is in the $20-$50 range…

  • Sean Sullivan

    Excellent post! As the editor of a Washington-dedicated wine blog, I am not surprised to read that attention is shifting toward Washington cabernets. Washington is making a number of excellent cabernet at reasonable price points. As everyone starts to look increasingly at value, in terms of the US, Washington is an obvious place to look. That said, many Washington wineries making high end wine are also feeling the pinch (local NPR channel KUOW did a report on this last week). Long time Washington wineries, such as DeLille, have recently opened their tasting room to the public whereas previously it was open for events and by appointment. Others have cut their prices down within vintages, even wineries such as Mark Ryan that having been getting strong scores in major publications. The bottom line is that the lower end of the market is a better place to be right now. Although Washington has its fair share of reasonably expensive wine (still values by Napa standards), it has an abundance of excellent wines in the $30 and under category.

    On a side note regarding a reader's comment about finding Washington wines, I wrote about a new Washington wine retailer – Full Pull – last week that is looking to get small production Washington wines into the hands of consumers across the country. Hopefully the efforts of retailers such as these and the Washington Wine Commission, consumers will not only be more aware of the exciting things going on in the state, they will also be able to find the wines if they want to.

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, Sean – interesting insight.

      As for Full Pull, I wish them luck in trying to deal with the Commonwealth of PA! :)

  • Dylan

    Interesting info from VinoGirl. It's true, the price point makes a huge difference in terms of who should be concerned by these numbers.

  • Dylan

    Oh, and I mean, your post was good, too, Joe. ;-)

    • 1WineDude

      Well, thanks for that! :)

  • Mike

    This is a great website, it is very similiar to but that is in video format, These are the best 2 wine sites on the internet. They are both not pretentious like all the other sites out there. Great work!

  • Ken Payton

    Excellent piece.

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, Ken!

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