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$217 a Gallon for Grape Juice

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Written by: Craig Camp

A recent article on The Drinks Business quotes Tor Kenward saying he was paying $26,000 a ton for Beckstoffer To Kalon Cabernet Sauvignon fruit. That’s $217 per gallon for grape juice or about $43 a bottle for just the grapes.

Certainly this is an extreme example, but it is symptomatic about what is happening in the Napa Valley. Over the last several years the prices of grapes has been moving inexorably higher with no signs of slowing down. The Napa Valley average for cabernet sauvignon now approaches $6,000 a ton and that’s for the fruit you don’t want. That average includes all the truckloads of grapes going to the big producers like Beringer and Mondavi. The grapes someone like me wants start at $7,500 a ton and moves up quickly for anything with a sub-appellation. 

The old rule-of-thumb used to be that you could estimate the bottle price you needed to get to make money on your wine by from the cost of the fruit. For example pay $6,000 a ton and you would need to sell your wine at $60, pay $9,000 a ton and you would need to charge $90 a bottle. Estimating this way is surprisingly accurate. 

The rising prices for cabernet sauvignon means that the ongoing squeezing out of non-Bordeaux grape varieties in the Napa Valley will only be accelerated. If you were a farmer would you plant a crop that brought in $28,000 an acre or $14,000 an acre, but cost you the same to produce?

You can see what road the Napa Valley is heading down. Before too long $100 a bottle will be the entry level Cabernet Sauvignon wines. This is very disconcerting for a winemaker whose goal in life to to have people drink their wines. I’m afraid soon they will only be wines for label drinkers not wine drinkers. A frustrating reality for someone who believes wines are for pleasure, not worship.

You can’t argue with the numbers. It looks like its time to look beyond the Napa Valley for exceptional fruit sources. We’ve been in Oregon for years now, but that was for a different reason, as I felt California was not the place for the type of chardonnay and pinot noir I wanted to make. I went to Oregon for quality reasons not economic ones. Yet spending time in Oregon only reminds you how prices in the Napa Valley, for everything not just grapes, have passed into fantasy land.

All I’m looking to do is live in the real world of wine, where real people drink and enjoy my wines without having to feel guilty about how much they spent. More and more as I get older I seem drawn to simpler pleasures and the wines at my table more often than not come from places like Beaujolais, Chorey-les-Beaune, Côtes du Rhône, Corsica and Spain. Simply delicious wines that enhance my meals and my life without doing any damage to my conscience. That’s not to say I don’t love the great bottles when they come my way, but greatness is not defined by what the wine costs, but by how the wine tastes. The simple fact is that the most hyped and expensive wines in the world rarely live up to expectations and you can always, and I mean always, find wines from the same region that equal or exceed these unicorn wines in both quality and value. 

To return to the example of the $217 a gallon grape juice, this liquid gold comes from To Kalon, which is more a district than a vineyard due to it huge size, some 690 acres. Compare that to Chambertin at 33.5 acres, Clos de Vougeot at 122 acres or even a big estate like Château Lafite Rothschild at 265 acres. At four tons an acre To Kalon would produce 2,760 tons of fruit, which would produce almost 2,000,000 bottles of wine. To Kalon is a blessed district producing some of the finest cabernet sauvignon in the world, but a rarity it is not.

So what does this mean for Cornerstone Cellars? First it means that we have to work harder than ever to ferret out those truly distinctive small blocks of vineyards owned by growers with more pride than ego. We have four such sites that are truly extraordinary: Oakville Station (which is actually in To Kalon), Red Lake on Howell Mountain, Grigsby in Yountville and Kairos on the edges of Oak Knoll and Coombsville. These vineyards are the cornerstone of our White Label selections. For our Black Label and Artist Series wines we are casting a wider net in order to find the finest vineyards regardless of appellation. Sonoma, El Dorado, Santa Barbara and on and on, the possibilities in California are almost without limit and we’ll explore then all. No matter what we will continue our vision of making fresh, acid-driven wines that come to life on your palate. 

After all, we may start out with grape juice, but what we end up with is very, very special and, in our case, very, very personal. Personal means personality and it means that Cornerstone is for pleasure, both yours and ours.

See you at the dinner table.

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