It was only a few years ago that America's top wine writers were announcing that mature California cabernets were not worth their storage costs. With the continued very dramatic growth of Butterfield's San Francisco auctions, there is now a good supply of mature California cabernet sauvignon arriving on the market so that buyers can see for them-selves just how well these wines age. The willingness of buyers to spend hard earned cash for properly matured California cabernets indicates that these wines deserve a place in the best wine cellars.

We first constructed a ranking of California's top cabernets seven years ago. We used a simple, tried and true test to determine our ranking: we based our ranking on the prices the wines fetched in arm's length transactions in the auction rooms. Instead of using the size of a winery's advertising budget, or the ratings of a few wine writers (no doubt influenced by the same budgets and boondoggles), we rank the wines based on what consumers are prepared to pay in order to drink the mature wines. This is the method that was used to construct the original ranking of the top wines of Bordeaux in 1855. We have developed a new ranking to show the extraordinary changes that have taken place over the past seven years in California. For one thing, many of the top wines today (Opus I, Caymus Special Selection, Dunn Howell In order to make the comparisons we selected a benchmark wine. As in past years, we selected the Beaulieu Vineyards Private Reserve as the benchmark wine because it remains the most commonly sold mature premium California wine. We expressed the price of every other producer's wine as a percentage of the price of a BV Private Reserve from the same vintage.

Only wines from the 1985 vintage or earlier were used in our comparisons. Using the wines from later vintages runs the risk of confusing the hype that some winemakers generate with the quality of the wine they make. Our ranking is based entirely on the hard test of the market place for mature wines.

Results of the Ranking: Changes at the Very Top

The results of the ranking reveal some remarkable new entrants at very high prices. Four years ago there were only a half dozen wines that sold at higher prices than the BV Private Reserve cabernet sauvignon. Today there are 17 wines that sell at such lofty prices. On the other hand, the number of cabernets that sell steadily at prices lower than a BV Private Reserve has remained relatively constant. It would be tempting to suggest that the BV Private Reserve has slipped, but a look at our price listings shows that this is not the case. The benchmark BV Private Reserve cabernet simply has much more competition at the top end of the market.

At the top of the list, and far ahead of any competitor, is the Caymus Special Selection. This limited production wine is in such demand that most retailers allocate it only to top customers. In a small, elite group next on the list are the Opus I, Stag's Leap Cask 23, Dunn Howell Mountain, and Heitz Martha's Vineyard. A third group of super-premium wines includes the Spottswoode, Ridge Monte Bello, Silver Oak Napa, Dunn Napa, Beringer Reserve Napa, Chateau Montelena Napa, and Dominus Napa wines. A final group of the top wines clusters close to the benchmark BV Private Reserve and includes the Silver Oak Alexander Valley, Joseph Phelps Insignia, Forman Napa, Robert Mondavi Reserve, Heitz Bella Oaks, Duckhorn Napa, Caymus, Estate Napa, Groth Napa, Macayamas, Stag's Leap SLV, and Jordan cabernets. Selling for less than the benchmark BV Private Reserve cabernet is a group of wines with a good track record for aging. These wines include vintages of the Sterling Reserve wines from the 1970s, as well as the Freemark Abbey Bosche, Clos du Val, Heitz, Ridge, Joseph Phelps, Robert Mondavi, and Charles Krug Vintage Select cabernets. Mature samples of these wines often make outstanding bargains when bought at the auctions. They also tend to be reasonably priced when they are first released. As a result, these wines make useful additions to the cellar of any wine lover who intends to drink his or her purchases.

Thinning of the Ranks in the Moderate Price Categories

As the above data demonstrate, the ranks of high quality cabernets meant for long maturation have been quite dramatically thinned out in the lower price ranges. As many lovers of California cabernet sauvignon have learned in the last decade, it has become very hard to find a high quality cabernet made for long maturation at a price below $25 per bottle. We think that the less visible wineries with long term track records are the best places to find wines for laying down today. Unfortunately, the wineries from this group have either been forced to increase their public relations and marketing budgets or drop by the sidelines. To some observers this is a serious comment on the structure of the fine wine industry in Napa. Ironically, the scale of the top wineries is typically very small, with production of about 2,000-4,000 cases being typical for most of the top wines. This is a dramatic difference from the development in Bordeaux, where there are literally hundreds of producers who market 10,000-15,000 cases of wine made for long maturation at prices below $20 per bottle in the US market. From these data it appears that the Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon brands have tended to fragment into two increasingly widening groups. One group contains three dozen wines that are produced in very small quantities and marketed at full retail prices above $30 per bottle. The second group consists of wines that are produced on a large scale, made for early consumption, and that sell for $10 or less per bottle.

Role of the Winemaker: Dunn, Forman, Venge, Wagner

As we studied the results of our new ranking of California cabernets it became clear that the role of the winemaker was uniquely important in the development of most of the highly ranked new wines. We think a crucial factor in the development of top cabernets is the necessity of making wines that do not flatter early. In California's "show biz" wine industry it is all too rare for a winemaker to take the long hard road to success by concentrating on the quality of the wine in the face of the barrage of continuous, uninformed criticism offered by the world's wine press. Although wine making style is of importance, we also think there is more involved. The top Napa winemakers know where to find the finest grapes, and they are prepared to pay for them.

An interesting example of this phenomenon is Nils Venge, a name that insiders in Napa know well, who has never had his own name on the outstanding wines he has made. Venge established his reputation by making outstanding cabernets for Villa Mt. Eden in the vintages of the 1970s. The Villa Mt. Eden wines from these vintages still show up in the auctions and we have found that they continue to make delicious drinking. (Recent samples of the 1976, 1977, 1978, and 1979 Villa Mt. Eden cabernets tasted in the past year were all excellent.) As if to test the importance of the role of the winemaker, Venge moved on to Groth in the early 1980s. Now, more than a decade later, Groth's regular Napa vintages from the 1980s have entered the ranks of California's age-worthy cabernet sauvignons at prices only a little below those of a BV Private Reserve. Venge recently moved again, leaving Groth, to work with the Robert Keenan winery. Will Nils Venge have the same effect on Robert Keenan's wines?

Randy Dunn is another outstanding winemaker who has shown what can be done with Napa cabernet sauvignon. Dunn's eponymous Napa and Howell Mountain cabernets sell at auction for prices 42% and 115% higher than the BV Private Reserve. Dunn's first vintage, in 1979, was sold by mailing list for about $10 per bottle. Although Dunn's wines clearly improve steadily with bottle age, recent samples have shown that the wines drink beautifully when they reach about ten years of age. In fact, Dunn did not spring suddenly onto the Napa scene; he worked first for Charlie Wagner, the founder of Caymus, whose Caymus Special Selection has now become the most expensive wine in California. Wagner's Caymus Estate cabernet sauvignon has long been highly regarded, and it has been a staple of the California wine scene since it was first marketed in the 1970s. Like Dunn, Caymus currently has two different wines that appear in our list of California's top cabernets. In fact, the Caymus Estate cabernet has been phased out in favor of a "Napa" bottling that comes, in part, from purchased grapes. Recent bottles of the Caymus Napa cabernet that we have tasted have continued to be outstanding, but it remains to be seen whether the Napa bottling from this winery will retain its cachet. Although Forman's cabernet sauvignon now fetches high prices in the US auctions, winemaker Ric Forman produced the outstanding wines at Sterling Vineyard in the 1970s long before moving on to establish his own winery. We have recently bought and tasted through the Sterling Reserve wines of the 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976, and 1977 vintages. All of the wines remain firm, delicious examples of Napa cabernet. Although Forman's wines do not have the flamboyant style of some other California cabernets, they are built to last.

The Longest Track Records: Draper, Heitz, Phelps, and Winiarski

A second group of winemakers has a longer track record in making and marketing California's top cabernets. Ridge, Heitz, Phelps, and Stag's Leap Wine Cellars are now among the old established names of California. The top wine from each of these wineries has been a fixture in our list of California's top cabernets from the very beginning. Behind each winery is a familiar name, a long track record, and a portfolio of wines meant to be sold at several price levels.

Ridge Vineyard's Paul Draper produces one of the few top cabernets that doesn't come from Napa. The Ridge Monte Bello is made from fruit grown near the winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains overlooking San Francisco Bay. Wines like the 1981 Ridge Monte Bello, tasted twice in the past year, make ideal drinking now. Occasionally the grapes on the Monte Bello ridge do not fully ripen. In these vintages the Ridge Monte Bello has an herbal, unripe character and is often de-classified. This is the reason we suspect that cool years, like 1980 and 1982, which produced acceptable wines in Napa, produced the weaker Ridge Monte Bello vintages. Bargain hunters should keep a look out for Ridge's York Creek cabernet, which sells for about one-third the price of the Monte Bello and is a consistently well made wine produced from Napa fruit.

Joe Heitz and his family virtually wrote the book on high quality Napa cabernet sauvignon. The Heitz Martha's, from fruit produced by Tom and Martha May's vineyard, is a standard bearer for Napa cabernets made in the 1970s. (The 1974 Heitz Martha's still stands out as the wine of the decade for many cabernet lovers.) The Heitz Bella Oaks cabernet, made only since 1976, is a personal favorite, as it provides an outstanding, reliable cabernet at a very reasonable price. Many of these wines are still sold from the Heitz mailing list; if you are looking for larger sized bottles, call the winery to make sure you are on the list.

Joseph Phelps, a neighbor of Heitz, has produced outstanding wines from (designated) grapes grown at the Backus and Eisele Vineyards. However, the Phelps standard bearer is the proprietary wine labeled Insignia, and it has shown up regularly at auction since we began to keep records. A powerful cabernet, with an outstanding track record, the 1974 Insignia, tasted recently, remains a fine example of the vintage. The regular bottlings of the Phelps cabernets from the vintages of the 1970s still show up in the auction rooms, and they make outstanding drinking at very reasonable prices.

Warren Winiarksi is a different story altogether. With an academic background in the humanities, Winiarski has had profound success making soft, silky wines that surprise collectors by both their depth and longevity. Winiarski's Stag's Leap Wine Cellars produces the Stag's Leap Vineyard and the Cask 23 bottlings, both of which have appeared in all our rankings of California's outstanding cabernets.

Where to Buy (and Where to Sell) Mature California Cabernets

In the last year the auction sale of wine has spread to New York. We were very curious to learn whether the prices of California's top cabernets would be the same in New York as in San Francisco. We therefore compared the prices of California wines sold at Butterfields in San Francisco with the prices of the same wines sold at Davis & Co. in Chicago, Morrell's in New York, Sotheby's/Sherry Lehman in New York, and Christie's/Zachy's in New York. We were surprised by the results.

First, over one-half of all mature California cabernet sauvignon wines sold in the U.S. are sold at Butterfields in San Francisco. In short, the entire total of the California wines sold at the other auction houses is smaller than the Butterfields total. Second, the prices of the California wines sold in New York and Chicago range between 65% (Sotheby's) and 85% (Christie's) of the prices the same wines fetch in San Francisco (Butterfields). Here is our advice: To get the best prices sell your California wines in San Francisco. If you are looking for bargains, bid on the relatively small number of California wines offered in the catalogues of the Chicago and New York auction houses.

Our Advice on Buying California Cabernets

Sophisticated wine lovers everywhere are becoming familiar with California's top wines. We think every wine lover should have some of California's top wines in the cellar, if only to show visitors what is being produced. If you are primarily interested in drinking the wines you buy, as we are, here is our advice:

A Final Note on Vintages

In our study of California cabernet auction prices we noticed some variability in the prices the wines fetch in different vintages. However, it is important to recognize that, while it may exist, the role of vintage variability is far smaller in California than it is in Europe. There is a simple reason for this: The weather in Napa varies far less from year to year than it does in Europe. At this time we do not believe it is known how the characteristics of a California growing season affect the variability in the quality of the vintages.

Judging by price alone, the vintages of 1968 and 1970 stand out as the best in the last three decades. Among the vintages of the 1970s, the 1974s and 1978s fetch the highest prices. Wines from the vintages of 1973, 1975, 1976, 1977, and 1979 all sell for about the same prices, while the 1974s typically sell for around twice as much. The 1978s sell for about 60% of the 1974s, or 20% more than the wines from the other vintages in the 1970s. An example of how little is known about California vintage variability is provided by the 1980 vintage.

Old timers will recall that the 1980 California cabernets were hyped as outstanding when first offered over a decade ago. The 1980 growing season was one of the coolest on record and, at the time, it was widely believed that high temperatures caused excessive ripening that might cause a problem for the production of Napa cabernet. In fact, today the wines from the 1980 vintage are no longer considered outstanding and they sell for less than the wines from the 1979 and 1984 vintages, both of which featured much warmer growing seasons. As the history of the 1980 vintage demonstrates, it is still not yet known what features, if any, of the California growing season affect the quality of the wines.

Among more recent years, the 1985s fetch the highest prices, about 60% of the 1974s. The other vintages of the 1980s, ranked in order from highest to lowest by their prices, are 1984, 1982, 1981, and 1983. Undoubtedly much of the concern over vintage variability in California cabernet is based on a misguided comparison with what is expected from Europe. Many bargains have appeared in the retail pipeline as the wines from the widely dismissed 1988 and 1989 vintages appear at heavily discounted prices . Wines from the poorly regarded, but perfectly acceptable, 1981, 1982, and 1983 vintages are often sold at bargain basement prices in the wine auctions for the same reason.


Based on Prices for Vintages from 1968 through 1985
Rank   Vineyard                   Price as a % of Beaulieu
                                     Vyds Private Reserve
 1.    Caymus Special Selection              366
 2.    Opus I                                242
 3.    Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Cask 23      239
 4.    Dunn Howell Mountain                  215
 5.    Heitz Martha's Vineyard               206
 6.    Spottswoode Napa                      172
 7.    Ridge Monte Bello                     155
 8.    Silver Oak Napa                       150
 9.    Dunn Napa                             142
10.    Beringer Reserve Napa                 141
11.    Chateau Montelena Napa                139
12.    Dominus Napa                          129
13.    Silver Oak Alexander Valley           119
14.    Joseph Pheps Insignia                 114
15.    Forman Napa                           114
16.    Robert Mondavi Reserve                112
17.    Heitz Bella Oaks                      101
18.    Beaulieu Vyds Private Reserve         100
19.    Duckhorn Napa                          99
20.    Caymus Estate Napa                     95
21.    Groth Napa                             95
22.    Macayamas                              94
23.    Stag's Leap Wine Cellars SLV           94
24.    Jordan                                 92
25.    Sterling Reserve Napa                  69
26.    Clos du Val Napa                       65
27.    Freemark Abbey Bosche                  63
28.    William Hill Reserve                   61
29.    Inglenook Reserve cask                 56
30.    Carmenet Sonoma                        56
31.    Heitz Napa                             54
32.    Chappellet Napa                        53
33.    Ridge York Creek                       48
34.    Joseph Phelps Napa                     47
35.    Sterling Napa                          41
36.    Robert Mondavi Napa                    41
37.    Charles Krug Vintage Select            33 

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