A visit to California wine country last week confirmed to me that domestic wine producers are buying into the concept of place that has long dominated European wine. If you want to know which wines to buy--or which ones are too expensive for your budget--you might want to consult Napa real estate prices or a map of the area. As you ride into the valley from Healdsburg and Geyserville, you pass through the middle class Zinfandel neighborhoods of Sonoma before you hit the high-rent Cabernet districts of Calistoga, St. Helena, Rutherford and then Oakville.
Most of the aristocrats--Opus One, Mondavi, Groth, Saddleback Cellars, Silver Oak--are congregated in a small area around Oakville. Be careful when you buy though; some prestigious, well situated wineries are likely to fill at least some of their bottles with produce from vineyards located in Sonoma or even farther afield in Lake or Mendocino County. Such a practice would be considered almost a capital offense in Bordeaux or Burgundy.
Right next door to Oakville is Rutherford where prices tend to be slightly lower. (Is Turnbull in Oakville or Rutherford? Whatever...the wines taste good, with a distinctive minty eucalyptus quality, and are a good value.) Between Rutherford and St. Helena is Conn Creek, one of my old favorites from the late 1970s. The 30-something Conn Creek Cabs in my cellar are still going strong, but the prices for recent vintages have escalated along with the reputation of other vineyards in the area Farther along the creek toward Oakville are Groth and Saddleback Cellars. I bought Groth Cabernet from its first vintage in 1982, but the price of the wine soared when Robert Parker gave the 1985 Groth Reserve an insane score of 100 points. So I moved to the more reasonably price Saddleback Cellars, which I find is located just down the lane. It's understandable that the wines had similar aromas and flavors. The skilled winemaker Nils Venge moved from Groth to Saddleback about the same time. Today, both wines are priced well out of my reach.
Off to either side of the two major wine trails are the moutain appellations producing more powerful, concentrated Cabs. For these hillside vineyards, growing seasons tend to be longer and yields, lower. And on the steepest slopes the grapes must be picked by hand. You can expect to pay premium prices for these wines as well.
Howell Mountain is home to Dunn Vineyards, Viader, Forman and Burgess Cellars (another old favorite of mine from the late 1970s and still a good value).
Stag's Leap has always been a favored--and pricey--appellation. Along with Stag's Leap Wine Cellars (often called a Napa Valley "First Growth"), there is Stag's Leap Winery, better known for its Petite Sirah. The good value Cabs with a Pedregal label I bought in the late 1970s were from Stags' Leap Winery. At that time, a patent battle prevented them from using the more prestigious name. Other wineries in the Stag's Leap appellation include Shafer, Steltzner, Pine Ridge, Silverado and Robert Sinskey.
On the other side of the valley lie Diamond Mountain (Diamond Creek, Pride Mountain, Schweiger); Spring Mountain (Keenan, Spring Mountain, Cain) and Mount Veeder (Trinchero, Mayacamas, Hess and Mount Veeder). All have their advocates.
If you wonder why some California wines you see on the shelves carry hefty price tags, the most obvious answer is the location of the vineyards. But look carefully at the label. It's not the name or the location of the winery but rather the appellation tag that tells where the grapes were grown. You may like the "California Cabernet" you find on the shelf, but there is good reason it is less expensive than the "Mount Veeder Cabernet" beside it. It's all about location.