There has been a not so appealing trend in California winemaking over the last decade or so, especially Napa Valley, and it goes something like this. Mega-rich wana-be winery owner invests millions of dollars in vineyards and a spanking new facility. He hires a high profile consultant and undertakes an expensive marketing campaign to launch his new brand …..and then puts his over-manipulated Cab on the market at $120 a bottle claiming that as he has spent, eh, invested, so much money on the project he is forced to charge this much.
Wrong! This is errant nonsense.
These are people who have made a ton of money in other fields so presumably they have some business acumen, but here they seem to abandon all financial reason and become befuddled by the blandishments of a Napa lifestyle. Sure, why not put in a helipad?
This is, of course, business madness because in the long run it is the demand of market that determines what you can sell your wine for, not how much you spent on the swimming pool.
Bill Murphy of Clos LaChance Winery managed to avoid this trap. After a successful career at Hewlett-Packard he wanted to turn his grape-growing hobby into a full time business, but he didn’t completely loose his head in the process.
“It seems to me there’s a lot of muddled thinking in the wine industry” he told me, “and a lot of people are trying to justify the price of a bottle of wine based on the cost of the land, and I just think that’s ass backwards.”
His first sensible decision was to avoid super-expensive Napa Valley and locate his winery in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains, south of San Jose, where land is considerably cheaper.
“If you look at pricing from a price-plus standpoint you can amortize the price of the land, add in your farming costs and say ‘That means I have to charge $80 a bottle for my wine.”
“But another way is to say ‘Gee, how much is it worth? What is it worth to the consumer?’ and it seems to me that’s got to be the key to the pricing decision.”
This is of course a basic business fundamental – a product is only worth what a buyer is prepared to pay for it.
And it is this sensible thinking that has lead to his super Clos LaChance Chardonnay 2011 priced at an astounding $11 a bottle.
Santa Cruz is too warm for cool-climate Chardonnay so he sources his grapes from 20 year old vines in Monterey. Here the cool coastal nights, combined with minimal oak treatment result in a Chardonnay of unusual freshness.
“A lot of people say ‘gee, it doesn’t taste like a chardonnay’, but it actually does taste like a Chardonnay. “In a classic,” by this he means typical, “California Chardonnay you get a lot of oak. What we’re looking for is the Chardonnay fruit, and have that come through. And that’s what a Chardonnay grape tastes like.”
It’s more Burgundian than typically Californian in style, though it does have lovely ripe fruit. It reminds me of a 2009 Macon or St Veran, which is a comparison Murphy appreciates.
“I’d be okay if you wrote that. That’s the style we’re looking for, and we find that people like it. This is a new direction for California Chardonnay and we see very good acceptance for it, especially among younger drinkers.”
And that acceptance is in no way impeded by it costing only $11 a pop.
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