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Affordable boutique wines rival cult favorites
By John H. Isacs

WHEN asked about the best US wine, many connoisseurs would point to Napa Valley and site names like Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Joseph Heitz and Opus One.

I certainly admire these winemakers and their extraordinary wines, but recent trips to Napa Valley have convinced me that the most exciting US wines are made by small and even very small Napa and Sonoma winemakers.

I’m not alone in this belief.

At the most prestigious restaurants in New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Los Vegas, sommeliers are just as likely to recommend non-mainstream wines made by small producers. Many of these wines have achieved cult status.

Cult wines

The US cult wine movement first received world recognition at the Napa Valley Wine Auction in 2000 when a six liter bottle of Screaming Eagle sold for US$500,000. One year later at the same auction a vertical selection of the wine commanded a US$650,000 winning bid. While Screaming Eagle is without a doubt an exceptional wine, it’s not the best Napa Valley wine.

The annual Napa Valley Wine Auction has played a major role in propagating the concept of cult wines and helping to propel their prices to astronomical levels. Wines sold at charity auctions are rarely if ever worth the winning bid, but that’s not the point. It’s a charity auction after all, so unreasonable prices are paid for wines because the proceeds go to charity. What’s more confounding is that a few of these wines command unbelievable prices on the open market.

In general, California cult wines are very rare, highly concentrated Cabernet Sauvignon-based blends, and primarily come from Napa Valley AVA. They usually come from densely planted, low-yield hillside vineyards. Critical to their appeal, most have also received the coveted 100-point perfect rating by Robert Parker on one or more occasions. Production is limited to a few hundred to no more than a few thousand cases.

Most cult wines are sold directly by the winery to consumers and elite restaurants who are on waiting lists. Purchases are usually limited to a few bottles and the price per bottle ranges from around US$300 on the extreme low-end to well over US$2,000. In addition to Screaming Eagle, which remains the best known, other cult wines include Arujo, Dalla Valle, Harlan, Bryant Family and Colgin Family.

Are these excellent wines? Yes. Are they worth their exorbitant prices? No. The meaning of the word cult means extreme, irrational and obsessive veneration, so I believe the title is very fitting. They also represent the pre-2008 heyday of conspicuous consumption that has faded since the financial crisis.

Though the prices of Napa cult wines have come down, in my opinion they’re still over-priced. Based on my recent tastings, I believe there are a number of equally good and in some cases better small production Napa wines that can be procured for much more reasonable prices ranging from US$50 to about US$200.

Boutique wines worth the price

A better description of high-quality, limited quantity wines is boutique wines and Napa has plenty excellent examples. Some are small family-owned wineries with vineyards, other don’t even have their own vineyards or winery. They buy fruit from premium vineyards and make wine by contract at well-equipped wineries. The key is the care and expertise they put into every aspect of winemaking. At the top of my Napa list are three families that make superb wines.

Since their inaugural 2006 vintage, Moone-Tsai has been on a continuous hot steak making some of Napa Valley’s most lusciously delicious Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay wines. Moone-Tsai is a joint venture between Mike Moone, former president of Beringer Vineyards and Mary Ann and Larry Tsai.

Ann worked with Moone at Beringer while Tsai is a first-generation Chinese-American with extensive Fortune 500 business experience. Their unassuming but highly talented French winemaker Philippe Melka worked at Chateaux Haut Brion and Petrus, as well as top California producer Ridge Vineyards. Together this accomplished quartet is making powerful, yet also graceful red wines that are well worth the price.

As I did, if you wish to taste wines with Scott Palazzo of Palazzo Wines, the best location is the relaxed environment of his home in Napa Valley. Palazzo doesn’t have his own winery, but this hasn’t stopped him from becoming one of Napa’s best winemakers.

Three decades ago Palazzo lived and worked in Saint Emilion on the right bank of Bordeaux and developed a special affection for the charm and elegance of the Merlot and Cabernet Franc varieties. His perspective and wines are a welcome contrast to the Cabernet centric philosophies of many Napa winemakers. His Merlot Proprietary Red is a fixture on the wine lists of many of the most famous restaurants in the US.

But the two wines I love most are his 100-percent Cabernet Franc, a wonderfully distinctive single variety red, and Cuvee Blanc, a white wine made with 85-percent Semillon and 15-percent Sauvignon Blanc. Only 224 cases of the 2010 Cuvee were produced so you have to be very lucky to get your hands on a bottle. Scott’s charismatic personality and unique right bank, counter intuitive approach helps make Palazzo wines some of the most unique and memorable wines in Napa Valley.

D.R. Stephens Estates is another small, family owned winery. Owned by the founder and CEO of the Bank of San Francisco, the estate makes expressive and balanced wines. Their secret is grapes from elevated, hill-side vineyards and meticulous winemaking methods.

I recently tasted their 2010 Napa Valley Chardonnay, a raspberry scented deeply flavored white wine, and 2009 DR II Cabernet Sauvignon, a structured and elegant red. Both wines combined new world exuberance with old world charm.

So the next time you wish to experience the quality of a Napa cult wine without the price tag, think boutique. In addition to Moone-Tsai, Palazzo Wines and D.R. Stevens, other recommended wineries are the colorfully named Checkerboard Vineyards, The Vineyardist and Vine Hill Ranch.

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