In 1990s and early 2000s, some top-tier California wineries took great pains to disguise their second-label wines as new brands. As grape quality and quantity soared during this period (after phylloxera-ravaged vines were replanted to modern rootstocks and clones, and growers got a do-over in matching varieties to specific growing conditions), grapes that no longer made the quality cut were either sold on the bulk market, or more profitably, bottled as second or new labels.
It was typical at the time for wineries, especially those in Napa Valley, to distance themselves from their second labels. They feared that consumers would buy up the less expensive, competently made seconds and not invest in the firsts. One example is Napa Ridge, a red-hot brand in the early to late-1990s, selling for $5-$6 per bottle for eyebrow-raising high quality.
Beringer Vineyards was behind Napa Ridge, using grapes it had grown or contracted for yet didn’t need for its flagship label. Then owned by Nestle, Beringer quietly produced and bottled Napa Ridge in northern Sonoma County, with no tasting room, even though fans called about and searched for one. Most critics adored the wines, yet a few mocked the fact that there was no such geographical place as Napa Ridge, and that the brand represented a modern-day version of the emperor’s new clothes.
Beringer was not alone in this, mind you, merely a poster child (it sold Napa Ridge to Bronco Wine Co. in 2000). Numerous California producers have and continue to take excess juice and turn it into house brands for Trader Joe’s, Cost Plus, BevMo, Total Wine, restaurants and bars. While some wineries once felt shame that every cluster of their carefully grown grapes didn’t go into primary wines, those days seem to largely be over.
Sure, $5,000-per-acre Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and $4,000-per-acre Sonoma Pinot Noir might occasionally appear on the bulk market, but a growing number of wineries are now content, if not proud, to create a new brand, label or tier for these extra grapes, and offer consumers lower prices for good-quality wines that appeal to a broader consumer base.
Here are some Napa Valley firsts, and their seconds, to consider:
First: Dominus Estate ($250): Christian Moueix’s 2010 Napa Valley Dominus Cabernet Sauvignon-based wine is monumental, with deep, dark cherry and plum fruit, gently herbal character and grippy tannins that suggest cellaring for at least 10 years, and perhaps 20.
Second: Dominus Napanook ($60): Younger vines on the Dominus Estate provide the grapes for the 2011 Napa Valley Napanook. It’s a spicy, Cabernet Sauvignon-based wine with savory herbs, red fruits and muscular tannins. Drink within 10 years.
First: Duckhorn Vineyards Three Palms Merlot ($90): Duckhorn’s 2010 Three Palms Merlot, a Napa Valley classic, is a single-vineyard wine that’s full-bodied and plummy, with crunchy tannins, graphite minerality and the stuffing to go the distance in the cellar.
Second: Decoy Merlot ($25): In 2012, Duckhorn looked to Sonoma County vineyards for its second-label Merlot, which it touts as “the everyday wine for the well-informed.” It’s softly tannic and easy to drink, with bright cherry, Santa Rosa plum, dusty tannins and subtle herbaceous notes.
First: Quintessa ($136): The Huneeus family’s 2010 vintage of this Rutherford Napa Valley blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Carmenere is acknowledged as one of California finest wines. It displays a Bordeaux-like herb, tobacco and forest floor personality, with ripe black cherry and blackberry fruit, and admirably represents the concept of producing a wine from a single estate.
Second: Faust Cabernet Sauvignon ($55): Produced at Quintessa, the 2011 Faust Cab comes from a mix of grapes grown in Rutherford, Coombsville, Yountville, Atlas Peak and other Napa Valley AVAs. While it doesn’t reflect the personality of one estate, it melds myriad vineyard characteristics into a composed, vibrant wine with cedar, cassis, blackberry, toasty oak and vanillin notes.
First: Vineyard 29 Cabernet Sauvignon ($225): Vineyard 29’s 2010 St. Helena Napa Valley Cab comes from a warm section of Napa Valley and as a result, it’s a rich, heady wine with blackberry compote and cassis flavors, creamy oak, sweet baking spice and seamless tannins. It’s hedonism in a glass.
Second: Vineyard 29 Cru Cabernet Sauvignon ($54): This sister label, while not inexpensive, is far more affordable than the typical Cab on the Napa Valley price scale. A Napa Valley blend, it offers clean, straightforward notes of cassis, blackberry and plum fruit, with black tea and dusty cocoa complexity.
Of course, there are other Napa Valley wineries that embrace their second-label/tier/brand wines, as they find rewards in promoting less expensive wines to those without deep bank accounts. Napa cannot live on high-end wines alone, and a growing number of producers recognize that. Consumers will likely benefit.