California Wine Classification of 2012

Recently I have been teaching a wine class along with a colleague of mine (Josh Farrell of Wine Express) and we were going over the 1855 Bordeaux Wine Classification. For those who don’t know what that is, over 150 years ago professionals from the wine industry ranked the wines of Bordeaux (Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are the most prominent grapes used) according to a certain Château’s reputation, price and of course on the quality of wine.

However there were some politics involved and many equivalent quality wines did not get the top distinction because they didn’t have the brand recognition nor did they demand the ludicrously outrageous prices. Four wines at that time (now five wines) were awarded the elite distinction of Premier Cru Classification and this system is still in tact today. After discussing this in class my friend Glenn had a great question…”so what are the Premier Cru wines of California?” That got me thinking…

While California has never classified wine this way, there are certainly a small group of wines that are considered elite. If you have ever heard the term “Cult Cab”, many of those wines would fall in that top classification category. Cult Cabs are typically an extremely low production, high quality wine that you cannot even purchase unless you wait years to get on a mailing list or go to auction and pay 2-3X what the winery retails it for. They can cost anywhere from a couple hundred to a couple thousand dollars and while they are some of the best wines you may ever taste in your life, they can also be the most disappointing.

The reason being is the expectations are set so high for a wine of this nature, that it is almost impossible for it to deliver. Think about the first time you were able to afford to go to that fancy five star restaurant that you had heard so much about. By the time you finally were able to dine there, did it live up to everything you had envisioned? Usually the answer is no… how could it?! With expectations that high, unless it is an utterly life changing experience it almost has to be somewhat of a disappointment. That’s not to say these wines are disappointing, as they are arguably some of the best wines produced in the world. But when shelling out that kind of dough, it’s tough to monetize the level of enjoyment of a wine.

With all of that said,  I have listed below what I consider the “Premier Cru” Wines of California, the “Grand Cru” Wines (a small step below in terms of quality, price and a bit larger production and availability) and my “Value Cru” Wines ($20-25 wines that over-deliver on a Quality-Price Ratio, or QPR, and are consistent values every vintage). The Value Cru Wines are readily available at most Westchester wine stores as well as online.

Premier Cru

Harlan/Bond Estates Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville

Chateau Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley

Joseph Phelps Insignia, Napa Valley (Top Pick)

Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville

Verite, Sonoma

Shafer Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon, Stag’s Leap District

Grand Cru (2nd Growth)

Ridge Monte Bello, Santa Cruz Mountains

Far Niente Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville

Pride Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa/Sonoma (Top Pick)

Opus One, Oakville

BV Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Artemis Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley

Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley

Paul Hobbs Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley

Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley

Duckhorn Merlot, Napa Valley

Value Cru

BV Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley

Rodney Strong Estate Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma (Top Pick)

Beringer Knights Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma

Franciscan Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley

Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley

Buehler Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley

Sterling SVR(Platinum) Reserve Red, Napa Valley


5 thoughts on “California Wine Classification of 2012

  1. Really fun exercise! Your choices in each are very good but I would not have Chateau Montelena in either list. Known more for Chard and haven’t had a big score in 10-12 years. I would add Staglin and Bryant Family to the Premier Cru list as they are both huge cult darlings and Robert Craig to the Gran Cru list.

    It’s a good thing we don’t have this system here. That way a new guy like Yao Ming can’t get a 97 and charge $650 a bottle on his first vintage. Err, maybe that’s not such a good thing…..

  2. Thanks for the comment! Valid points all around… I put Montelena in there somewhat for their Chard as you point out that is one of the wines that put CA wine on the map. Plus, even without the ratings I still find the Estate Cab to be a pretty stellar wine. Staglin and Bryant Family could definitely be in the Premier Cru, but I have not been all that impressed with the Robert Craig wines… although the Affinity is my brother’s favorite so I am sure he would be in full agreement with you!

  3. Yeah, Montelena is an O.G. but have fallen a bit. I too like almost all of their offerings. Robert Craig is getting huge scores and some are calling them a next in line cult which is why I have them on my list. I love mountain wines (Howell, Veeder, Spring, Atlas) so Craig is a favorite. It is a very different style than the Oakville/Rutherford Cabs. Mountain wines are very big, strong tannins, big fruit so is not for everyone. The Howells are especially big. Outpost, O’Shaughnessy, Ladera, Cade, etc. are huge for me. The Craig Affinity is a more traditional style blend and appeals to people who like a more refined style. Only a touch of mountain fruit is used. I’m currently trying to find some good wines that come from the Sonoma side of the mountains. Verite and Rodney Strong are the only ones I know and I’m not eating $450 a bottle to try the Verite offerings. If you know of any from the “other side” would be very greatful if you could throw out a few names. Thanks and great post!

    • O’Shaugnessy is a great one…one of my favorites actually! I may have to add that in ala Mouton Rothschild 😉 The truth is I am a huge Sonoma fan and find that some of the best values for Cab come out of that region. I am in total agreement with you regarding your take on Verite, and Rodney across the board is really solid. Some others would be Chateau St. Jean (Cab and Cinq Cepages), Sbragia, Stonestreet, Simi, Hidden Ridge, Chalk Hill, Hanna and of course Jordan. Happy tasting, and thanks for the comments!

  4. Pingback: Wine News – Small Bites « Découvertes de Vin

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