California dreamin’

With 89 percent of domestic production, California dominates American wine.

It owns super-premium niche; Napa bottles soar above $100 without a blink. It dominates lower end, with promiscuous production in non-prestige locations sating demand for low-cost boxes and cheap bottles and jugs.

But what about the middle sweet spot? The $10-$25 range? California is clobbered.

In florid flatlands where grapes hedonistically over-produce and growers gleefully encourage such behavior, a tidal surge of acceptable juice flows—White Zinfandel, boxes of OK varietals, 1.5-liter bottles, jugs. Life is prosperous in the value and extreme-value category.

In elite vineyards of Napa, panic permeates. Sales of Napa wines priced above $25 fell by one-third in 2009; California wine shipments fell for first time in 16 years; releases did not sell out—unheard of in headier times.

There is no easy answer. Top European producers can shift production into under-$25 market because most have owned vineyards free and clear for centuries. They aren’t burdened with big notes, don’t face gimlet-eyed bankers demanding money. Today. Before 2 p.m.

Not so Napa. Dot-com millionaires nabbed Napa for $100,000 and $200,000 an acre, built trophy chateaus. Sustainable when people eagerly queued to buy $75 and $169 bottles. Unsold in cellar, flop sweat begins.

There may be silver lining. Many such winemakers are in business of personal lifestyle. Bottles stack up, they don’t care. Yet. Wineries remain a good way to make small fortune out of a big one. Cross your fingers and dream. Epic Napa Cabs may hit prices we peasants can afford. Could happen.


• Opus One. Mondavi-Rothschild collaboration; signature California effort at Bordeaux wine. $169-$199, depending on vintage.

• Silver Oak Cabernet. If you like oak, you’ll love this. From Napa, $110. From Alexander Valley, $74.

• Caymus. Another signature Californian. A Napa premium bargain. $75.