Californian Cult Wines

1 November 2013
Author: Jeannie Cho Lee


Californian wines have had their ups and downs in the Asian market. In the 1980s and early 1990s, before the Australians, Kiwis and Chileans became marketing savvy and zoomed in on Asia, Californian wines were what most people living in Hong Kong or Seoul thought about when considering non-European wines. However, they have lost much ground to other New World wineries who have invested much more time, resources and energies to developing their wine and countries’ profiles.


In the early 1990s Mondavi was one of the strongest wine brands from the New World in many cities in Asia. Mondavi Fume Blanc was very popular at that time in Hong Kong, served at five star hotels and the then popular western restaurant, M on the Fringe. Before New Zealand took the region by storm with their herbaceous, refreshing Sauvignon Blancs and vibrant Pinot Noirs, we appreciated Byron Pinot Noir from California’s Central Coast for its generosity and its ability to deliver consistently ripe strawberry flavours vintage after vintage.


American wines had an edge, both with a head start, as well as with charismatic and larger than life personalities such as Robert Mondavi. With their domestic market growing at huge rates, especially with fine wines, American producers became insular and many high quality producers simply didn’t look outside of their shores. It made sense. Why bother with the additional headache and cost of exporting when they didn’t even have enough to satisfy domestic demand. Those were the days of flourishing New York wine auctions, booming fine wine sales combined with economic stability. Wine producers didn’t forecast the recession and the bubble bursting any time soon.

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Then 2008 happened, bursting the bubble and the envious situation that the Californian wine industry enjoyed over the past two decades. Now, I see more and more Californian producers making concerted efforts to visit Asia and invest their time and resources into our region. Over just the past two years, I have seen the Napa Valley Vintners (NVV) go from very few organized events in Asia to a full-out marketing effort. NVV is a non-profit trade association responsible for promoting the Napa Valley appellation and it represents more than 430 Napa producers.


Although not members of the NVV, many super premium wineries (often referred to as ‘cult’ wines), are also making efforts to market in Asia. From my sommelier friends in New York, San Francisco as well as Los Angeles, I am told that over US$100 per-bottle wines are a tough sell. Since 2009, fine wine interest has gone down significantly and in parallel, the demand and willingness to pay for very expensive wines in Asia has risen. Key evidence of this is in fine wine auctions held in Hong Kong, which are now the largest by volume, value as well as price per bottle sold in the world. It is not a surprise then that Californian wineries are focusing their attention to Far East Asia.


Korea receives a huge boost and true ambassadors for Californian wines from two very high profile, successful Korean entrepreneurs: Lee Hi Sang, Chairman of Woonsan Group, with Dana Estates and Chairman of SM Entertainment Group, Lee Soo Man, with [emos]. Dana and [emos] produce impressive wines but are of very different styles. Dana Estates needs little introduction, a perfect 100-points from Robert Parker for their 2007 Lotus Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon does that very well. Dana Estate wines are complex, concentrated and very generous. [emos] is perhaps lesser known, but with real style and elegance; it is much more European in its balance and composition with excellent persistence and depth.


The best wines from California have a range of styles to offer as evidenced by my tasting notes on Dana Estates and [emos]. Since verticals offer such a wonderful view into the personality, or the DNA of a wine, please search in this link verticals of Harlan Estates as well as other Californian wines. Other vertical tastings that were equally memorable over the past few years were those of Araujo Estate, Colgin Cellars and Opus One. My other Californian favourites for Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines include: Screaming Eagle, Peter Michael, Ridge, Schafer Hillside, Dominus, Viader, Diamond Creek and Stag’s Leap Cask 23.


Republished with permission from Noblesse