Cabernet Country Club
Members of Napa Valley Reserve share a rare wine estate
View from clubhouse looking out to the hills and beyond
Photos by Tim Porter
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Napa Valley Reserve is an unusual concept—a private wine estate whose members pay a hefty price for the privilege of getting their hands dirty in a vineyard, studying the art of winemaking with like-minded people and, of course, drinking the fruits of their labors.
Located on a quietly luxurious 80-acre property near St. Helena and bordering Meadowood Resort, the reserve may at first seem like a complicated business proposition—not a cooperative, not a financial investment, more like a non-equity golf club—but the enjoyment possibilities are simple to grasp. John and Nancy Hahn of Mill Valley already cherished their visits to Napa Valley, but when they joined the reserve last summer their forays to wine country became easier and more rewarding.
Among their first activities at the Napa Valley Reserve was helping with the 2006 harvest, first picking grapes and then working on the sorting line to winnow out unripe or shriveled berries, stray leaves and other bits of debris that come in with the loose bunches of blue-black Cabernet grapes grown on the reserve’s 50 acres of vines.
On the day of the reserve’s harvest party, the Hahns, who are both in the insurance business, brought their three boys, ages 11, 12 and 17. “The kids were just mesmerized by the beekeeping and honey-making demonstrations,” says John Hahn, “and they all got to make their own pizzas using toppings they picked from the garden.”
Members pay a deposit to join, currently $150,000—up from the $100,000 first required three years ago—and $80 a month in dues. Benefits include access to the reserve’s scheduled activities (such as a lecture on viticulture and enology by famed Bordeaux winemaking consultant Michel Rolland), the chance to set up private tastings and dinners, and a requisite $60-per-bottle purchase of a minimum six and maximum 75 cases (three barrels) of the estate’s wine per year. Members can customize the packaging of their purchased wine, using a label that might feature an etching of their house, their business logo or their children’s artwork. They cannot resell the wine, but they may use it for corporate gifts or donate it to a nonprofit, say through an auction. Memberships cannot be resold, but the deposit is refundable on resignation, minus a 20 percent transfer fee.
Fronting the business enough money for a new Ferrari, then having to write more checks for wine, meals and (discounted) lodging at Meadowood may not compute on the average person’s calculator. But for an avid wine aficionado with appropriate means it’s not a bad deal. Philip Norfleet, director of Napa Valley Reserve, says membership in a similarly accommodating golf club that’s also non-equity (and where members have to pay for greens fees, lessons and 19th-hole martinis) could run $200,000 to $350,000. Norfleet should know—he once was managing partner at Mayacama Golf Club near Santa Rosa.
Members clearly believe the social experience, the wine education and the access to rare wine are a good value. Scott Peters and his wife, Karin, joined the reserve in spring 2006. “Some of my friends who are joining just want to get an intelligent perspective on the wine business,” he says. “It’s very educational to be around the experts they bring in and be exposed to a variety of viewpoints and wines from elsewhere in the world [and learn] how they’re made and why they taste this way.”
A Tiburon money manager, Peters sees the membership as “reasonably” priced. “Yes, the initiation is costly, but if you consider the opportunity cost of the deposit is $6,000 to $7,000 per annum—your lost interest earned in the bank—that is offset by the value of the wine you buy.”
Indeed, Napa Valley Reserve members are tempted to compare the price of their wine to one of Napa Valley’s “cult Cabernets,” Harlan Estate. There is reason enough for the comparison. William Harlan, developer of the $275-a-bottle wine that bears his name, is also the founder of Napa Valley Reserve. The same team of grape-growing and winemaking experts who are behind the allure of Harlan Estate wines are in charge of the reserve’s wines. In fact, until the 2004 vintage the reserve’s wine was made with grapes from the same pool of vineyards that supplies Harlan Estate and its sister brand, Bond. Most of the Harlan bottles are sold through mailing lists that are difficult to get on because demand exceeds supply; a Napa Valley Reserve member gets priority when a slot opens on those lists.
Since 2004, Napa Valley Reserve has used the grapes from its own vines—90 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 10 percent Merlot —and brings in blending wine as needed from other Harlan sources. The wine is made in a new state-of-the-art winery and aged in French oak barrels that are stored in caves dug into a hillside behind the winery. In wine, as in real estate, it’s location, location, location. The reserve’s vineyards on nearly flat land adjacent to the Silverado Trail and near the narrow Napa River has little track record for fine grapes and offers different growing conditions than those at the hillside vineyards of Harlan Estate several miles south on the opposite side of the valley.