Cabernet Country Club

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.


Yet here is where Napa Valley Reserve members place their trust in Harlan and his team. They expect him to make the reserve as big a success as his former real estate company Pacific Union; as Meadowood, which under his direction morphed from a local country club to an internationally regarded resort; and as Harlan Estate itself, which consistently commands among the highest prices of any California wine and usually receives superlative scores from critics like James Laube of Wine Spectator and Robert Parker of the Wine Advocate.

Napa Valley Reserve wines haven’t been reviewed publicly by the experts, but a bottle of the 2000 vintage I tried recently was deep in color, perfumed from several years of bottle aging, concentrated in flavor and elegant in texture—all in all, very nice for a generally good but unspectacular vintage in Napa.

Wine is only part of the Napa Valley Reserve’s appeal. The understated beauty of the landscaping and architecture create an ambience of relaxed luxury, like an established tennis or golf club that doesn’t try too hard to impress. Harlan called on Howard Backen, of Backen and Gillam Architects in Sausalito and St. Helena, for the architecture and interior design. Post and beam construction, lots of stone and wood, and a low-key color scheme make the style wine-country indigenous.

While construction of the caves for barrel and bottle aging and other structures, including a second hospitality facility above the winery, is not complete, the grounds already have two hospitality “barns,” one with a professional kitchen to prepare meals for members and for the variety of wine and food seminars that have featured guest speakers such as Robert Mondavi and cookbook author Patricia Wells.

The glass walls of an upstairs room in the “blending barn” slide away to reveal a pastoral panorama of a large veranda and manicured lawn, colorful vegetable and flower gardens and acres of grapevines bordered by 700 olive trees. It’s not difficult to see why this setting appeals to wine and food lovers as their own piece of wine country. About half the members are Californians, with several from Marin; the second half come from 30 other states and at least six other countries. Members’ average age is 48.

Harlan noticed over the years that visitors to the Napa Valley, especially those who came regularly to the celebrated Napa Valley Wine Auction at Meadowood, often became infatuated with wine country. They’d return frequently and dream about owning a vineyard and winery. Some have attained that goal, but doing so today is more expensive than ever—a first-class property goes for at least $10 million. So Harlan created what these would-be vintners wanted in a form that could be shared. Memberships have sold at a good clip and are closing in on a potential maximum of about 400.

For the Hahn and Peters families, Napa Valley Reserve is more than a hobby. Both are involved financially in the wine industry, and they view the reserve as a sort of continuing education in viticulture, enology and the culinary arts. Scott Peters owns Peters Family winery in Sebastopol with his brother, Doug, the winemaker. John Hahn is a founding investor and board member of Luna Vineyards in Napa. “But I’m missing some of the pieces of the wine business that I really enjoy,” Hahn says. “People ask me what the reserve is about, and I say it’s almost a wine co-op. Everybody has a piece of the overall, and we’re all collaboratively, with the Reserve’s resources, making a product. You can only use it for personal consumption, but it gives you the whole shebang of what wine is about, which is a lot more than the drink itself.”

Image 2:  Vineyards in the spring
Image 3:  Napa Valley Reserve Clubhouse