When Philippe and Cherie Melka first arrived in the Napa Valley in the 1990s, the region was awash in Cabernet Sauvignon. Sauvignon Blanc, the red grape’s natural partner in Bordeaux, was an afterthought.
“There was almost no high-end Sauvignon Blanc in the market,” says Melka, a fan of Château Haut-Brion Blanc. Most wines that were locally available were made in a simplistic style. “Everyone here was thinking ‘Sauvignon Blanc, that just gives us some fun wine to drink before dinner.’ ”
The notable exception was Robert Mondavi Winery’s I-Block, made from heritage To Kalon Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc vines planted in 1945. Marketing wizard Robert Mondavi labeled this wine Fumé Blanc, because in the early ‘70s, Sauvignon Blanc had an image problem.
“He wanted to redefine the perception of Sauvignon Blanc,” says Genevieve Janssens, chief winemaker at Robert Mondavi Winery in Oakville. “It was sweet and often oxidized. It was not really fun to taste. He took inspiration in Pouilly-Fumé and Bordeaux. He was the trailblazer of Sauvignon Blanc luxury wines.”
Fifty years later, California Sauvignon Blanc is getting a glow up thanks to wines from Napa Valley and Sonoma—and price tags to match. The list includes Dana Estate’s Hershey Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc ($500) made by Melka, Futo Blanc ($200), Cardinale’s Intrada ($128), and Vineyard 29’s Estate Sauvignon Blanc ($165). In the same neighborhood, you’ll find Kenzo Estate’s Asatsuyu ($80) made by Heidi Peterson Barrett, Accendo’s Sauvignon Blanc ($66), and the white Bordeaux-style blends by Bibiana González Rave and Jeff Pisoni of Shared Notes.
The wine that launched the modern taste for upper echelon Sauvignon Blanc is Lail Vineyards’ Georgia bottling ($160). “We were the first producer in the U.S. to make wine in this style, in the Graves style,” says Founder and Owner Robin Daniel Lail during a recent tasting at her home.
Lail Vineyards debuted in 1995 with red wines, but Lail quickly realized she needed an icebreaker before pouring her J. Daniel Cuvée Cabernet. She tried Champagne as well as Spottswoode and Araujo Sauvignon Blancs, but she realized they needed their own white wine.
In 2001, Lail asked Winemaker Philippe Melka to make a Sauvignon Blanc, but they didn’t always see eye to eye. “The next thing I know, he’s talking about aging this Sauvignon Blanc in new French oak,” says Lail. “I said we’re not going to make a wine like that.”
Melka convinced her to give oak a chance. “At the end of year one, damn, it was tasting unbelievable,” says Lail. “The Georgia is very versatile with food and excellent when served with crow.”
Named after her first grandchild, Georgia Dixon, the wine’s first vintage was released in 2002. Critics noted it was a “serious” Sauvignon Blanc.
“If Napa can make a Bordeaux-style red blend, why can’t we do it with white?” —Rob Harrison, Fluent Wine Co.
So, what makes a California Sauvignon Blanc worthy of a $100+ price tag?
“What sets them apart is that they are built to age,” says Rob Harrison, founder of Fluent Wine Co. He hopes his Glass CAT Sauvignon Blanc ($125) will change people’s minds about premium American Sauvignon Blanc. “I said, if Napa can make a Bordeaux-style red blend, why can’t we do it with white?”
To make this wine, Harrison channeled all his Sauvignon Blanc heroes, including Didier Dageneau’s Silex, Gaia’s Alteni di Brassica, Screaming Eagle’s Sauvignon Blanc (which hovers around $1,200 upon release) and Mondavi’s I-Block.
An ageworthy Sauvignon Blanc requires the right terroir, careful vineyard practices and measured oak, says Harrison. He sources fruit from a St. Helena vineyard that once supplied Vineyard 29. The Fluent Wine team trims the vines aggressively and drops a considerable amount of fruit. The cellar regimen includes five yeast strains and nothing but French oak, including 20% new barrels.
At Mondavi, workers pick the I-Block Vineyard five times, and harvest six times in the Monastery block that creates the Reserve Fumé Blanc. “We treat it more like the way we treat Cabernet,” says Mondavi Winemaker Lauren Oliver. “It’s a single-vineyard wine from a dry-farmed site.” The wine can be aged in new oak, used oak, acacia barrels or concrete eggs.
“Here, Sauvignon Blanc is made in the vineyards,” says Janssens. She believes that picking earlier yields a more citrusy wine, while later harvest creates more vibrant tropical notes.
The winemaking team at Napa’s Futo Estate was curious to see how good their Sauvignon Blanc could be if they invested time and resources in it. They planted their grapes in an east-facing section of the 5500 vineyard in the Stags Leap District, and treated it gently with basket pressing and cigar barrels.
“Often, in Napa Valley, Sauvignon Blanc is planted on B-grade soils and treated like a second-class citizen,” says Futo Winemaker Jason Exposto. He produces just 100 cases of the Futo Blanc, and says it gets snapped up by wine club members.
Melka’s Mekerra Proprietary White ($148) comes from a vineyard at 2,300 feet elevation in Knights Valley, which is also Cabernet country. “We call it a Proprietary White and put it in a black bottle so people know it’s a serious wine,” says Cherie Melka.
When people dine at Hazel Hill, the restaurant at Montage Healdsburg, some are looking for everyday Sauvignon Blanc, says beverage manager and sommelier Petra Polakovicova. Others want something special to pair with spring dishes like white asparagus. That’s when she suggests a Sauvignon Blanc by Spottswoode, Lioco, Domaine Curry or Aperture.
“Most of the wines we have on the list are following that Bordeaux winemaking style… to add some texture,” says Polakovicova.
Of course, Cabernet is still king in the Napa Valley, so some of the area’s best Sauvignon Blanc sites are being replanted because that’s where the money is. Still, no one can look down on California Sauvignon Blanc anymore. “Sauvignon Blanc wasn’t loved by anybody,” says Lail. “It was Chardonnay, Chardonnay, Chardonnay and that went on for years in the Napa Valley.”
Things are changing for once-lowly Sauvignon Blanc, she says. “Now it’s important. It’s an important glass of wine. It has its own following and its own genre.”