Panek Vineyard, Napa Valley / Courtesy Fluent Wine Company
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.”
To Kalon Vineyard I Block Fumé Blanc / Courtesy of Robert Mondavi Winery
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 hired 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 Cap 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.
Courtesy of Fluent Wine Company
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.