Why Californian wine is so expensive in the UK

It’s easy to forget how new California is to making wine. Whilst in Napa Valley last month, I had the good fortune of meeting John Shafer – founder of the eponymous estate situated in the Stags Leap district. He is one of the founding fathers of Californian wine, and though hardly a spring chicken, is still as sharp as a knife. Their first vintage was the 1978. To give it some perspective, Barone Ricasoli in Chianti, for example, has been making wine since 1141.

One charge that is often levelled against Californian wine in the UK is that it is so expensive. John brought it up before I had the chance to, and I had to admit that it is still seen as an issue over here. It is possible to buy good value Californian wines, but they are relatively few and far between, particularly at the £8 – £20 mark, compared to most other famous wine regions such as the Rhône, the Mosel, Chianti and Rioja.

That wineries are relatively new in California, compared to many of the great wine regions of Europe, is one reason. Being a relatively young winemaking region, many wineries are still being paid for, and this investment is still being recouped by factoring it in to the price of the wine. The hardware required to set up a winery is very costly, and there is a large initial payout required before you can even start making any wine. Added to this, particularly in Napa, since there have been so many success stories of cult wineries charging huge sums per bottle, land is extremely expensive to buy.

Many of the great wine estates of Europe were established and paid for generations ago, so they aren’t still obliged to recoup their initial outlay in the wines they are selling today. As such they can afford to charge less. And as Ted Lemon of Littorai pointed out, not so long ago you could get an EU grant to help set up a winery in European countries. Not so in California – you have to stump up the cash yourself.

Pricing in California seems rather more meritocratic than in Europe. If a wine tastes good compared to its peers, then that is the most important factor when it comes to justifying a price in the local market. Whether it reflects terroir or if it has a long-established reputation is secondary to the quality of the juice in the bottle.

Many of the wine producers I spoke to were keen to see their wines better represented in the UK, but when they speak to UK agents and shippers, the winery is told that their wine is simply too expensive and it just won’t sell over here. And since many of the top wineries have no problem selling all of their production in the States, it doesn’t make sense to drop their prices and make less money just to get their wines on the shelves in the UK. But while there is any disparity in value between Californian wines and those of the other great winemaking regions of the world – due to recouping investment, less brand recognition, an (incorrect) perceived lack of quality compared to other regions, or a general lack of understanding of the region – the UK is likely to remain underrepresented when it comes to the greatest wines of California. And as drinkers, we will be all the poorer for it.