California Cabernet Overview

Greetings vinophiles!  I hope you all enjoyed sipping on some bubbly after last months discussion and maybe even tried some out to celebrate the highly overrated holiday of love that recently occurred (I personally avoided it by having a threesome at a Super 8 motel in Driggs, ID, but thats a story for another time).  I would like to welcome a couple of new people to the list in Peter Yarbrough and Anil Shukla.  Anil represents our first non-Utah member so it is exciting to see expansion!  As I mentioned in the first email those of you who got in on the ground floor will soon consider yourself honored to have been the first members of this worldwide phenomenon.  If you would like to invest, send the checks to PO Box 6847 Bozeman, MT 59771, preferably with at least 5 digits.  This month will be the first time we delve into our own American wines as we look at California cabernet sauvignon with a focus on Napa.

I am sure you are all aware that California is a huge producer of wine ranging from ultra premium wines (I think Screaming Eagle from Napa averages about $1500) to the jug wines of Carlo Rossi.  If California were a country it would be the 4th largest wine producing country and most estimates state that about 85-90% of our national wine production comes via the golden state.  California actually has a long wine growing history with vines being planted there as early as the late 1700s by Spanish missionaries.  Wine growing truly took off in the mid-1800s in California in association with the gold rush.  Early plantings were generally led by European immigrants.  California wine even won a gold medal at the Worlds Fair of 1889 in Paris.  Unfortunately in the early 1900s you all know that prohibition dealt a massive blow to the wine industry of California (and all of the US for that matter) and it took many years for this to recover.  Even though prohibition was repealed in 1933, the industry did not really get going again until the 60s-70s.  Andre Tchellistcheff is generally considered to be one of the most influential people in rebuilding the California wine culture as he introduced more sanitary conditions, malolactic fermentation, and aging in smaller oak barrels.  He worked with historic wineries such as Beaulieu Vineyards and Mondavi.  Robert Mondavi is also considered one of the godfathers of the region as he tirelessly worked to improve the image and actual product of Napa wine throughout the world.  I won’t diverge too much into history here as I know some of you have only moderate attention spans when it comes to reading about wine (my wife especially as she has yet to actually complete a single wine book that I have offered her to read).

The major event that really began to allow the California wine industry to take off again was the 1976 Judgement of Paris.  I won’t go into extreme detail here, however if you are interested there is a pretty good movie called Bottleshock that gives a fair rendition of the event.  Essentially a British wine merchant in Paris by the name of Stephen Spurrier was trying to figure out how to generate some interest in his shop/wine academy.  He had some friends in the US that mentioned the wines from California were pretty solid so he decided to stage a “taste-off” of California wines v. French wines.  The wines that were judged included white Burgundy (generally considered to be the best Chardonnay’s in the world at the time) against California chardonnay and red Bordeaux (generally considered to be the best Cabernet blends in the world at the time) against California cabernet based wines.  The judges were all French and were highly respected critics, sommeliers, or wine makers.  Needless to say the California wines won both classes with Warren Winiarski’s 1973 Stag’s Leap Cabernet winning the reds and Chateau Montelena’s 1973 Chardonnay (made by Mike Grgich) winning the whites.  There is also a nicely done book by George Taber on the subject if you wish to explore this major event in US history further.  He was covering the tasting that day for Time magazine and wrote the initial story.  This generated press and interest in the region and subsequently investment from all over the world transformed Napa into the luxury wine market that it is today.  As an aside, the French complained that their wines didn’t win because they only show well after being cellared; the competition was repeated in 1986 and 2006 with California wines winning each time (in 2006 the 1971 Ridge Monte Bello took first).

Northern Cali wine regions
An overview of wine making regions around the bay area.

Today California cabernets are often rich, structured, high alcohol wines that merit high scores from critics and high prices. I am personally not a fan of young, overly oaked, high alcohol cabernets which unfortunately many California (especially Napa) wines are these days, but my recommendation would be try a few different wines to develop your own palate preferences.  I do believe there are still some truly exceptional cabernets produced in California and I can also say the wines age exceptionally well and with 15-20 years of bottle age can be truly stunning.

Cabernet produces generally full bodied wines with lots of alcohol and glycerol.  They have low to moderate acidity often with high tannins.  The flavor profile includes rich dark fruits with classic notes being cassis or creme de cassis, black currant, crushed blueberry, black raspberry.  In addition to the fruit there are often notes of herbs or bell pepper from the cabernet franc heritage; notes of oak barrel aging (mocha, espresso, vanilla, baking spice); and often floral, graphite, and earth hints.  With age the tannins soften and the fruit becomes more dried in nature along with earthy notes, tobacco and leather.  The complexity of aged cabernet sauvignon can truly be mind blowing.

Since Napa is clearly the best known and generally considered the best area for Cabernet in California, lets look a bit deeper there.  Napa is divided into several sub-regions (the technical term is AVA or American viticultural area) and you may see these displayed on some bottles.  Different areas tend to have their own personal style with the mountain AVAs being more powerful, tannic wines and the valley floor wines being a bit more plush.  The valley floor is often more affected by the fog rolling in from the nearby bay and can actually have more difficulty ripening grapes than some of the higher elevation mountain districts.  I think each district has excellent wineries and wines and it can be fun to see if you can pick up on differences between the areas.

This link will take you to an excellent overview of the Napa AVAs along with a map:

Click to access Napa_Valley_Appellation_map.pdf

Ok, now a few recommendations on wines to try:


Ridge Estate cabernet sauvignon: I think the Ridge Estate bottling is probably one of the best values in all of Cabernet; generally around $45-50, it is a great example of Cabernet with black and blue fruits, olive, tobacco, herbal notes, and hints of vanilla.  This is a lower alcohol, higher acid example of cabernet that ages well and is great with food.  Ridge is actually located in the Santa Cruz Mountains which are just south of San Jose and not in Napa, but in my opinion they produce the best Cabernet wines in the US.

A pricier alternative is the Ridge Monte Bello.  This is a beautiful wine, but definitely needs age to show its best.  I recommend a minimum of 10-15 years, but preferable 20 before trying.  One of the greatest wines I have had is the 1981 Monte Bello which I was lucky enough to try in 2013.

Spottswoode is my personal favorite Napa cabernet and I have yet to be disappointed by one of their wines.  Often referred to as the Chateau Margaux of Napa they are a great example of a powerful wine that retains lovely elegance, the classic “iron fist in a velvet glove”.

Heitz is a storied winery and their cabernet was also selected to compete in the original Paris tasting.  Martha’s vineyard which is their flagship wine is a beautifully balanced wine with a classic aroma of mint/eucalyptus likely related to the eucalyptus trees that used to be planted around the vineyard.  Also note that Heitz Napa bottling (~$55) is a great wine for much cheaper than the Martha’s vineyard bottling.

Other California/Napa wineries worth checking out include Diamond Creek, Boeschen, Chappellet, Dunn, Mayacamas, Continuum, Ramey, Robert Keenan, Corison, Mount Eden, Ladera, and Silver Oak.  There are obviously more great wineries out there, but some are prohibitively expensive (Harlan, Bond, Screaming Eagle, etc) and others I haven’t had the chance to personally try.

Hopefully this gives you a bit of background on the biggest wine producing state in our union.  We will certainly be revisiting other areas of California in the future.  Again I’m happy to provide other alternatives if you have difficulty finding the above wines or if you are interested in other cellar worthy cabernets.  Also I would be interested in your feedback on wines that you enjoyed or did not as this can help to direct future recommendations.  Otherwise I will leave you to sip and swirl your way through another month of wine discoveries and pleasures.

J. “Brix” Newman