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California Cabernet Sauvignon Wine

What forces are shaping the future of California Cabernet Sauvignon? F&W's Ray Isle considers trophy bottles, bargain buys, emerging regions and wine-country recipes that make any delicious Cabernet taste even better.

California Cabernet Sauvignon is America's most beloved red wine. In 2009, California crushed almost 450,000 tons of Cabernet grapes, an amount roughly equal to one bottle per person for the entire US population. And of those millions of bottles of 2009 Cabernet, most will be very affordable; Cabernet is the leading red variety in the under-$7-a-bottle category. But the rarest, most prestigious and priciest wines made in the US—and many would say the greatest—are also California Cabernets. Cabernet can be as rarefied and elitist as it is everyday and populist. It's as if Beethoven composed his Ninth Symphony, then sat down the next day to write "Paparazzi" for Lady Gaga.

This is partly due to Cabernet's history. For several centuries, the top Cabernet-based reds of Bordeaux have essentially defined greatness in wine. It's no accident that when Napa Valley winemakers first wanted to make exceptional wines in the 1800s, they used Cabernet vine cuttings from Bordeaux. And that cachet has helped inexpensive California wines. In a sense, Cabernet is more than a grape: It's a brand.

Fortunately, California's climate and soils—particularly in Napa Valley—are unbelievably well suited to Cabernet. In fact, at least in terms of mass appeal, California did Bordeaux one better by taking the most famous and respected grape in the world and making it approachable as well. Bordeaux's cool, Atlantic-influenced weather produces firm, somewhat austere reds, the epitome of elegance but not necessarily of friendliness. California's warmer climate naturally leads to fleshier, fruitier, more generous wines. Asking which style is innately better or worse is like asking whether watercolors are innately better than oil paints, or vice versa; they're different, that's all.

Holiday Cabernet Sauvignon Wine Guide

Cabernet Sauvignon Wine Guide. Photo Vineyard 7 & 8.

And yet some people are starting to wonder about the future of California Cabernet Sauvignon. The most acclaimed Cabernets these days tend to summon words more appropriate to rock formations (massive, monumental, grand), the latest installment of an action movie (dramatic, riveting, awesomely intense) or, possibly, a large couch (velvety, plush, voluptuous). It's as if winemakers have taken all that generous fruit and inviting richness that California can give the Cabernet grape and pushed it to such an extreme that they've created an entirely different kind of wine.

It also seems as if that powerhouse style has been adopted—without the complexity and balance that can redeem it—by many affordable Cabernets. Yet supermarket shoppers have hardly risen up against these wines; sales were up almost 7 percent for Cabernet last year. So should there be a correction? It's hard to say. But, regardless, here are some thoughts about where California Cabernet is, and where it's going.

California Cabernet Sauvignon: What People Are Buying

Inexpensive Cabernet remains tremendously popular. But some extremely expensive Cabernet—above $150—is also selling. As Jesse Salazar at New York City's Union Square Wines & Spirits puts it, "People right now are very hesitant to spend more than $100 unless it's a top, top wine—a Shafer Vineyards, a Bryant Family, a Harlan. If it's a Johnny-come-lately, people won't touch it, unless it's had a spectacular reception." The big slowdown is in what was once California Cabernet's sweet spot: the $40-to-$100 zone.

California Cabernet Sauvignon: Where the Deals Are

Though not strictly value-wine zones, several regions less famous than Napa and Sonoma are on the rise. Some are new, like the Red Hills AVA (American Viticultural Area) in Lake County north of Napa, or the Santa Ynez Valley's Happy Canyon AVA; others are familiar names now being rediscovered, like the Santa Cruz Mountains. Also, more star winemakers are creating extremely good value wines with fruit that didn't make the cut for their top cuvées; Robert Foley's Griffin Cabernet blend is less than a third the price of his best wine. Finally, négociants like Cameron Hughes Wine acquire good-quality excess wine from well-known wineries, bottle it themselves and sell it at a much lower price—Hughes's 2007 Lot 172 Cabernet is a steal at $22.

California Cabernet Sauvignon: What's Ahead

Over the past decade, California Chardonnay pulled back from a style of toasty, butterbomb ultra-lushness, and while you can still find a superrich bottling if that's what you're after, the new paradigm is much more restrained. A number of winemakers feel that a similar change for Cabernet is just a matter of time—the pendulum has swung as far as it can go. Sommeliers feel even more strongly. Ask them what pairs with an intense California Cabernet, and often what you get is a throw-up-the-hands, heck-if-I-know response.

But it turns out that some people feel they do know what to pair with a powerhouse California Cab—namely some of those wines' producers. Consider Paul Roberts, the estate director of Bond Estates in Napa. He happens to be a master sommelier as well; he worked for years as wine director for one of America's greatest chefs, Thomas Keller. He has no problem at all pairing Bond's wines—which are anything but lightweight—with a mushroom, squash and Gruyère tart. Hi Sang Lee of Dana Estates, a new Cabernet producer that has rocketed into prominence, loves drinking his awesome Helms Vineyard Cabernet with fried tofu in a spicy ginger-sesame sauce; believe it or not, the match works. In fact, all of the recipes here, from the newest wineries and restaurants in California Cab country, are extraordinarily good with big red wines.

California Cabernet Sauvignon: 5 Facts

1. 75,791 acres of cabernet planted in California

2. 16 percentage of California wine sales in America that are Cabernet

3. 4 percentage of California wine sales in America that are Pinot Noir

4. $4,750 average price of one ton of Napa Valley Cabernet grapes

5. $47 industry rule-of-thumb price for a bottle of wine made from those grapes

California Cabernet Sauvignon: The Next Strongholds

Calistoga: This famous part of Napa Valley recently received AVA status after years of political wrangling.

Coombsville: An overlooked area east of Napa.

Happy Canyon: The Santa Ynez Valley's warm eastern edge is great for robust reds.

Red Hills: Its climate and volcanic soils are great for Cabernet.


Published December 2010
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