California: A region on a roll

The California-Cabernet connection is a long and deeply rooted one, yet it’s not one that’s resistant to change. As our recent blind tasting revealed, a trend towards stylistic restraint is generating ripe yet balanced expressions at all price points, writes Patrick Schmitt MW


Feature findings

> With a history stretching back to the 1870s and a strong association with Robert Parker, Californian Cabernet is the Golden State’s most highly prized red wine asset.
> The region’s most-planted red variety, Cabernet now encompasses an impressive diversity of styles, with a distinct progression in quality the further up the price scale one goes.
> A so-called ‘New Wave’of Californian Cabernet has emerged, characterised by earlier picking, reduced extraction and a drop in new oak use
> Rather than a dramatic shift in styles, the region has experienced a gentle evolution to generally more balanced, drinkable Cabernets.
> Such a trend is reducing California’s tendency to sameness, because more sensitive handling of ripe fruit is helping to highlight site differences.

FEW ASSOCIATIONS in the wine world are as strong as California and Cabernet. With a history stretching back to the 1870s, the state has been playing with this high-profile grape for well over a century, although it wasn’t until the 1970s that Californian Cabernet really gained global acclaim. This was the decade when many great Cabernet producers were founded, such as Silver Oak and Joseph Phelps, as well as being the period when Californian Cab bettered Bordeaux in the Judgement of Paris.

Since then, the California-Cabernet combination has heightened and stylistically evolved, with changes influenced in particular by replanting on rootstocks in the 80s, and the advent of the world’s most powerful wine critic in the same decade: Robert Parker.

Today, Cabernet is California’s most planted red grape with just a few vines short of 88,000 hectares, ensuring it accounts for almost 30% of all the red wine-producing vineyards in the state, and nearly double the area devoted to its nearest red rival: Zinfandel.

And yet, much of our focus in the drinks business, during this decade at least, has been on pretty much everything other than Cab. We’ve looked closely at Rhône blends in the state, and then the success of Pinot in California. Of course, both are key to California, but neither is quite as important as Cabernet. Not only is Cabernet the biggest in terms of volume among the reds (Chardonnay accounts for slightly more vines and litres of Californian wine), it forms the basis of all the region’s greatest and most expensive wines, and the foundation of the State’s strongest regional brand: Napa.

Consequently, we decided to focus on this single grape for this year’s report, and also to hold a blind tasting of Cabernets from all price points and sub-regions in the attempt to create a snapshot of great examples for the Wine Institute of California annual trade tasting on Thursday 10 March (we are already aware of California Cabernet’s quality relative to its global rivals through our annual Cabernet Sauvignon Masters, which you can read more about on

Such an exercise would also help us understand the stylistic diversity of Californian Cab, as well as to draw conclusions about approaches to viticulture and winemaking, sub-regional highlights, and sweet spots price-wise.

For this exercise, we recruited Sarah Jane Evans MW and Keith Isaac MW, chosen not just for their tasting ability, but their interest in and wide experience of Californian wines.
Although perhaps more closely associated with Spain, wine writer Evans has placed a strong focus on California in recent history, attending the California Wine Summit in 2014, then visiting the region again last year. Isaac, meanwhile, as managing director of Castelnau Wine Agencies, has been importing California wine into the UK for more than 12 years, and during this period has worked closely with the California Wine Institute on their benchmark tastings.

As for myself, I too attended the Californian Wine Summit – an immensely thorough immersion in the region’s wines– in its inaugural year, 2013, and have held a long-time interest in the region.


The judges (l-r): Keith Isaac MW, Sarah Jane Evans MW and Patrick Schmitt MW

Over 100 samples were submitted for the tasting, all of which were either pure Cabernets, or Cab-dominant blends, and wines that would feature at the London tasting. The entries were sampled blind according to price band, then scored and discussed, with the selection of 40 wines shown in the boxouts on pages 11-13 representing the best ones of the tasting.

We had little to choose from under £10, but Sutter Home’s Cabernet Sauvignon stood out for its juicy identifiably Cab character, encouraging us to pick this out as a good entry point to California’s expertise with this grape.

Moving into the next price band, it was pleasing to be able to select 10 wines, all of which proved that California can deliver good, price-competitive wines under £20, and ones which showed a real varietal character, and a combination of ripeness and freshness – something that California is particularly adept at delivering. In terms of regions, this cheaper band showed that Paso Robles and Lodi may be places to consider when searching for a good price to quality ratio in Cabernet, although the majority of excellent examples in this price range were from Sonoma, such as Cabernets from Jackson Family Wines, Pedroncelli, Louis M Martini and Folie à Deux.

Beyond the £20 price point, we were more demanding of the wines, aware that this level represented a significant premium on the UK’s average price for a bottle of wine, which remains under £6.

The stars here were all from Napa and Sonoma, along with Paso Robles and Santa Cruz – the latter of course home to famous Cabernet Ridge Monte Bello, which was not entered into the tasting. And between £20 and £30, examples exciting the tasters included Cabernets from Beringer, Black Stallion, Napa Cellars, Rodney Strong and Truchard Vineyards.

Above £40, Cabernets from Napa dominated the results. Before we crossed the £50 mark, we found great wines from Wente, Snowden, Atalon and Robert Mondavi. These were great Cabernets with brightness, but depth and richness – and while they were expensive, relative to Super Tuscans or classed growth claret, they were good value.

At the very top end of the price ladder, we had few disappointments, and found ourselves searching for minor faults to eliminate a handful of wines, mainly to prevent the final selection becoming too large. When it was revealed what we had tasted, it was pleasing to see that the famous names had shown so well, whether it was the richer more coconutty style of the Silver Oak or the greater restraint of the Mount Brave. We were also particularly impressed by the SLD from Robert Sinskey and the Reserve from Black Stallion, which came in a magnum – because it was the only format for this wine.

Something that was apparent during the day’s tasting was the clear progression in quality – not just extract – as one moved up through the price bands.

“Sometimes, as wines become more expensive, they just get more concentrated and tannic, but not necessarily better, but with these wines, particularly the final flight, one could really see that there was a step up in quality,” said Isaac. “The last few wines were fabulous, really seductive on the nose, and, as a whole, this tasting was a lot more fun than it would have been if we were tasting Bordeaux at similar prices.”

Contributing to that positive experience has been the quality of recent vintages in California – the 2012 and 2013 vintages in the US wine region have been some of the best ever, and a great relief to producers following the cooler 2010 vintage and difficult 2011 harvest. Indeed, Evans, who was pleasantly surprised by the combination of pretty smelling red fruit in the wines, along with more typical blackcurrant Cabernet characters, summed up the effect of the tasting on her personally, proclaiming at the end of the day: “Well, I should be drinking more Californian Cabernet.”

Come and taste Cabernet

You can taste the results of the California Cabernet selection at this year’s Go West! California, Oregon and Washington State Tasting in London on Thursday 10 March, which takes place on the Fifth Floor of The QEII Centre at the Broad Sanctuary in Westminster, London.

All 41 of the wines presented on the next page of this article, which were whittled down from 100 by three Masters of wine – Patrick Schmitt MW, Sara Jane Evans MW and Keith Issac MW – will be available to taste in a dedicated area.

For more information email, or click here to register at

Significantly, the tasting showed that California does have its own style of Cabernet, but it’s not a caricature. Ripeness is not hard to achieve, but neither is freshness due to a combination of chilly seas and sun-drenched valleys, which draw in the cold coastal air. It also highlighted that there hasn’t been an extreme shift in the nature of California Cabernet, a ‘New Wave’ stemming from earlier picking, reduced extraction and a drop in new oak use.

Rather, this snapshot of wines suggested
that there has been a gentle evolution in the Californian Cabernet wine style to create a more balanced, drinkable result, although the tasting also showed that there is a broad spectrum of styles to suit a similarly wide range of tastes.
Indeed, looking over the notes on the wines after it was revealed what they were, one can see among some of California’s oldest and most classic Cabernet producers that there is an element of the modern, riper approach in their current make-up, while brands that are commonly associated with extreme ripeness, are, today, showing a bit more acid bite and less sweet oak.


Such meeting in the middle won’t make the headlines, but the development is undoubtedly a sensible way of improving and updating Cabernet-based wines without alienating loyal followers, whatever the producer.

And it should be added that such a trend is reducing California’s tendancy to sameness. That’s because a more sensitive handling of ripe, but not over-ripe fruit, is helping to highlight site differences, not just between the hillsides and valley floors, but individual vineyards too.

Indeed, if there is an emerging paradigm for Californian Cabernet at the highest level, it is a move from the Bordeaux brandmodel to the Burgundian grower approach, where the exact source is given as much emphasis as the person who owns it.

Napa vs Sonoma

Although Napa has become synonymous with California’s best and priciest Cabernets, Sonoma, it seems, is snapping at the leader’s shiny heels. And, importantly, Sonoma is producing first-rate examples at slightly lower prices than Napa – a product of Sonoma’s cheaper land and grapes, which in turn are connected to the area’s less upmarket image and lower level of international acclaim. Certainly the tasting for this article highlighted the quality of Cabernet from Sonoma, as well as its good value relative to the entries from Napa.

This reinforced a finding from last year, when Jackson Family Wines held a comparative tasting in the UK of Sonoma’s Vérité La Joie (a Cabernet-dominant Bordeaux blend) alongside Napa’s most famous and expensive Cabernets, all from the 2005 vintage: Harlan Estate, Scarecrow and Screaming Eagle. After the tasting, attendees – who included 50 of London’s leading sommeliers, fine wine buyers and a few press – were asked to vote on their favourite wine in the line-up, and a quick handcount showed that Vérité and Screaming Eagle were the best, with a slight preference for the Vérité, which was almost 10 times cheaper than the Screaming Eagle.

Although Jackson Family Wines has a number of high-profile estates in Napa, from Lokaya to Cardinale and Freemark Abbey, it is in fact Sonoma’s Vérité that consistently gets the highest scores. Indeed, the wine brand, which has three annual releases – La Joie (a Cabernet-dominant Bordeaux blend), La Muse (which is Merlotdominant) and Le Désir (which is Cabernet Franc dominant) – has gained a perfect 100 points by wine critic Robert Parker as many as nine times.
Commenting on this fact, Julia Jackson, who is the middle daughter of Barbara Banke and the late Jess Jackson, says: “Sonoma has a reputation for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but we believe it’s the best place for Cabernet,” before observing that Sonoma – despite having a longer viticultural history than Napa – is still in its “infancy”.

Nevertheless, she records an emerging interest in Sonoma for top-end Cabernet, noting that Gonzague and Claire Lurton from Château Durfort-Vivens in Margaux have purchased a property in Sonoma, which is near Vérité’s winery in Chalk Hill, and they have planted Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot.

In essence, the difference between Napa and Sonoma’s reputation for Cabernet maybe down to marketing more than wine quality.

Click ‘next page’ to see the full list of wines that will be available at the Go West! tasting…

One Response to “California: A region on a roll”

  1. Patrick
    Hopefully you will attend the IMW US Cab Tasting that is upcoming in London– It will provide a better snapshot of (particularly) the higher end of the spectrum from key producers of the fine 2012 vintage– Urge your readers to get tix for that tasting through the IMW website. We calculated at the event here in CA recently the average price of bottles was $90+-!
    Best Joel

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