California’s Dreamy Cabs

Wine Guys

If you have seen the movie Bottleshock then you know the story of the 1976 Paris wine tasting where a Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon took first prize in a blind tasting against all of the very best of Bordeaux. Ideal weather, unique terroir (i.e. the soil’s mineral make-up), and the pioneer spirit are all ingredients in the red wines that put America on the wine map. California grows expressive, unctuous, velvety Cabernet, and is home to some of the most experimental wine makers who, for good and ill, have continuously revolutionized the industry.

Bottleshock’s plot does not include the decades of toil that preceded the victory. California’s viticultural history dates back to the Spanish settlers in the 18th Century. Sacramental wines, too difficult to route from Mexico, were made by Franciscan monks in the missions, eventually inspiring small private vineyards and commercial producers. Some of the major wineries were started during the Gold Rush, as the population around San Francisco grew, and the potential of Sonoma and then the Napa Valley were realized. Charles Krug, Inglenook, and Schramsberg all developed their craft in the years when phylloxera and mildew decimated vineyards in Europe. The early vintners lacked much of the knowledge, tradition, experience, and equipment necessary, even finding themselves short on glass bottles until a factory opened in 1862. Regardless, Californians persevered, until, unfortunately, their efforts were stalled in the 1880s by their own bout with phylloxera, and in the 1920s by Prohibition. By the time Prohibition was appealed in 1933, only 140 wineries had survived by going back to their roots as sacramental wine makers. 

The Californian wine industry took until the 1960s to resurge, but in short time it came back with a vengeance. Only ten years before the Paris tasting, California’s production was focused on cheap, sweet ports but within the decade they had developed into an award-winning, accomplished, advanced wine region, with their cabernet leading the way.

A major part of California’s success is its incredible climate. Along the coast, cool breezes blow in from the Pacific, whereas hot weather dominates the Central Valley. In the long stretch of valleys just inland of the coast and west of the center, where the cool fogs from the ocean meet that hot air, the balance makes for the ideal grape growing climate. The San Francisco Bay acts as a natural funnel that directs sea breezes directly to the Sonoma Coast and Napa Valley. The daily dance, the inflow of fog in the morning burned off by sunshine in the afternoon, is both beautiful to behold and beneficial to the million acres of farms in Sonoma. The large houses of Napa and their bold reds would cook in the heat if not for the cool vapors rolling over the mountains. 

This consistently gorgeous weather means it is difficult to come across a truly terrible vintage of California wines. Without the intense climactic swings that plague Burgundy with summer hail and Bordeaux with devastating frosts, California’s grapes enjoy fairly predictable, amiable, nurturing growing seasons. This is, of course, a commercial boon, allowing for the state to produce everything from jug wines and cheap sweet port to world class Meritage blends. With fewer hyper-strict regulations on winemaking practices and no official quality classification system, unlike the D.O.C.s of France and Italy, the variety of great wines available, especially reds, especially those that experiment with traditionally European grapes, is endless. 

The king of California red grapes remains Cabernet Sauvignon, however. On its own and in blends it has not been usurped by Merlot or even the incredible, highly rated Syrah. Where in its homeland Bordeaux it is restrained to maximize a balanced body and elegant finish, here it is allowed to let loose, get loud. Ever more often, California Cabs are displaying the elegance of France while retaining their own signature dark fruit, smoky earth, and round, smooth tannins.

There are thousands of outstanding bottles of California Cabernet and Cab-heavy red blends available for every wine drinker, at every price point. Below are just a few!

The Big Names

Mondavi, Coppola, Krug, all great men who worked tirelessly to make a name for California Cab by putting their own names on the labels of some of the best-made wines. Those, and some others you should know:

2008 Bacio Divino – Divine Kiss 750ml $69.99
2009 Bryant Family Bettina Napa Red 750ml $599.99
2009 Capture Revelation 750ml $109.99
2000 Caymus Special Selection 750ml $114.99
1984 Charles Krug Cabernet Sauvignon Vintage Selection 6L $2,000.00
1997 Far Niente Cabernet Sauvignon 750ml $139.99
1997 Fisher Vineyards Wedding Vineyard 750ml $500.00
2009 Forman Cabernet Sauvignon 750ml $99.99
2011 Futo Wines OV 750ml $159.99
2009 Ghost Block Cabernet Sauvignon Single Vineyard 750ml $113.99
1978 Inglenook Cabernet Sauvignon 750ml $99.99
2009 Mondavi Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon 750ml $49.99
2008 Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 750ml $129.99
2000 Niebaum-Coppola Rubicon 1.5L $200.00
2000 Opus One Reserve 750ml $299.99
2009 Silver Oak Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 750ml $59.99
2009 Snowden Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 750ml $89.99
2000 Stags Leap Cabernet Sauvignon Cask 23 750ml $149.99
2010 Colgin IX Proprietary Red Estate 750ml $759.99

The Rogues

These wines are amazing small producers that are known for their limited production, cult following, acclaimed vineyards, and better value. Just to name a few:

2012 Barrique Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon Napa 750ml $39.99
2010 Beaulieu Vineyard Tapestry Napa Valley 750ml $59.99
2009 Broman Cabernet Sauvignon 750ml $49.99
2010 Chappellet Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 750ml $49.99
2000 Chimney Rock Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District 750ml $99.99
2007 Constant Diamond Mountain Vineyards Claret 750ml $99.99
2010 Corison Cabernet Sauvignon 750ml $84.99
2010 Dunn Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 750ml $99.99
2009 Janzen Beckstoffer ToKalon Cabernet Sauvignon 750ml $139.99
2000 La Sirena Cabernet Sauvignon 750ml $89.99
2010 Macauley Vineyard Beckstoffer-ToKalon Cabernet 750ml $149.99
2006 Palladian Cabernet Sauvignon Napa 750ml $39.99
2010 Peter Michael Les Pavots Proprietary Red Wine 750ml $224.99
2010 Ramey Cabernet Sauvignon 750ml $59.99
2006 Rustridge Cabernet Sauvignon 750ml $49.99
2009 Trivium Cabernet Sauvignon 750ml $79.99
2009 Von Strasser Cabernet Sauvignon Diamond Mt. 750ml $39.99
2010 Wing Canyon Cabernet Sauvignon Mount Veeder Napa 750ml $59.99

And a few everyday sippers for when you want something fantastic at the end of a busy Tuesday: 

2009 Worthy Sophia's Cuvee 750ml $29.99
2010 Dry Creek Cabernet Sauvignon 750ml $19.99
2010 Vina Robles Cabernet Sauvignon 750ml $24.99
2011 Eagle Glen Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 750ml $19.99

Enjoy!

Lilia Coffin is a wine consultant at Schneider’s of Capitol Hill