The Current State of Californian Cabernet Sauvignon

(Originally published August 2004)

Recently Hanes was forced to spend an evening sober as he lectured others on the proper way to get tight. During this harrowing brush with sobriety Hanes was asked a curious question. Naturally, those assembled expected an incisive and comprehensive response since the speaker was, after all, Hanes. Oddly enough, though, Hanes was stumped and could only mumble out a strained reply. What was this question which sparked this unique moment in wine lore? Hanes was asked to recommend some good Californian Cabernet Sauvignons under $20!

Suddenly it all becomes clearer, does it not? Hanes might as well have been asked to produce The Shroud of Turin for all to see. Yet, since that moment the question has gnawed away at what little remains of Hanes's soul and he shall now try to address the question and its context as best he can. Mercy on us all.

Relatively speaking, Cabernet Sauvignon is a new grape. It is considered to be the product of cross-pollination between the white grape Sauvignon Blanc and the red grape Cabernet Franc. The speculation is that this occurred strictly by chance in Bordeaux during the 17th century. Bordeaux remains the grape's quintessential reference point and in the 18th century Château Mouton made the first recorded reference to Cabernet Sauvignon as a distinct varietal. In the beginning it was also known as Vidure (Vigne Dure or "hardy vine"). Cabernet Sauvignon spread most rapidly throughout France and the rest of Europe after the phylloxera plague decimated so much of existing plantings in the mid-1800's. Rather than replanting the grapevines which had previously existed Hanes assumes they wanted to go with a hardier vine that time around.

Cabernet Sauvignon grapes have thick, tough skins which help them resist disease and rains. The vines deal well with cold winters and they bud late, avoiding many late spring frosts. However, ripening can be an issue and unripened grapes make for herbaceous and bell pepper flavors and harsh tannins. The long warm growing seasons enjoyed throughout California play a large role in the grape's popularity there.

Cabernet Sauvignon came to California from Bordeaux during the 19th century. There are records of the grape being grown by Jean-Louis Vignes, a Bordeaux native, in the 1820's in what is now Los Angeles. There are many references to the high quality of Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa from the 1880's. During the 1950's another Bordelais, Charles LeFranc, planted the grape in the Santa Clara Valley and there are records of Agoston Haraszthy of Buena Vista Winery being among the first to grow Cabernet Sauvignon in Sonoma. After Prohibition in the 1930's there was probably around only 100 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa, the region which today is still considered the premier place for the grape in California. The emergence of Cabernet Sauvignon in the United States accelerated in the mid-1960's, again in the late 1970's to early 1980's and once more in the mid to late 1990's. Up until the 1980's the majority of Cabernet Sauvignon wines were very tannic wines and similar to those of Bordeaux.

Cabernet Sauvignon takes well to maturing in oak barrels because high tannins and high alcohol content react well to slow maturation periods in wood, the wood leaching off the tannic bite. The high concentration of phenolics in Cabernet Sauvignon is important because it factors into how consumers, err, consume the wines — immediately upon release of the bottled wine or after additional aging in the bottle.

California's 2003 grape acreage is estimated by the California Agricultural Statistics Service (CASS) at 882,000 acres. 75,154 (8.5%) of this is Cabernet Sauvignon, the most of any red varietal and only eclipsed by Chardonnay at 97,680 acres. And there seems to be little stopping more rich folk from planting additional acreage even though land is like $100,000 per acre in Napa/Sonoma.

What makes Cabernet Sauvignon so gosh darn popular? Could it be the typical black cherry, black currant, blackberry fruit flavors? Or maybe the fresh nuances of eucalyptus or mint? Or better yet the flavors of cedar, smoke, leather, tar, cigar, earth or pencil shavings you get with an aged wine? The possibilities are indeed endless. Whichever flavors most tickle your fancy, if you luvs Cabernet Sauvignon you are not alone.

It should be mentioned in passing that Cabernet Sauvignon is quite often blended with other grapes, especially Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Blending the grape with Shiraz (Syrah) is popular in places like Australia or South Africa and with Sangiovese in Italy. Back here in the U.S. of A. the legal authorities require a wine to be 75% of a particular grape varietal to use the grape name on the label (this was increased in 1973 from 51%). So, while a wine may say it is Cabernet Sauvignon, the true amount can be anything from 75% to 100% and the other grape(s) used in the wine need not be mentioned. If less than 75% is used, the wine is usually labeled as a "Meritage" or "Claret" blend to sound fancy.

Another important factor in Cabernet Sauvignon's popularity remains its ability to pair well with many food dishes. This is especially true of hardier fare such as steaks, beef stews, BBQ and the like. The higher level of tannins in the wine help it stay firm and gets you salivating when chewing on fatty foods. Hanes has often heard people say that as they get older they enjoy eating lighter, healthier fare and that as a result they don't drink as much Cabernet Sauvignon. The same inclination probably could be said for most vegetarians. It struck Hanes as curious whether the low carbohydrate "Atkins craze" with its emphasis on red meat will help to increase consumption of the grape. Of course, wine itself may be problematic for its own level of carbohydrates but that's an issue Hanes will never face.

OK, enough already with all this background info! Answer the damn question — are there any good Cabernet Sauvignons under $20?

Well, my wise reader, that requires just a bit more background noise. There are many historically recognized wineries whose best Cabernet Sauvignons have long passed the $20 threshold, including Heitz Cellars, Beaulieu Vineyard, Robert Mondavi, Louis Martini, Sebastiani, Gallo, Joseph Phelps, Ridge, Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, Dunn, Stags' Leap Winery. However, some of these wineries are now so huge that they offer many different "tiers" of products and do produce sub-$20 wines.

Then, of course, there are the "cult" wines which have taken off since the 1980's, wines based on scarcity and Big Points in reviews from Wine Spectator Magazine and independent critic Robert Parker, the so-called competition of Hanes. These include wines like Screaming Eagle, Harlan, Bryant Family, Araujo, Abreu and Colgin. Then there are other wineries which command over $100 for a bottle of their Cabernet Sauvignon but the amounts produced are large enough that they are never quite scarce enough to get investment bankers swinging their big ones and create much price increase on the secondary market. These include Dominus, Opus One, Caymus Special Select, Shafer Hillside Select, Pride Mountain Reserves, Diamond Creek, Cardinale, Lokoya, Château Montelena, et. al.

We discuss these ultra-premium wines because they set the pricing market and strategies for all Californian Cabernet Sauvignons. Why are Californian Cabernet Sauvignons so expensive? Winery owners and winemakers are pretty much in lockstep when responding. Customers DEMAND the best and in order to satisfy the customer (who can easily discern the difference in quality between a $40 wine and a $150 wine) they must take the necessary steps. It starts with premium vineyard location. You have to find the best site to plant vines and, as noted, land does not come cheaply. Unless you have the major coin to buy the land outright you are basically taking out one hell of a loan before the first grape is crushed. Then there are the basic nuts and bolts of farming and winemaking. Selecting the best rootstock and clones to plant, not just any cheap vine. Maintaining low yield per acre so the grapes are ripe and not dilute, employing labor-intensive farming techniques of pruning, pulling, thinning. Then at harvest there is the issue of grape selection, dropping rotten or unripe bunches on the ground, hand-selecting only the best bunches to make it into the wine. This takes a long time to do and it's done when there isn't much time to lose. Remember, it's done because you demanded it. So shut yer trap.

Then there are further costs. You need brand spanking new oak barrels to handle those tannins and ensure a vanilla Häagen-Dazs flavor in each bottle. And someone's gotta pay the stud winemaker who oversees this whole project. You wouldn't want to be sued because the winemaker did not have free rein and be paid beaucoup dinero for toasting all those barrels. Then, because everyone knows customers prefer the heaviest bottle made you need thick glass bottles and fancy labels. Note that all this doesn't even cover the costs associated with building a state-of-the-art winery and tasting room for the touristas.

All flippancy aside, these costs are real. The underlying question is are they necessary? Here's where it gets subjective. You hear all these winemakers wax rhapsodically about communing with nature and "it all happens in the vineyard" and then you tally up the costs and there's lots there which look suspicious or superfluous. (Most wine geeks have seen this but here's one argumentative take on the whole issue: Californian winemakers seem to care a lot more about communing with nature than their peers in Southern France or Spain. What drives up costs across the board is most likely ego under the guise of trying to make the best wine possible. When you find out that your neighbor Bob is selling his Cabernet Sauvignon for $60 and you KNOW yours is as good but is only selling for $30, you don't wait for Bob to drop his prices accordingly.

Someone keep Hanes on point here. "Price creep" happens because expenses do rise but it's mostly ego, a dollop of greed and — most importantly — the complicity of the consumer. Collectively, across the world, we are willing to pay. And although Hanes is a commie pinko at heart he is too lazy the take up arms against the wonders of a free market economy. Enough people are willing to cough up the dough and if you are not, tough tittie. Time to scramble for a new, undiscovered wine or get used to drinking a lot of Chilean Merlot. Hanes truly believes you could take an easy third off the price of any Californian wine without sacrificing much quality or a new Benz for the winery owner. Maybe Hanes just wants to return to the times when wines sucked but at least they were cheap.

OK, OK, OK. Under $20 Californian Cabernet Sauvignon. Recommendations. Being as controversial as possible, most Cabernet Sauvignons you can find for $12 or less pretty much are generic red wine. They just don't taste all too much like Cabernet. Unless they are green and herbaceous. Getting maximal ripeness and extracting as much juice as possible out of the grapes homogenizes the wine. You can find plenty of candidates from California, don't get Hanes wrong (the 75,154 acres of vines go somewhere). There are the huge production lines that you see all over. Turning Leaf, Woodbridge (from Mondavi), Rabbit Ridge "Barrel Cuvée," Forest Glen, Indigo Hills, Glen Ellen, Meridian, Sutter Home, Fetzer, Beringer "Founders' Estate," Robert Mondavi "Coastal," Talus, Beaulieu Vineyard "Coastal," Canyon Road, Napa Ridge, Kendall-Jackson "Vintner's Reserve," Carmenet "Cellar Selection Series," Sterling "Vintner's Collection," Hawk Crest, Camelot, Ravenswood "Vintner's Blend," et. al.

Then there are the slightly smaller production wines like Cartlidge & Browne, Wyatt Cellars, Bogle, Castle Rock "California Cuvée," Pepperwood Grove, Trefethen "Eschol," Michael Sullberg "California," Heron "California," Rock River, R.H. Phillips "Dunnigan Hills," all of which can be hit or miss. Chances are you still have to pay over $15 to find something that tastes like a Cabernet Sauvignon and not just potable red wine.

Here's the nitty-gritty. The list is shorter as past favorites have shot past the $20 price point. Say goodbye to the solid quality tier of Markham, Charles Krug, Sequoia Grove, Pagor, Dynamite Vineyards, Raymond, Freestone, Trefethen, Kunde, Justin, Newton, Kenwood, Clos du Val and many more Hanes is too drunk to remember. In all fairness with the prices of Californian real estate and the sundry costs associated with producing and marketing a quality wine, the $20 bottle of California Cabernet Sauvignon may be the hardest wine in the world to produce (even with greed taken into account!).

Sooooo, what are we left with? Based on past experiences and the hope that the "wine glut" will keep prices moderated for the next couple of years, here is a non-exhaustive list of some brands Hanes can recommend for solid under-$20 Californian Cabernet Sauvignon which are widely available. The wine may not be "the best Napa Valley has to offer" but at least it tastes like something. All prices recently verified using (but vary greatly throughout this great land so sue Hanes if it's over $20) and presented alphabetically.

Beaulieu Vineyard "Rutherford"
Dry Creek Vineyards
EOS "Estate Bottled"
Frei Brothers (a Gallo product)
Gallo of Sonoma "Sonoma County"
Geyser Peak
Guenoc "North Coast"
The Hess Collection "Hess Estate"
The Hess Collection "Hess Select" (the least expensive tier)
William Hill
Château St. Jean
St. Supéry
Liberty School
Louis M. Martini "Sonoma County"
Raymond "Estates"
Sebastiani "Sonoma County"
Seven Peaks
Château Souverain
Rodney Strong
Villa Mt. Eden

These are not Hanes's cup of tea but others seem to like them so might as well list them. Might jog your memory if you see the name...

Clos du Bois
Francis Coppola "Diamond Series"
Joel Gott
Laurel Glen "Quintana" North Coast
J. Lohr
St. Francis

Hey, if you see Diogenes in the Californian Cabernet Sauvignon section, say hello!