The Decline of Cabernet

I read a very sad but, for me, profoundly true article about Cabernet Sauvignon this week. Written by Dan Berger for the Press Democrat, it discussed the drastic change in style that Cab has undergone in California in the last 40 years -- from ageable wines that needed the time in bottle, with low alcohols and high acidities, to the large, ripe wines you see so much today.

This hit home for me because I had just been discussing Cabs with my husband and some friends. We have a tasting group here in the valley of 20-30 somethings working in the industry. In a small town like this it's a great way to socialize, but also to taste a large amount of wines blind and bounce impressions off of each other (way more technical palates than mine attend). We do pretty much everything but Pinot Noir, as that's our main diet up here in Anderson Valley. So, we were racking our brain trying to think of a new wine that we could taste in a flight at the end of this month. Cab came up.

It was then that I realized that, in the two and a half years since I've lived back in the valley, I've never had anyone open a Cabernet for me, anywhere, and I've only pulled maybe one or two out of my cellar to taste. It was a bit shocking given the fact that I used to work in Napa and so did a few of our friends here. I don't have a lot of Cab in the cellar, but I do have some. When I looked at the small stack, I also realized that I had traded out-of-valley industry people for most of them. One one or two were actually purchased by myself or my husband.

Apparently, without even noticing, I stopped drinking, buying or otherwise thinking much about Cab. Was it too many other options available now? I didn't think so, because I still enjoy a nice Syrah, and plenty of more obscure wines like Mourvedre or Tannat. I love a good Cab Franc. But no Cabernet Sauvignon. The few Cabs I've had in recent recollection were at tastings or perhaps an older bottles that I had bought from a friends' cellar.

I do truly dislike red wines with a lot of RS and new oak. I think you can have a wine with pretty high alcohol and still have it fairly well balanced (just had a 15% zin that you would never guess this past weekend), but if the alcohol shows above all else you can count me out. So that factors into the decision, but all together it's hard to say where Cab and I took different roads.

To counter this, I do remember having a few particularly good Cabs in recent memory. Last year we tasted at a wine and fashion event in the city and we were next to a new Napa Cab brand called Volta. We had one bottle, and it had good acidity, moderate alcohol, and the oak wasn't overbearing. A very impressive bottle overall, even a year later when opened at home. Their Web site is non-functioning at the moment, so sadly I think they may not be producing wines any more.

We also had an early 90's Silverado Vineyards Cab, which had fared very well in the ensuing years. Just before moving back we had the pleasure of enjoying a 1986 Caymus magnum with my parents and were duly impressed.

My conclusion from all of this is that good Cabs are out there and I'm open to finding them, but in the meantime perhaps our next tasting group will be Pinot Noir after all.


I think you make a good point about alcohol levels, it's something that my business partner and I have talked a lot about some cases 15-16% can be very balanced because of growing conditions (think Syrah or Grenache from Paso Robles) while other times the alcohol can overpower a wine at 12%.

California has definitely gone bigger as time has gone on, but I think that everyone in the industry needs to be careful of our changing palates over time. Here in Cali we tend to think everything should be big(because that is most of what we drink) while I speak to a French restaurant owner that turns his nose up at anything over 13.5% alcohol without even opening the bottle.

Would love to get some Oregon wine recommendations from you for our wine clubs.

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