WINE MONDAY: A Short and Tasty History of California Cabernet Sauvignon

WINE MONDAY: A Short and Tasty History of California Cabernet Sauvignon 281 422 David Rosengarten


Last Thursday, I was part of a panel at the NYU Food Studies Department, along with Florence Fabricant, and William Woys Weaver, exploring the history of wine in your glass in America. While researching my talk, I came upon an article I’d written a few years ago about the evolution in California of rich wines like Cabernet. Since this piece has never been published—and since it’s full of juicy quotes and info—I thought you might be interested in seeing it today, on Wine Monday!

California Cabernet Sauvignon: A Short and Tasty History

by David Rosengarten

California Cabernet Sauvignon—particularly Cabernet Sauvignon grown and made in the Napa Valley—has, in a few short decades, become one of the world’s iconic wines. But the road to that “overnight” success has been filled with starts and lurches, with crushing obstacles, with staggering triumphs; it has also been populated by many naysayers, who aver to this day that California Cabernet is no more than an ephemeral, American-style oddity.

Through it all, one has to tip one’s sombrero to the startling celerity with which California Cabernet has established its place in the wine pantheon, at least for those who love it. Never forget that the famous region/grape pairings of Europe—Bordeaux with its Cabernet Sauvignon (the putative model for California Cabernet), Burgundy with its Pinot Noir, Barolo with its Nebbiolo, the Mosel and Rheigau with Riesling—have been around since the Middle Ages, in some cases a thousand years before there even was a California.

A late start was not the only problem. California also got off to a rocky start—for wine was not a part of everyday life in California as it had been in Europe. Spanish missionaries first brought the vine to California in the 1700s, using Mexican cuttings of a grape that came to be called the Mission grape. But this was sacramental wine, principally—and not a partner to the end-of-day chow for most early Californians.

Until the boys discovered gold in them thar’ hills, that is. The great mid-nineteenth-century Gold Rush made lots of new Californians, and these hearty folks were much more serious about drinking, with and without meals. This ignited a run-up to California’s first wine boom, a few decades later…when serious entrepreneurs realized that by pumping out lots of fermented juice, a fortune could be made. Some, like former California governor Leland Stanford, also wanted to make good wine. But it wasn’t in the cards. Hugh Johnson, in his Modern Encyclopedia of Wine, calls the efforts of the 1870-1900 era “a false start, though a very promising one.”

But as the industry was foundering, something new was stirring. “At this time,” according to Dan Berger, Sonoma resident, and former wine columnist for the L.A. Times, “varietal wines (wines made from one grape only, and labeled as such) were considered to be aberrations.” The field blend was the order of the day. However, in the 1870s, an outfit called Dunfillan made a varietal Cabernet Sauvignon in the booming Sonoma Valley. Within ten years the Finnish sea captain Gustave Niebaum planted Cabernet at his new winery, Inglenook, in Rutherford. And, in 1900, the ever-influential winery Beaulieu Vineyards, in Napa Valley, started producing its own Cabernet. “Despite these efforts, which drew some attention,” Berger continues, “at the time of Prohibition, varietal wine was still considered an aberration.”

However, this much was clear: if one grape variety was going to lead California into the Varietal Promised Land, it was going to be Cabernet Sauvignon. Every wine book in the world said that the greatest reds came from Bordeaux, and every American wine geek looking to get into the business knew that Cabernet Sauvignon was the most important grape in the great areas of the Medoc and Graves (producing such wines as Chateau Latour, Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, Chateau Margaux, and Chateau Haut-Brion). Why shouldn’t California—which can ripen this grape every year—go for “the best?”

The march would have to wait, of course; Prohibition, in 1918, all but shut down the California industry. The amount of wineries dwindled from 800, pre-Prohibition, to only 140 during Prohibition—all of whom, of course, were making money from “sacramental” wine, none of it sold as “Cabernet Sauvignon.”

But after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, the varietal impulse came back with a vengeance. One influence was the esteemed writer Frank Schoonmaker, who published “American Wines” in 1941—and, looking towards Europe, postulated that Americans would begin considering California wine to be cheap if it wasn’t varietal wine. These stirring words energized a whole new generation of growers and winemakers—leading to the experimental decade of the 1950s, when the hunt was on for best Cabernet growing areas, and best techniques. The Cabernets were still rustic and quirky, but the stage was being set.

The next two decades were most important of all in the creation of the “California Cabernet Sauvignon” concept.

One has to remember that before 1967 more than half of all wine sold in the U.S. was sweet wine, usually generic Port or Sherry. But along came great California winemakers in the 1960s, with publicity-catching Cabernets, and things started to change. André Tchelistcheff, the Russian émigré, was making headlines with his BV Georges de Latour Private Reserve, one of the more elegant Cabernets made in California up to its day. Heitz Cellar, soon to become renowned for its eucalyptus-scented Martha’s Vineyard wine, produced its first Cabernet in 1961. Mayacamas, which had opened during the first boom, in 1889, produced its first Cabernet in 1962—as did the brand-new Ridge Vineyards, in 1962, when the very first legendary Ridge Montebello, principally Cabernet Sauvignon, was produced. In 1967 Robert Mondavi broke away from his family winery, and in 1968 released his first bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. Spring Mountain Vineyard, an older winery, also released its first Cabernet in 1968. And, up on Pritchard Hill, on the east side of the valley, Donn Chappellet built his winery—which Time Magazine, no less, called “a cathedral of wine”—and released his first Cabernet, the 1969, which also brought mega-attention a few years later when a magnum of it sold for a higher price than any California wine in history.

All of these ’60s guys, in their own ways, found Cabernet styles that were more sophisticated than the rustic Cabernets of old. The crush was on.

Then came the ’70s. Here’s a short roster of Cabernet-driven wineries that all opened around what Dan Berger calls “the touchstone year” of 1972:

Silver Oak and Jordan (both founded in 1972, both producers of silky, lush, drinkable, highly popular Cabernets)

Clos du Val (always a stickler for Cabernet elegance)

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars (making rich Cabernet on the Silverado Trail, an “iron fist in a velvet glove”)

Diamond Creek (which brought lots of attention to the idea of single-vineyard Cabernets)

Joseph Phelps (founded in 1973, producing the first vintage of highly structured, and soon-to-be-famous, Insignia in 1975)

Chateau Montelena (embarking on the “decade of Montelena…one terrific wine after another,” according to Robert Millman, co-founder of the intense tasting group Executive Wine Seminars in New York)

“The 1970s was an era of excitement,” Berger says, “with an even further bump from the great, great vintage of 1974.” And, speaking of bumps, in May, 1976, a group of California Cabernets took the table next to a group of top French Bordeaux wines in Paris, tasted blind by the French judges—and, staggeringly, came out with a first-place victory for the 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon (the second wine Warren Winiarski had ever made), as well as big honors for 1970s wines from Heitz, Clos du Val, and Chateau Montelena. You can only imagine the shock throughout the world—and the frenzy in California.

Some remember this decade with great fondness, Cabernet-wise. According to Berger, Cabernet-making at this time was very close to natural: “no excessive ripening (22 to 24 Brix was the standard), no excess alcohol (13.5% was considered too high), almost no new wood.”

But “the judgment of Paris” had its ill effects as well. The heads of California winemakers swelled, as did their wines. “If the richer, chunkier style of California Cabernet beat out the more elegant first-growth Bordeaux,” they wondered, “…shouldn’t we go richer still?”

And they did. And they came in droves to do it, emboldened by California’s great international victory. “The consumer,” Berger says, “was inundated in the 1980s by brand after brand of new Napa and Sonoma Cabernets.” Soon-to-be classics like the Shafer Hillside Select were inaugurated (first vintage: 1983), as well as lots of smaller-scale wines and wineries. Even the French were getting involved: Mondavi collaborated with Mouton-Rothschild on the first Opus One in 1979, and Chateau Petrus owner Christian Mouieux hung his shingle at Dominus in 1982.

The consumer, in fact, was confused—and needed a lodestar, a voice, to help select California Cabernet (among other wines). And that voice emerged in that same decade, with great significance: Robert Parker of The Wine Advocate, he of the 100-point scale, who was on his way to establishing himself as the world’s most influential wine critic. He was also on his way to changing wine all over the world, since his palate had a predilection for big, densely fruity, heavily extracted wines, with lots of tannin, alcohol and new oak. “We had, in California,” Berger recalls, “the first indications that high scores could sell wines. And because high scores went to fat wines, that changed everything.”

As if this weren’t enough basis for change, the ’80s brought another startling development: the discovery of phylloxera in northern California’s vineyards, the same root louse that had nearly wiped out the vineyards of Europe in the late 19th century. Napa Valley and other places were riding the Cabernet rocket—but the rocket was about to explode, if something wasn’t done about the vineyards.

Having no choice, many wineries pulled out their old, phylloxera-susceptible vines, and planted new rootstock that was much more resistant to phylloxera. The changes wrought by this were unexpected—and enormous. The new vines produced massive amounts of sugar easily; it soon became apparent that you could have much more concentrated wine than ever before, with higher alcohol and a greater impression of sweetness. A lot of the newly re-planted vines came with new trellising systems…bringing even more sunshine and ripening to the grapes. Plus…modern yeast strains that came into vogue at this time were better at converting sugar to alcohol. The aesthetic swung wildly away from any of the herbal “green-ness” that Cabernet often shows in Bordeaux; according to Steve Tanzer, publisher of the highly influential International Wine Cellar newsletter, “around 1990, the fear of under-ripeness induced growers to leave fruit hanging on the vine until anything green was eliminated.”

The spectacular 1990 vintage itself sealed the deal: pushed by this warm year, by their new vines, by the wineries’ need to recoup the funds spent in re-planting, and by the growing knowledge that making wine that’s bigger and bigger predictably leads to higher and higher scores, a new type of California Cabernet emerged: the expensive bottle (wineries were flirting with $100 per at this point, soon to rise), containing sweet-ish, ripe, concentrated wine, whose price was ostensibly justified by the 97, 98, 99-point scores the wines were receiving.

Throughout the 1990s, the push was towards Cabernets like these. “What became the norm,” Berger says, “were wines not for the dinner table, not for the cellar (because alcohol and pH were too high for aging)…but ‘walking-around wines,’ show-off wines, trophy wines.” This is the era in which the California cult wines became all the rage: Harlan, Screaming Eagle, Bryant Family Vineyard, Staglin, anything made by Helen or Larry Turley, with prices for a single young bottle rising absurdly close to $1000. “These were egocentric wines,” notes Bob Millman of Executive Wine Seminars—”centered around the egos of the proprietors, or the flying consultants flown in from across the globe to assist them.” The wines, according to Tanzer, became “urban indoor sporting events.” The only problem was that many of them were “dead products, still-born, with static flavors, unable to age, prematurely oxidized.”

Where is this all headed today? A better place, I’m happy to say. Lots of tasters, and a few critics, have noticed that wines like these, so revered, so expensive, are very difficult to drink. A few years back, the venerable Napa Valley wine writer and resident Bob Thompson decided to retire. Why? “If I’m going to have to taste wines on a regular basis over 14% alcohol,” he said,” I’m just gonna quit.” And 14% alcohol is low in Cult-land: many a cult Cab now spirals up to 15% alcohol, even the palate-burning level of 16% and beyond.

But the buzz these days among California winemakers is all about lower alcohol, about elegance, about finding a way to present California Cabernets to the world that have California’s signature meatiness, richness, fruit and structure—but are much more harmonious and balanced than the excessive wines of the last twenty years. Bernard Portet, the Bordelaise winemaker at Clos du Val in the 1970s and 1980s, who helped so much to put Napa Valley Cabernet on the map, says “wine comes down to balance, harmony, terroir, and the ability to go with food.” Clos du Val, in fact, has begun a push for signers of their “Declaration of Vindependence,” which begins: “When, in the course of events, it becomes necessary to stand up for what you believe in, to bravely swim against the tide, to do what you think is right even if it is contrary to the opinions of others, to not allow yourself to be swayed, bullied or bargained with…”going on, of course, to argue for a new generation of much kinder, gentler wines.

Randy Dunn argues the same. His start-up in 1979 became one of the most influential in Napa history, and for years Dunn led the drive to richer, more intense California Cabernets. No more. Now he’s a reformer. “As you veer over 13% alcohol,” he says today,” you are destroying the terroir expression of the wine.”

This is an auspicious moment in the history of California Cabernet, to be sure. And, maybe, if we’re real lucky, Bob Thompson will pick up his pen again before too many vintages go by.


Here are various vintages of Cabernets available today from some of the wineries that helped shape California Cabernet history:

1979 Clos du Val Reserve ($99)
A library wine, not easy to find…but well worth the trouble for the glimpse it affords of pre-alcohol-overload Napa Valley Cabernet. Medium garnet-brick, with touch of onionskin at edge. Chocolate-toffee nose. Full of life on the palate: Napa fruit concentration, with unusual elegance. Just a touch of tannin. Ultimately doesn’t fan out like a thirty-year Bordeaux might, but you can see why the ’70s were full of excitement in Napa Valley.

1994 Shafer Hillside Select ($412)
Well, the price tag reflects the crazy-cult values of our own time…but the wine is delicious, healthy, and a good indicator of Shafer at an in-between stage. They ramped it up further later on…but this early-90s guy is Bordeaux-like, restrained, elegant, with no sweetness up front, and a tinge of subtle, earthy flavors.

2005 Silver Oak, Napa Valley ($121)
Silver Oak shows here how they’re staying out of the cult race, continuing to produce easy-to-love Cabernet. Slightly soupy garnet. Hints of Cabernet herbs on nose, with plum, berries, a touch of burning leaves. Good flavor follow-through to a fairly soft finish.

2005 Mayacamas, Mount Veeder ($70)
Mayacamas was a cult wine before there were cult wines; the power in this modern edition is merely a continuation of their “mountain” style. But there’s elegance here too, among the tar and chocolate and herbs: medium-cushy fruit covers the moderate tannin, and the result tastes exactly like Napa Valley at its best.

2005 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard ($171)
It appears to me that Heitz, another early fave among Napa connoisseurs, responded to the cult-ization of California Cabernet with wines like this dense, ripe, almost Port-y Martha’s Vineyard. It’s not into clunky territory—but I miss the minty ripple of yore.

2005 Spring Mountain Vineyard, Elivette ($160)
Old-timer Spring Mountain released its first Elivette in 2000—a stylish, modern wine that has ample fruit for culty fruitheads. But it also has a quiet and sure elegance. The 2005 sports a violet-blackberry nose, with hints of jam. Suave and silky, the wine just glides over your palate, until hitting a moderate tannic speed bump in the finish. Much more harmonious than we might have expected from this tannin-warrior of old hell-bent on making modern adjustments. Just over the Thompson line at 14.2% alcohol.

2006 Jordan, Alexander Valley ($60)
Jordan, like Silver Oak, is hanging in there with the crowd-pleasing 1970s style. Medium purple-garnet. Lovely ripe fruit with a floral hint, and a touch of herbal Cabernet-ness. Medium-rich, juicy, soft, easy, “only” 13.5% alcohol.

2006 Dunn Vineyards, Napa Valley, Howell Mountain ($101)
A sure hand here. Lovely combo of just-ripe-enough fruit, rose, lead pencil. Slightly sweet attack, but, at 13.8% alcohol, pulls back on the palate into a masterful, beautifully balanced Bordeaux-type wine.

2007 Dominus Estate ($186)
Christian Moueix’s highly anticipated property never really took off as expected, but I admire the stick-to-it-ive-ness that follows the original vision: this is a lovely Napa wine, with Bordeaux echoes, moderately tannic but not harsh.

2007 Diamond Creek, Volcanic Hill ($185)
The 2007s from Diamond Creek are a far cry from the original, tough, very “natural” wines made here: these recent guys are all about roasty-toasty new oak barrels! I like this big-but-balanced Volcanic Hill very much, however, with its attendant spice.

2007 Chappellet, Pritchard Hill ($155)
Chappellet has a history of tough mountain wines that can evolve well—though, in recent years, many of the Chappellet Cabernet bottlings have, admirably, gotten a bit softer. Not so for their top-of-the-line Pritchard Hill bottling, first made in the cult-y year of 1997. I have high hopes for this 2007 version—but right now it is closed, brooding, packed with extract, all in an old-fashioned Chappellet way.

2007 Ridge Montebello ($143)
Can I find enough praise for Paul Draper at Ridge Vineyards? He established a winery in 1959 in an out-of-the way mountain setting, far from Napa Valley, developed a vision for his top wine, Montebello, of a hard-ass Chateau Latour style mixed with some California sex—and is still producing magnificent wines exactly like this today. He has gone from one of the big-wine boys to one of the elegant-wine boys, but it’s the world that’s changed, not Paul. His 2007 Montebello, at a very old-fashioned 13.1% alcohol, and made from 79% Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, got my highest score of this tasting. It is a medium-dark purple garnet, with a wonderful combo of fruit and oak elements on nose and palate. So graceful, so elegant, so refreshed by good acidity—but so framed by its major-league European structure. This is where wine-making becomes art.


After the Screaming Eagle/Bryant Family generation, a new group of expensive, super-concentrated Cabernets is appearing. Here are a few of the ones I’d consider drinking:

2006 Sloan, Napa Valley ($464)
Time to watch those prices rise! This cult-y wine, from an old winery that found a new purpose in the ’00s, is very dark garnet in the glass, with eucalyptus in the nose alongside the ripe fruit. Very extracted, with some bitter tannins stepping up even before the finish.

2007 Ovid, Napa Valley ($457)
Ovid’s vineyards were planted in 2000; its first commercial vintage was 2005. Dark purple, with a fairly closed nose suggesting liqueur, like kirsch. Lots of crushed, velvety red fruit on the palate, chewy, with considerable tannin and bitterness. 14.8% alcohol.

2007 Materium, Maybach Family Vineyards ($425)
Another 14.8% alcohol baby—which can, by law, actually have as much as 15.3% alcohol. Maybach kicked off in 2004, as did their cult-y Materium bottling. Very dark purple, almost to the edge. Big and bright young fruit nose: plums, cookies, a little spice. Very sweet entry, with a ton of tannin as payback. Weighty wine.


But the new wines that have me truly excited are the ones that manage to suggest the concentration of cult wines, adding the sophistication of a reach for something finer and better.

2006 Meteor Vineyard, Special Family Reserve, Napa Valley ($299)
Meteor Vineyard’s first wines, including this top-of-the-line Special Family Reserve, were from the 2005 vintage. There is lots of fruit-lover’s fruit here in the 2006, of the dark mulberry kind—but more than a suspicion that leather and smoke could show up soon. Even more important, there’s a suaveness on the palate, a gathering of elements that gives this 14.5% alcohol wine special distinction and drinkability. A great example of the up-and-coming Napa area called Coombsville, which was once thought to be too cool for Cabernet.

2006 Quill, Napa Valley, Howell Mountain ($81)
This is the first vintage produced by Quill, which also makes a cult-like Diamond Mountain bottling; personally, I prefer the greater elegance and complexity of the Howell Mountain bottling. Both wines attain 15% alcohol, but the inferno is well-concealed.revena-vineyards-2007

2007 Revana Family Vineyard, St. Helena ($148)
This is the baby of Heidi Peterson Barrett, who, with a famous father, and a famous husband, and a famous career herself, has Napa Valley Cabernet coursing through her veins. The first Cab from Revana was in the cult year of 2001—but subsequent bottlings have shown uncommon post-cult grace. Weighing in at 14.8% alcohol, the 2007 has a complex but subtle berry-plum nose—plus, lots of fruit, some wood, medium body, good acid, a silky feel, and real polish.

2007 Morlet Passionément ($234)
This 2006-founded winery veers between cult-y style monsters, and more graceful offerings. The berry-scented Passionément is of the latter kind, the most elegant of Morlet’s current offerings.

2007 Favia, Napa Valley ($133)
Andy Erickson, revered winemaker at cult-de-la-cult Screaming Eagle, has begun his own label, releasing his first Favia Cabernet in the 2005 vintage. To me, the 2007 Favia—with some Coombsville fruit—is one of the best of the post-cult wines: round, rich, easy to drink, with wonderful floral, melony, herbal notes. It’s not lighter than your standard cult wine—but it is smoother, more graceful, certainly less tannic.

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