California Cabernet Beyond the Stereotypes

Credit…Pepe Serra

California cabernet sauvignon occupies a paradoxical position in the United States. It’s the country’s signature wine, yet it holds little interest among important groups of wine drinkers. Younger people in particular seem to ignore it.

Cabernet is not alone in this regard. California chardonnay, too, is both popular and polarizing. Bordeaux is another wine that in recent years has divided its audience.

We try not to be moved by fashion here at Wine School. But we recognize and honor history. Cabernet sauvignon, when planted in the right places and farmed and vinified with care and humility, has produced wines that have been considered among the greatest, not just for decades but for centuries.

If people say they are repelled by California cabernet, or by chardonnay or Bordeaux, we take them at their word. But we also feel compelled to understand the reason for the distaste.

Is it the result of years of experience with many wines? Or perhaps it was one or two disappointing bottles? Maybe it was something they read.

That was the case when many Americans turned on Bordeaux a decade or so ago. A lot of young wine professionals and consumers said they had no interest in a wine that had served as the formative experience for generations of wine drinkers. How could this be?

It turned out that quite a few people who said they choose not to drink Bordeaux in fact had little experience with it at all. What they did not like were its connotations.

They associated Bordeaux with older, wealthier people and status seekers, with powerful critics like Robert M. Parker Jr., who liked an extravagant, ultraripe style, and with branded luxury goods that they identified as aspirational rather than authentic.

Yet focusing on what a wine signifies obscures the reality of the wines and the place. Many Bordeaux wines are superexpensive, but not all of them. Many are owned by conglomerates who market the wines as luxury wines, but a good number are produced by small, serious farmers. Some producers indeed changed their style to appeal to Mr. Parker, but many never did.

The point is that no wine, no place and no grape are ever just one thing. Saying, “I don’t like Bordeaux,” “I don’t like chardonnay” or “I don’t like riesling” is generally an imprecise overgeneralization. In other words, it’s often a lazy opinion.

The anti-Bordeaux backlash, by the way, has waned in recent years as the Bordeaux region realized it had an image problem in the United States and began a targeted marketing campaign in response. Mr. Parker’s influence ebbed before he finally retired in 2019, and some Bordeaux producers who went too far in pursuit of opulence and high scores from critics have more recently struck a better balance.

I mention this all as context for discussing cabernet from California. Over the last month, we have been drinking California cabernet made outside Napa Valley, the center of American cabernet production and, in a sense, the Bordeaux of California.

Napa has been subject to the same sort of criticism as Bordeaux. And since Napa is so identified with cabernet sauvignon, many people extrapolate their criticism to Californian cabernet in general.

One reader, Peter of Philadelphia, wrote, “I was hoping that this Wine School lesson would change my generally negative opinion of California cabernets.” Another, Zac of Brooklyn, said: “I’m disappointed every time I have a California cabernet. They are just one-dimensional.”

While Peter and Zac represent what a significant number of wine drinkers believe, not that many readers seemed as predisposed to negativity. Bob Brown of Ventura County, Calif., was more typical in saying, “Long live affordable, elegant, subtle California cabernet.”

Even though I have been focusing on those who feel negatively about California cabernets, it’s worth remembering that it’s generally highly popular. People willingly pay a lot of money for a bottle, especially for Napa cabernet.

At the same time, California cabernet can be legitimately criticized. Too much is made, often from areas not suited to cabernet, for one thing. A lot of cabernet, both inexpensive and ultraexpensive, is overly manipulated, for another.

As I do each month, I suggested three bottles for people to drink over the course of the month. They were: Camp Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon 2019, Domaine Eden Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 and Broadside Paso Robles Margarita Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2018.

The idea was to try three cabernets from three different places outside Napa Valley. The three also happen to be quite different in style, which I hoped might signal that speaking overly generally about California cabernet is often foolish.

The variations in the wines are partly a matter of place and vintage, but not entirely. The biggest factor is the intent of the winemaker. Every decision — methods of farming, harvest date, winemaking particulars — is made in hopes of achieving a particular goal determined by the producer.

It’s worth mentioning, too, that cabernet sauvignons in California are often blends of grapes. The rule in the state is that a wine must be at least 75 percent cabernet if the wine is to be labeled varietally. Each of the featured bottles is a blend.

The Camp was 86 percent cabernet, 12 percent merlot and 2 percent malbec. It was ripe and juicy, easy to drink despite its youth, with a cedary aroma and flavors of herbs and red fruits. It was not lean, but it was well toned, without a lot of the fleshiness or sweet fruit often associated with Napa cabernets.

Overall, I found it uncomplicated yet savory and refreshing, a good drink of wine. It was $22.

The Domaine Eden, 82 percent cabernet, 11 percent merlot and the rest cabernet franc, petit verdot and malbec, was more than twice as expensive at $51, which discouraged many people from trying it. It was terrific.

It was more voluminous than the Camp, and more complex, with savory floral, herbal and fruit flavors, and a touch of oak. It had greater depth and dimension, and it will age and evolve. It’s young and should lose some of the baby fat over time.

The Broadside, 77 percent cabernet and 23 percent merlot, was the least expensive at $18 and the most perplexing. I’ve been a big fan of the Margarita Vineyard cabernets for the last 10 years, but I didn’t care much for the 2018. It had dark fruit flavors, a touch of spice and a creamy, vanilla note that I found off-putting. It also lacked the drive and energy of the other two bottles, and seemed a bit hot at 14.5 percent alcohol.

Just to be sure, I opened a second bottle of the Broadside, but it was identical to the first.

What of Peter of Philadelphia? He tried the Camp and found it pleasant but inoffensive and maybe boring. He also tried another cabernet, a Foxglove also from Paso Robles, which he found overwhelming.

“Unfortunately, for now, preconceived notions confirmed,” he said.

I don’t know what Peter’s previous experiences have been like. But clearly, I enjoyed the Camp far more than he did.

George Erdle of Charlotte, N.C., said his tasting group felt the Camp was a great wine for the price but particularly liked the Domaine Eden. Others enjoyed the Camp as well. Jerry Pendzick of Jacksonville, Ore., called it “delightfully subtle.”

Shweta of Michigan paid $60 for the Domaine Eden, found it spectacular and wondered whether less expensive bottles would be as good.

It’s an excellent question, without a simple answer. But price is important. Let’s leave the Broadside aside for the moment and compare the Camp and the Domaine Eden.

The intent of Camp’s producers, they say, is to make “table ready, food friendly, approachable and affordable wines. They succeed on all four counts.

Domaine Eden is the second, less expensive label of Mount Eden Vineyards, one of the great producers in California. Domaine Eden is intended to be a wine of place, expressing the spirit of Santa Cruz Mountains cabernet in general, unlike its sibling, Mount Eden, which more narrowly expresses the estate vineyard.

Jeffrey Patterson, the winemaker and proprietor of both labels, with his wife, Ellie, once told me that the Mount Eden cabernet was like an aria and the Domaine Eden like a chorus.

It, too, succeeds admirably. But to make such a wine, especially from a place like the Santa Cruz Mountains, is more costly than producing a wine like the Camp. So, it’s not entirely fair to expect a similar wine in the $20 range.

A better comparison might be to a good cabernet from Napa Valley, where prices for a similar bottle might start at $100. From that point of view, Domaine Eden is a pretty good value.

The larger point remains: Whether you are talking about grapes, places or bottles, gross generalizations are a disservice.

In wine and politics and too many other areas, broad, simple messages seem irresistible. They support dogma and perhaps make life seem easier. But by ignoring complexities and nuance, they diminish understanding. That’s the worst possible outcome.

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