Wine Talk

Snooth User: dmcker

What's wrong with California Cabs?

Posted by dmcker, Jan 29, 2010.

Here's an article I just ran across that points to an issue that has been looming larger for several years now:
http://www.napavalleyregister.com/l...

The sentiments in it have been expressed several times on these boards. GregDP has moaned recently on the subject and I've talked about how I prefer wines that are 'transparent', express what the actual earth and grapes it comes from have to say, and that are manipulated only in ways that allow that expression in its fullest, not to manufacture some overly alcoholic fruit bomb that has the balance and finesse of a sumo wrestler trying ballet.

The article is well worth reading in its entirety, but here're a few short paragraphs from its middle that hopefully will stimulate some good discussion here:
"What we have today, mainly at the $30-and-above price point, are wines that are the near antithesis of this: high in alcohol (almost nothing of supposed quality is less than 14.5 percent; some are 16 percent), very low acid levels (which almost guarantees that the wines won’t age well), and actual residual sugar in many.

"This is wine that some reviewers say smells like chocolate, mocha, smoke and roasted nuts. These aren’t aromas derived from fruit; they come from the smoked oak barrels in which the wines were aged, clearly an idea that was never at play decades ago.

"The most telling — and damaging — aspect of today’s cabernets is what I hear from wine makers, and always off the record. The phrasing may differ, but the sentiment is the same: “I may make cabernet, but I don’t drink it any more.”



So what do people here think on this subject?

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Replies

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Reply by dmcker, Jan 29, 2010.

Some people say California makes the best wines in the world. Others say they make the worst. My view is that they range all the way across, sometimes with some of the world's best, others with some fairly nasty stuff. I've said just above and in other threads that I prefer a more finessed, pre-Parker 'French' style of winemaking, and don't like monstrous fruitbombs. A friend of mine called it "making wines of terroir, not just varietal bombs!" Leaving aside love/hate issues regarding the use of that mysterious term regarding locality, I think his point is clear.

I get particularly annoyed with those that add insult to injury by being way overpriced--not just compared to when I started drinking California wines in a big way, back in the late '70s and early '80s, but even compared to when the market rise had begun to accelerate in the mid-'90s. Anyway, leaving aside the additional issue of pricing trends, to me the question is can California deliver a balanced wine with vineyard driven characteristics? I think some winemakers can, have done and are currently doing so, and have hoped that this will become a stronger trend into the future. But having had several ridiculous bottles since the end of the year, I'm tending to fret once again with concern.

On the positive side, here’s a partial listing of California producers that appear to be getting it right, to greater rather than lesser extent, anyway, from what I've tasted over the last year or two. I'm undoubtedly missing several because I am currently living in Tokyo and don't have access to anywhere near as many wines and wineries as I would if I were living back home in California. With some 3,000 wineries in California alone (and 1,000 in the Pacific Northwest these days), it would be extremely hard to get on top of things even if I was back in CA. Also this is off the top of my head, so I'm sure I'll remember others the second after I post this. Nonetheless, I'll get the ball rolling by putting up a list. Then, perhaps others will respond as to whether they agree or not, and suggest other names.

To start with:
--Copain
--Ceritas
--Peay
--Hirsch
--Salinia
--Anthill Farms
--Mt. Eden
--Parr
--Wind Gap
--Arnot-Roberts
--Drew
--Qupe
--Natural Process Alliance

One disadvantage to the list is that I've only had a few bottles (sometimes only one or two) across very few vintages. Nothing that's been in my cellar for 15-35 years and that I'm still happy with. That's a list for another thread. And as a final disclaimer, I'll say that I haven't necessarily gone into paroxysms of ecstasy from every sip of their wines, but I definitely like what they're trying to do...

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Reply by dmcker, Jan 29, 2010.

Finally, (and I'll go away for awhile and stop this post-hemorrhaging at least until others respond ;-) ), in my dreams of a better world I'd hope that a larger clamor against the monstrosities California now sells for ridiculous prices might lead to a similar backlash against the 'Californication' of reds in other regions, as well. Some of the nasty-bombs I've been unhappy with over the past couple of months have been from Rioja, Ribera del Duero and Priorat, and not just Napa or Paso Robles....

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Reply by zufrieden, Jan 29, 2010.

Since the fall of the US dollar (referencing your comment on over-priced, ridiculous bottles), I have been slowly getting back into the rich, deep and succulent reds of California. However, I sympathize with the notion of sheer astronomical depth of selection as an impediment to balanced and comprehensive coverage of California wines. I'm trying - but failing, most likely - to do any justice at all to this great wine growing region.

I think, generally (and this is pure rumination on my part) that California is still finding its way in the wine world. While not a Parker-basher, I don't think that erstwhile lawyer did much to improve finesse in your home state. I must confess that it will be a little while before I come back up to speed on the best of California, but I hope that what you see in your sub-sample of producers pans out in terms of a trend in style. Alas, we have great difficulty obtaining any of the wineries on your list at home.

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Reply by napagirl68, Jan 29, 2010.

I am 3rd gen Cali girl, LOVE cali wines, but I am in total agreement with you.

It is partly the warm climate... high brix. Partially the choice of the winemakers when to pick those grapes. The bottom line, according to more than SEVERAL wine shop owners I know... the BULK of wine drinkers that purchase wine drink it the same day.. they do not know or age wine. So Cali wines get a boot up cause of the climate.. they can get high alcohol easily (some actually send out to reduce alcohol for tax purposes). I, personally, call it the "sweet tooth". They are "addicting" people to the high alcohol, high sugar wines like fast food addict people to trans fats and high fructose corn syrup!

To be fair... I love CA wines! There are many that do not pick late, craft good wine, etc. But unless you live here, you just don't get to taste them! (not exported).

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Reply by dmcker, Jan 29, 2010.

Hey, napagirl, 5th generation Californian myself, though I somehow saw fit to keep going west after that... ;-) And I tend to agree with you about how some wineries seem to be using McDonald's-pioneered techniques to garner repeat business.

Anyway, what wineries do you think are doing the best job making more vineyard-true wines these days?

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Reply by dmcker, Jan 30, 2010.

To further clarify my list, it was about winemakers who I think currently 'get it'. Virtually none of them are making any cabernet sauvignon, but are instead focusing on pinot noir, syrah, chardonnay and a few other varietals. I think that says a lot about where huge chunks of current creativity is in California, and that very few people in the monster-cab-manufacturing industry are paying anywhere near enough attention to vineyard-driven winemaking.

I have had cabs from Mt. Eden and Arnot-Roberts, though, and they are very good. And the Natural Process Alliance is more a thinktankish consciousness raising cooperative with practical working focus. I'm not aware of any wines the Alliance itself actually makes.

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Reply by Girl Drink Drunk, Jan 30, 2010.

Mt. Eden cab is restained and focused. It's the best cab coming out of CA, in my opinion, and one of the very, very few I'll drink.

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Reply by zufrieden, Jan 30, 2010.

That's quite a loaded remark - regarding, California Cabs, I mean. Not that I don't sometimes feel more than just selective myself in terms of California Cabs, but you opened a can of worms here. If Mt. Eden is one of the "...very, very few," could you elaborate why - maybe indicating what styles you're looking for etcetera?

Just curious.

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Reply by dmcker, Jan 30, 2010.

Well eat my words about the NPA! Looks like the people who were talking to me about them weren't passing on the good stuff to drink...
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/artic...

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Reply by napagirl68, Jan 30, 2010.

Well, dmcker.. I can name the ones I like... but they may be not be up to your tastings... I am still experimenting with the french bordeaux's.. have liked a lot of them, but think that I may have a california palate that needs some advancing:

The wineries I like that make some great cabs in Napa (I am love stags leap district, btw):

Robert Sinskey vineyards (sustainable and I think organic cert as well - fact ck.. maybe wrong on the organic cert)

Casa Nuestra Vineyards- also organic and sustainable- not sure of certs.

Also love the 2001 ZD estate Cab.. not sure of their status with being organic...

I had a chalk hill vineyards cab the other day that was interesting (russian river).. have to ck vintage. Was not a sugar bomb at all, and could have stood to lie down for awhile, but good potential.

Most of the other areas like San luis obispo, livermore, lodi, amador, etc, that do cabs.. I cannot stand. They don't even taste like cabs!

I am out of town, but will ponder more so... Anyone taste recent vintages of Chateau Montelena Cabs? I have liked, in the past, one of their burgundian style chards....

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Reply by dmcker, Jan 30, 2010.

Seems like markets in the US and especially overseas are also voting with their feet regarding California wines. Apparently wine sales from there are down substantially for the first time in decades.
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/blogs...

The article's well worth reading in its entirety, but here're a couple of pertinent quotes:
--"The biggest shift, which he and other analysts have repeatedly described in the past year, is the near-complete stagnation of wine priced more than $20."
--'"There are purists who say you can never discount your brand," Fredrikson said. "That's not realistic in this market."'

I am of course curious about general consciousness concerning how to make Cabs that increasingly enlightened consumers will want, as per the title of this thread. But I also am wondering how the seachange in consumer (un)willingness to shell out the big bucks for wines might facilitate a change in view at the big-name Californian wineries. If people aren't buying California wines overseas, that signifies, amongst other things, a drop in respect for California cabs, so hopefully those winemakers will take note...


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Reply by Girl Drink Drunk, Jan 30, 2010.

Zuf, I explained exactly why I like Mt. Eden cab in my above post., but if you'd like an elaboration:

A loaded remark I may have made, but CA cab just isn't my bag, in general. I need more restraint, more minerality, more elegance, more balance, more acid, more finesse, less alcohol.

I've been known to enjoy Heitz MV and Ridge MB also. Maybe some Robert Craig...

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Reply by queendom, Jan 31, 2010.

Just opened some Cali. cab. I was really not that impressed. I was looking for performing arts on my palate. Instead, I got a PTA meeting...if you get my point. But I am not shooting down Cali cabs.

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Reply by penguinoid, Jan 31, 2010.

Seems a pity -- I've heard so many good things about Californian Cabernet Sauvignons that it's definitely a wine style I'd been wanting to try. I read recently that Stag's Leap Wine Cellars was bought out by another company a while ago -- how good have their Cabernet Sauvignons been recently?

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Reply by amour, Jan 31, 2010.

How about SILVER OAK ?.....an Alexander Valley OH! so smoothhhhhhh.....classic...

Anyone tried MANTRA ?

Or anthing from TRUCHARD?
(as was said before......this is yet another that
requires aging.) 2006 Carneros Napa Valley CS.

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Reply by dmcker, Jan 31, 2010.

Amour, Silver Oak is from Napa, not very far from Stag's Leap. It's a pretty big bruiser, and has helped over the past couple of decades contribute to the trend towards ever larger cabs. Though I have to admit I've had many in my cellar and drunk even more since the '80s....

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Reply by amour, Jan 31, 2010.

dmcker, would you say that Silver Oak CS is worth $70
which I saw quoted in USA?

While I do not argue price......I have to say ...I could do something WINE-WISE
far better with$70. .......even add $100. and buy....YOU KNOW WHAT WINES I MOST ADORE!!!

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Reply by brianburnett, Jan 31, 2010.

Silver Oak actually has Alexander and Napa Valley offerings, and both are pretty massive. I would agree that Heitz makes some pretty good wines, but it's been a year or so since I've had one. I think for a reasonable price ($32), Freemark Abbey's 05 is a nice drinking Cab. Not overly sweet or overly oaked in my opinion. I'm also a very big fan of decanting which I think helps remove some of the excessive oak that shows in some bigger CA wines.

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Reply by dirkwdeyoung, Jan 31, 2010.

Just following, I checked prices on Mt. Eden for example and found a range between $40-80.00 offering. It would be hard for me to believe that I cannot do better with my $40.00 on a very good French Bordeaux wine. I just don't understand this pricing for California wines. Only that new wine customers don't get it regarding the restraint which is compulsory for French wine producers. If they produced something like these high powered, to be consumed today Cali wines, they would be laughed out by their neighbors. Although I have seen some of them producing similar wines for export meant to appeal the the young American palate. It is not that they are not fun to drink, but for that kind of money, I am expecting wine that I can put into my cellar for 10-15 years, which I cannot do with these wines, I don't think. In the beginning I thought California wines were targeting consumers, who were transitioning from drinking cocktails, thus they like to have a definite alchohol taste and a certain one dimensional other taste. Now it is more complex, but that seems to me to still be the heritage. I don't agree that there is anything snob about the French wine makers goals, they are just very tradition bound about what constitutes a good wine result and have no reason to change anything, they also can let nature do its work, they don't have to manipulate anything much to get the results they want. However, I can't help noticing that my close to 30 year old daughter finds those classic wines a little boring. Maybe I am passe.

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Reply by brianburnett, Jan 31, 2010.

I agree that there's nothing wrong w/ the French being tradition bound and having goals and priorities for their wines, but I don't feel that California wines should have to adhere to those same traditions. I also understand and appreciate the desire to have wines that can improve w/ age. I have only recently begun storing wines w/ do not open til dates in mind, and it excites me and makes me nervous at the same time. I think there is a place for wines that should be consumed w/in 2-5 years, but it would definitely be nice if the prices reflected that. One main reason; everyone doesn't have a cellar (I am limited to a modest sized wine cooler). I use it partially for aging some special wines and partially to have several different varietals/regions represented to pair w/ meals.

Going back to Cali cab for a minute, I very much enjoy one w/ a nicely marbled ribeye off the grill (or smoked sirloin tip). I like some oak and substance to match up w/ the meat. I think a delicate and complex bordeaux gets lost in this situation. If we're talking about lamb (like in another thread), out w/ Cali cab and bring on the Bordeaux and Rhone.

As an unenlightened youth w/ limited exposure to French wines, I have enjoyed the various types I've tried (Bordeaux, Burgandy, Chateauneuf & other Rhones). Whether it's in this thread or another, I would love to hear about Bordeaux and Burgandies especially under $50 that seem to be the comparison point for this thread. When I walk down the aisles, I feel overwhelmed at the quantity and pricetags associated w/ many French wines (similar to their Napa counterparts).

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