The New California Cabernet

Now is the time to venture outside of Napa for Cabs of style, structure and value.


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It happens. Ask any retailer or sommelier. Maybe not often, but it happens: even when a Cabernet Sauvignon bottle clearly states that it comes from another appellation—Sonoma County, for example— some consumers (not readers of this magazine, of course) will look at the label and ask, “What part of Napa Valley is Sonoma in?”“There are still people who think there’s no Cabernet in California save for Napa,” says Kendall-Jackson’s bemused winemaster, Randy Ullom.
 

California’s output of Cabernet Sauvignon is vast. Nearly a third of a million tons were crushed in 2008, more than any variety besides Chardonnay and Zinfandel. To those of us lucky enough to taste widely in California, it’s clear that Napa has some competition out there, and it bears mentioning: great Cab from beyond Napa is almost guaranteed to cost less than your average 90 point-plus cult wine.
 

From Paso Robles in the south, through the Santa Cruz Mountains and on up into Sonoma’s warmer appellations, Cabernet Sauvignons of style and appeal are emerging. They show different qualities from Napa, of course, but what’s wrong with that? Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is pretty much as good as it can get—at least, it’s hard to see where it goes from here. But Cabs from other areas offer proof that, as we slide into this second decade of the 21st century, Napa’s stranglehold on Cabernet is loosening.
 

Here are some of the top performers over recent vintages. Note: The full article on California Cabernet beyond Napa is available in the  April 2010 issue of our magazine.

Knights Valley
 

Little known, but an emerging star
Even wine-savvy consumers would be hard-pressed to say much about Knights Va l l e y. Little-traveled, wi th f ew tourist amenities, it was put on the map as a wine district by the Peter Michael Winery, whose coveted wines most people will never see.

Easier to find, and just as good, are certain Kendall-Jackson bottlings, such as their 2007 Highlands Estates Trace Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon (94 points, $70). This is a wine that scores highly every vintage. “The vineyard is halfway between Alexander Valley and Napa Valley, with elevations up to 1,000 feet,” Ullom says, showing once again that Cabernet loves a hillside. Ullom describes the climate. “It can be warm up there, but we lose three degrees with every 1,000 feet of elevation, and when fog hits, which it can from three directions, it cools it quite down.” His description of the tannins is a good one: “Big, but juicy and round, versus your power, super- linear Veeder tannins.” Other fine Knights Valley Cabernet producers: Knights Bridge, Ehret

Alexander Valley

Leading the way
Of all the sources for great Cabernet Sauvignon beyond Napa Valley, this quintessential Sonoma valley is the main contender. Its Cabernets used to have a reputation for herbaceousness, but that dates to a period when most of the vines were grown on the fertile valley floor. Nowadays, the action is up in the hills.

There are so many good Cabernets coming from the regions between Geyserville and Healdsburg that it’s hard to believe there was little or no Cabernet in Alexander Valley before the 1970s. The thrust of the last 10 or 15 years has been to move Cabernet into the hills, an expensive proposition given the infrastructure (roads, irrigation, terracing) that needs to be developed. Rick Sayre, the longtime winemaker at Rodney Strong, warns that valley floor Cabernet can have “that Alexander Valley green bean, bell pepper [aroma] if you don ’ t  battl e v i g o r. . . but  it ’s easier to manage [a vine] up a hill.” Rodney Strong’s 2006 Rockaway Cabernet Sauvignon (96 points, $75) is quintessential Alexander Valley hillside Cab. It’s part of the golden chain of vineyards on the western slope of the Mayacamas Mountains; a near neighbor  is Ferrari-Carano, whose “Prevail” Cabernets show similar intensity. Other fine Alexander Valley Cabernet  produces: Lancaster, Stonestreet, Hanna, Goldschmidt, Verite, Simi, Robert Young, Forefathers, Blue Rock, Geyser Peak, Kendall-Jackson, Hawkes, Stuhmuller

Dry Creek Valley
 

Not just zinfandel and sauvignon blanc anymore
This warm to hot valley is isolated within a box canyon of coastal mountains, but receives cool influences up from the Russian River Valley and, less obviously, down from Lake Sonoma. Dry Creek Cabernets long possessed a certain rusticity, as if the briary, brambly earthiness of the valley’s mainstay, Zinfandel, were transferred to Cabernet.
 

These days, fine Cabs are emerging that are more rewarding. Again, elevation plays a key role. Gallo Family Vineyards 2006 Frei Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon (92 points, $35) comes from grapes grown between 350–450 feet in the valley’s eastern hills; on the other side is Alexander Valley. “Frei Ranch is cooler than Alexander Valley,” notes winemaker Gina Gallo, pointing to Lake Sonoma as a sort of air conditioner. The vineyard’s soils are stony and rocky, “as opposed to the deeper soils on the valley floor, where you get softer, riper wines,” Gallo observes. The best Dry Creek Cabs are from the hills, either on the east side or the west. They offer a tighter, crisper, drier structure than a typical Napa Cab. Other fine Dry Creek Valley Cabernet producers: Dry Creek Vineyard, Rafanelli, Rued, Fritz

And Don’t Forget. . .
 

There are additional appellations in California that good Cabernet can come from: Carmel Valley (Galante), Chalk Hill (Chalk Hill Winery), Livermore Valley (the very fine Steven Kent brand), Sonoma Mountain (Laurel Glen and Peters Family, which is on a roll), Sonoma Valley (B.R. Cohn, Sbragia, Louis M. Martini, Kunde) and Carneros (Clos Pegase, Truchard). Sonoma County as a whole offers very good blended Cabs from Chateau St. Jean, Arrowood, Schug and Kenwood. And for a multicounty appellation, there’s nothing to match the stunning power of Pride Mountain’s Napa-Sonoma blends.
 

A word about eastern Santa Barbara County. Much has been written about the new Happy Canyon AVA and the possibilities there for distinguished Cabernet. A few wineries, notably Star Lane, are pushing the envelope. But years remain to see if the effort has legs.
 

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