An Overlooked, Historic California Grape Gets a New Life

Left: Cabernet Pfeffer on picking picking/processing day / Right: old vine Cabernet Pfeffer
Left: Cabernet Pfeffer on picking and processing day / Right: old vine Cabernet Pfeffer / Photos by Ryan Stirm

For many wine lovers, California is best known for Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Pinot Noir. Look a little deeper into the state’s past, though, and you’ll find some lesser-known grapes that have significantly contributed to California’s wine history. These include Mission, also known as País, Colombard and the especially elusive Cabernet Pfeffer, which have often been overlooked by students of California wine history.

However, some modern winemakers and vineyard owners are on a mission to change all that. Armed with historical plantings and passions, these producers are working with Cabernet Pfeffer to bring California’s past into the future.

Where did Cabernet Pfeffer Come From?

Fresh unprocessed Cabernet Pfeffer at Stirm Wines
Fresh unprocessed Cabernet Pfeffer at Stirm Wines / Photo courtesy of Ryan Stirm Wines

Despite their similar names, Cabernet Pfeffer doesn’t taste like Cabernet Sauvignon.

Spicy and peppery in flavor with light tannin, the grape holds more of a resemblance to Syrah or Nebbiolo.

“Admittedly, I am far from an expert on this unusual and rare varietal,” says Tracey Brandt, winemaker at Donkey & Goat. “The little I knew was quite enticing, though. I generally strive to make wines with a tension and balance on attributes, and Cabernet Pfeffer does not disappoint in that regard.”

While its genealogy hasn’t yet been confirmed, some grape DNA enthusiasts believe Cabernet Pfeffer could be the United States’ name for the Mancin or Mourtaou grape, which hails from the Bordeaux region. Others have argued that its lineage comes from Gros Verdot or Moristel, a Spanish grape.

Donkey and Goat Cabernet Pfeffer
Donkey and Goat Cabernet Pfeffer / Photo Courtesy of Donkey and Goat

The jury is out on whether this grape was brought to the United States or bred in California. “Pfeffer” means “pepper” in German. But it’s also the last name of William Pfeffer, a Californian who brought the mysterious grape over to California in the 1870s. Pfeffer owned a plant nursery in the city of Saratoga in the Santa Cruz Mountains, just down the hill from where Mount Eden Vineyards and Peter Martin Ray Winery are located today. Pfeffer dealt in grape cuttings—an elusive business venture at the time, as California’s growing immigrant population found its footing in the new wine country.

A Little Acreage Goes a Long Way

Siletto harvest and press of Pfeffer grapes
Siletto harvest and press of Pfeffer grapes / Courtesy of Siletto

California has the largest population of Cabernet Pfeffer plantings in the world—a whopping 10 acres. The grape had a short spout of popularity in the late 1800s, but today, just 10 acres exist in California, and they’re planted mostly to historical grape revivalists like Ken Volk of Enz Vineyard, whose vines date back to the year 1886, Ron Siletto of Siletto Family Vineyards and Pat Wirz of Wirz Vineyard.

Winemakers like Ryan Stirm of Stirm Wine Co., Chris Brockway of Broc Cellars and James Harder of Tank Garage Winery have championed the grape as a piece of California history.

“My father, Ron Siletto, planted an acre and a half of Cabernet Pfeffer in the ’90s, after they sold Almaden,” says John Siletto, owner of Siletto Family Vineyards in California’s San Benito County. “Now I have five acres, and I’m going to plant two and a half more. This variety has found a home in San Benito County.”

Chris Broc of Broc Cellars and Sogi Cabernet Pfeffer
Chris Brockway of Broc Cellars and Sogi Cabernet Pfeffer / Photos by Annie Martin and Starr Gazers

Today, Stirm, locally known as “Dr. Pfeffer,” makes the largest amount of Cabernet Pfeffer in the world at just over 600 cases per year. He hopes to bring the grape back to its former acreage, which sat at about 25 acres in its heyday in the 1850s.

“There were a lot of old plantings back in the Cienega Valley, dating back all the way to the 1850s, 1849, even, the year California became a state (1850),” says Stirm. “A lot of it was ripped out over time.”

Cabernet Pfeffer’s modern-day footprint is tiny in and beyond California, Stirm says, but the goal of growing the acreage is not out of reach.

Green Cabernet Pfeffer grapes is at Siletto Vineyard
Green Cabernet Pfeffer grapes at Siletto Vineyard / Photo by Ryan Stirm

“Cabernet Pfeffer used to be a novelty, but now there’s much more interest in the grape as excitement around natural wines and varieties like Trousseau and Gamay is growing,” says Siletto.

“There’s five acres of it left at an old site that I started working with this year” says Strim. “ There is just under an acre at the other old vineyard down the road. There’s an acre of it at Pat Wirz’s vineyard, and then for the new plantings, there’s another four acres tops, I would say, and that’s all of it that I know of in the whole world.”

A New Era For Cabernet Pfeffer

Tracy Rogers Brandt and John Siletto of Donkey & Goat
Tracy Rogers Brandt and John Siletto of Donkey & Goat / Photo courtesy of Courtesy Donkey & Goat

Despite its lack of widespread name recognition or current acreage, some Californian winemakers predict a bright future for Cabernet Pfeffer. As consumer tastes change and winemakers explore different varieties to help them stand out from the crowd, historical grapes like Cabernet Pfeffer could make a comeback.

“I think it’s still a niche thing for sure, but there’s a huge demand for the grapes,” Siletto says. “I think there probably will be acreage increases of it, especially in San Benito County. I don’t know if it will make the jump to other regions, but I know there’s quite a few people in Sonoma interested in it.”

Climate Change, Fermented Blueberries and Wine’s Existential Quandary

Siletto sees the grape’s star rising, too.

“When you think of Gamay or Trousseau or some of these other interesting lighter reds, they have nothing on Cabernet Pfeffer,” he says. “It should be right up there with them.”

Published on February 7, 2022
Topics: Wine and Ratings