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Nice to see the Cabernet bashers come around



I’m glad I never joined the bandwagon of protest against California (mainly Napa Valley) Cabernet Sauvignon. It garnered a lot of naysayers, but, as Jancis (what, you need a last name?) blogged the other day, even the naysayers are changing their minds. “There has recently been a resurgence of interest in these wines on New York restaurant wine lists,” she writes, an especially notable statement considering that it was New York somms and critics who led the charge against Cabernet.

They claimed Napa Cabs were too much of everything: too ripe, too oaky, too alcoholic, too extracted. I never could quite understand what they were talking about. Of course there were Cabs that were unbalanced, but there also were hundreds of fabulous Cabernets that weren’t—that were utterly delicious and dazzling. And it’s not as if everything from Bordeaux is fabulous. I wondered if perhaps the New York critics actually had the tasting experience with Cabernet to know what they were talking about. I wondered, too, if they went into their tastings with an inherent bias. When you’re tasting wine, you find what you’re looking for.

It’s become a repeating meme in the last year or two for writers to claim that Napa Valley Cabernet is being made differently than it was even four or five years ago. Jancis herself writes of the “increasing restraint” she finds in the wines. Is there evidence of such restraint, beyond the assertions of critics? Are alcohol levels in Cabernet lower than they used to be? I haven’t seen any proof. On the other hand, winemakers have definitely been feeling the backlash from the anti-Cabernet crowd and, in many cases, took corrective action to lower alcohol levels, but how have they done so? There are known methods for reducing alcohol, adding water, spinning cones and reverse osmosis among them. But winemakers are reticent about talking about these practices, because wine writers—usually the same ones that complain about high alcohol—then criticize them for “manipulating” wine.

Well, I always knew that the anti-Cab crowd would run out of steam sooner or later, and I guess they now have. There is a bandwagon effect in wine criticism whereby somebody—usually a thought leader—coins a critique, which then is borrowed by everyone else, lemming-like down the line, and repeated endlessly; that, indeed, is the definition of “meme.” Yet memes have lifecycles. “Successful memes remain and spread, whereas unfit ones stall and are forgotten.” The bashing of California Cabernet has proven to be an “unfit” meme and therefore it is quickly being forgotten. The fortieth anniversary of the Judgment of Paris—which is actually what prompted Jancis’s July 9th post—has been extensively covered in the media, with California Cabernet receiving near-unanimous praise. As Jancis notes, just about every time the Judgment is replicated, Napa Cabernet beats Bordeaux. So we need a new meme here: California Cab really is as good as Bordeaux (albeit different), by almost every objective standard (and you can’t get more objective than a blind tasting conducted by professionals).

Which is why I say I’m glad I never bashed Cabernet. Now, I don’t have to explain why I changed my mind.

  1. One of the things that bugged me most about the bashing of CA wine in general and Cab and Chard in particular was the expressed bias that ALL wine was overripe, overoaked, etc. Of course there were wines like that, and by the way, there are wines like that coming out of Bordeaux as well and selling around the world for massive prices.

    Some, not all. Some, not all in CA. Some, not all in Bordeaux. But what is also true is that “balance” was, for a period of time, defined exclusively as low alcohol and high acid. There are always been CA Chardonnays that followed that route, but admittedly, fewer CA Cabs.

    Still, even with the CA penchant for riper expressions, the wines in general were not out of balance. They just were not low in alcohol and high in acidity.

    Good for Jancis for catching on. Many of us here recognized all along that we are not Bordeaux, but that our wines were still damn fine and world-class.

  2. Thanks, Charlie. You always add wisdom and insight.

  3. I would just say when I went to the Rutherford Day in the Dust last year, I was plenty surprised to find 80 percent of the wines in the media tasting overly jammy and “Drink Now” tourist wines. I know there are the Good Ones, but they do get crowded out easily, creating that “wrong” impression.

    Dan Berger (and I) speculated, in our writeups of that tasting, that younger somms were liking the sweeter, jammier stuff – or how else to explain it? Maybe they aren’t NY somms, though.

  4. Dear Pam Strayer, I think the “jamminess” of those young wines simply testifies to the necessity of giving them some bottle age. In that sense, I wouldn’t call them “drink now tourist wines,” but of course, we all have different preferences, so what it “too young” for me may be just right for somebody else. As for your (and Dan’s) speculation, my first thought on reading it was, “Huh? I thought younger somms don’t like sweeter, jammier wines, but prefer dry, acidic wines of lower alcohol.” But maybe that is painting all somms with the same brush. As you point out, the NY somms may be a breed unto themselves (and then they influence the somms elsewhere). Anyhow, thanks for a thought-provoking comment!

  5. Bob Henry says:

    If I might weight in here?

    If a Somm (Left or Right Coast) is seeking to put an enjoyable red Bordeaux on her/his wine list, the product in the market is 2011 and 2012 and 2013 vintages.

    Wines that are (with few exceptions) tart, tannic, and unappealing. Wines that the cognoscenti collectors (and even the gullible Chinese) have avoided.

    2010 vintage red Bordeaux are few to find from distributors and brokers.

    And the fabled 2009 vintage red Bordeaux are impossible to find — and if found, unaffordable.

    Out of expediency, that Somm now has to pivot towards other sources for Cabernet Sauvignon and Cab-blends.

    California fills that need.

    Vintages 2009 and 2010 and 2012 and 2013 are well-made, well-reviewed, and well-received by dining patrons.

    The prices are reasonable. And there are sufficient quantities of replenishment inventory available from distributors and brokers.

    California has a golden opportunity to steal market share from France during this epoch of inferior red Bordeaux vintages and superior Cabs and Cab-blend vintages.

  6. The 2011 vintage of California Cabernet Sauvignon was not well regarded by many critics on release. It was not a “drink now” wine, far from it and I told my customers that. I have found it to be one of my favorite, that is, if you actually have a memory spanning 20 or 30 years of California Cabernet. Nature dictated that vintage, winemakers just had to deal with it.

    However, I also love the 2013 vintage, but for different reasons. It’s all plush, elegant fruit without cooked or macerated flavors, but equal to the 2013 in terms of longevity, but it could easily be consumed now. The edges will round out with time, but if you like an edge, drink it early.

    Cabernet(Chardonnay) is the benchmark, the S&P 500 if you will, of wines. It will always be around to judge in isolation and against its upstart rivals, the sector and specialty (natural, orange, balanced wines) stocks that often see feast and famine in the marketplace. Each year brings a new favorite sector from analysts (wine writers), only to see during times of recession and upheaval, that we all look back to the benchmark, Cabernet, to really see where the market is headed.

  7. Morten Hallgren says:

    Well… I think that you offered your own explanation. Now that practically all major Bordeaux producers are headed down that same one-way street why not source the overripe Cabs domestically? At least this way, you can pretend to be a little greener

  8. Bob Henry says:


    Your comment motivated me to look you up:

    I was acquainted with Riesling and Cabernet Franc in the Finger Lakes region.

    But not Pinot Noir. I can’t recall any press on that subject. That’s intriguing.

    Would you characterize your Pinot Noir as more “Burgundy-like” or more “Loire Valley-like” or more “Alsace-like”?

    Would you characterize your Cabernet Franc as more “Bordeaux-like” or more “Loire Valley-like”?

    ~~ Bob

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