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Ongoing thoughts on the 2010 Cabernet Sauvignons



I remember when the 2010 vintage was finished, how everyone was predicting that the wines, especially the Cabernet Sauvignons, would be the most balanced California had produced in years.

The vintage was the chilliest people could remember–2011, of course, was even colder–but the spin was that the cool conditions meant that the grapes would physiologically ripen at lower brix, resulting in Cabs and other wines that would taste good at lower alcohol levels.

Well, I’ve now reviewed about 750 Cabernets and Bordeaux blends from the 2010 vintage, and I’ve got to say, from the evidence presented to me, the theory hasn’t panned out. The simple fact of the matter is that a cold vintage is a cold vintage. You can’t spin your way out of that.

Look, California isn’t Bordeaux. Whatever happens at the latitude of Bordeaux to a Cabernet Sauvignon grape is not what happens to a grape at the latitude of Napa Valley. The light is different; the length of day is different, and of course the climate is totally different, California being warmer and drier than Bordeaux. So to suggest that “all California needs” is a cool vintage that will result in more Bordeaux-like wines is simplistic and incorrect.

It’s not that 2010 was a bad vintage for Cabernet. In fact, it was a very good one, in the sense that it resulted in many high-scoring wines, particularly (as you’d expect) from Napa Valley and its subappellations. But, looking over my reviews, 2007 outclassed 2010. So did 2008 (a fairly warm year) and, by a hair, 2009. (As for 2011, that icebox of a vintage, all the Cabs have not yet been released. But so far, I’ve given the lowest number of high scores to 2011 Cabs than I have in many years.)

Case in point: Sequoia Grove’s Rutherford Bench Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. I gave the 2010 a perfectly respectable 92 points. But I gave the 2007 96 points. The ’10 was a shade less rich, not quite as vast as the ’07. Ditto for Alpha Omega: I gave the 2010 Beckstoffer Tokalon Cab 91 points (they actually had two bottlings, a “North” and a “South,” but they both got the same score), while the 2007 Beckstoffer Tokalon got a whopping 97 points. Then there’s Moone-Tsai, whose 2010 Cor Leonis I gave 90 points, compared to the 96 points and 95 points I gave, respectively, to their 2008 and 2009.

I should also point out, in fairness, that I recommended a lot of 2010s for cellaring, precisely because they started out so tannic and tight. However, if you’ve followed my reviews for any length of time, you’ll know that I have mixed feelings about longterm prognostications when it comes to California Cabernet Sauvignon. Predicting which one will actually improve with more than 8 or 10 years in the cellar, as opposed to which one will simply become old and boring, is an inexact science, and anyone with experience in these things is bound to agree.

Is a tight, tannic young Cab “better” with food than one that’s fat and opulent? That’s the standard wisdom–if fact, it’s common to hear that those huge, rich Napa Cabs are “cocktail wines” rather than food wines. Well, I haven’t found the 2010 Cabs to be particularly modest in alcohol, which was also one of the early prognostications. Among my highest scorers, the Yao Ming was 14.9% (these are all official readings, but–again, as my regular readers know–I sometimes am forced to conclude that some wines are higher in alcohol than the label says), the Laird Flat Rock is 14.8%, Venge Bone Ash is 14.9%, JCB No. 10 is 15%, Lamborn Vintage VIII is 14.8%, Hall Exzellenz is 15.5%, Terra Valentine K-Block is 14.9%, Janzen Beckstoffer-Missouri Hopper is 15.2% and David Arthur Elevation 1147’ is 14.9%. I don’t have a problem with these alcohol levels, but they do lend the lie to the notion that the 2010 Cabs are more elegant because they’re lower in alcohol.

In the end, one is left having to sort out what’s true and what’s not true about the old notion that “every year is a vintage year in California.” It’s quite true in the sense that California or, more properly, its various sub-regions hardly ever have uniformly bad years. Yet it’s also true that some years can be tough on certain varieties and regions. Sauvignon Blanc had a particularly difficult time in 2011. It was so cold that the grapes just couldn’t fully ripen, resulting in an ocean of green, minty wines. And yet, certain producers (the usual suspects, one is tempted to say), did just fine: Mondavi, Grgich Hills (whose ’11 Essence is fabulous), Margerum down in Happy Canyon, Brander, Rochioli and others. But all in all, if you’re perusing a wine list and see a 2011 California Sauvignon Blanc and don’t know the producer or that particular wine, you’re best off buying something else.

  1. Interesting observations. From Gladstones’ book on climate and terroir, “the primary factor for quality during ripening is not so much coolness as equability. Equable warmth (to a point) enhances flavour and colour intensity, without too great a loss of the more volatile aromatics.” 2010 didn’t fit the normal pattern of equability; you can’t expect our vines, optimized for normal growing conditions, to produce better juice in a year so remarkably out of balance.

  2. Why is it that Syrah, Pinot noir and Sauvignon blanc, as a few examples, are celebrated when showing green character and Cabernet Sauvignon is ripped apart? Cabernet with any acid at all can also get ripped.

    I love that vintages are unique. The only problem with our 2011 Cab is that it will be harder to sell (except in NY).

    I recently read a fabulous book on Molecular Food and Wine Pairing. Alcohol was never mentioned. Not once.

  3. Steve,

    I wish that more people understood the following (paraphrased to be more generic):

    So to suggest that “all California needs” is a cool vintage that will result in more Old-World-like wines is simplistic and incorrect.

    I can’t tell you how many people were shocked that our 2010s and 2011s weren’t lower in alcohol. Due to the latitude that our grapes are grown at, we still needed to get fruit to 25+ brix to get them ripe in those cold vintages. The grapes that didn’t get there weren’t ripe, and as a result we bulked out that wine. I remember winemakers saying proudly how they’d picked fruit at 20-22 brix in Sta Rita Hills as late as October of 2010 and 2011, and that they were thrilled to be making such low alcohol wines. I bit my tongue, because I wanted to say… congratulations, you picked unripe fruit in October. I guess it’s noteworthy, but not in a good way IMHO.

  4. Brian, I don’t believe you have a scientific basis for your opinion. Our data certainly doesn’t agree with you.

  5. Brad,

    While we do find that we can usually pick ripe fruit at lower brix in Sonoma, Sonoma and Napa are over 300 miles north of Sta. Rita Hills. But even in Sonoma, we rarely see truely ripe fuit at under 25 brix. Of course, “ripe” is subjective – but rock hard berries and neon greeen seeds (like we saw in 2010 and 2011 under 25 brix) isn’t ripe in my book.

    Also, Napa to Sta Rita Hills is farther in distance than Champagne to Burgundy (at about 200 miles). Sugar levels for ripe fruit differ subtantially between those two regions – which is why comparing regions so far apart is risky at best.

    And, of course, I’m talking Pinot Noir, which has its own unique characteristics. Including not being able to hang as much crop as high end Cabernet, which can lead to different ripening issues/parameters.

  6. Brad–

    There is nothing wrong with green character in Cabernet Sauvignon–if you like it. Obviously, you think that NYers do and CAers don’t.

    I would never say that NYers have their heads screwed on wrongly when it comes to wine, but they have always had a more euro-centric view of what is and is not appropriate in wine. I suspect that much of it is based on what they are exposed to first and then secondarily what those around them have to say.

    And, to reiterate my initial comment, there is nothing wrong with liking what you like–whether you live in CA or NY. It should be noted, of course, that there are dozen and dozens of CA Cabs that are not soft and low in acidity. It is true that some folks will rip apart any Cab with what they perceive as high acidity just as there are folks who will rip apart any Cab they perceive as being low in acidity. I hope you are not suggesting that one set of tasters is right and the other is wrong.

  7. Charlie,
    I agree that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. My joke is that bell pepper is just another form of fruity.

    My perception is that softer, lower acid wines generally get better scores and a better reception in the market.

    My comments regarding NY were made in reference to our experience with our wines in that marketplace.

    By the way, cool weather does not fully explain 2011. Cool weather and high acid typically go together, but 2011 was low Brix and low acid.

  8. Those with l-o-n-g memories will recall the early pioneers of Santa Barbara County planting Cabernet Sauvignon . . . because the conventional marketing wisdom held that every winery needed to offer a Chard and a Cab to secure wine store and restaurant wine list placements.

    Those wines — tasting in their youth but especially today — have an unappealing weedy, green vegetable character akin to an off-vintage Chinon.

    (I know: out of morbid curiosity I recently opened a bottle of Sanford & Benedict Vineyard Cab from the early 1980s. Ugh!)

    The adoption of improved canopy management practices exposing the grape cluster to longer duration sunlight clearly helped. But the better solution was simply planting Cab where it thrived . . . not merely survived.

    As for the British wine critics who grew up tasting gawd-awful off-vintage red Bordeaux and “internalizing” that reference standard (“classic” and “typicity” they exclaim), they were the subject of Robert Parker’s justified public shaming at the dawn of his writing career.

    We are all the better for Parker’s crusade, so give the man his due.

    As he and others have observed, wine is a beverage of hedonistic pleasure.

    There’s no joy in drinking under ripe, tart, weedy, tannic wines that will never metamorphose from ugly ducklings into beautiful swans.

    The pendulum might have swung too far from plonk to “Big Flavor” wines, but at least the latter wines are drinkable.

    I have the recurring displeasure of sampling old red Bordeaux from my wine cellar organization clients’ collections — seeking survivors.

    I for one would never vote to go back to “the good ol’ days” of crappy reds foisted upon a gullible American public by the disingenuous French (and abetted by the British wine critics).

  9. I recall my fiancee saying that her and her friends’ go-to restaurant wine was an Italian Pinot Grigio. They liked it because no matter what brand they ordered they could be sure of getting a consistent taste, at least more so compared to other varieties. Now that she’s more into wine she barely touches Italian Pinot Grigio, but loves Oregon and Alsatian Pinot Gris (and I can’t blame her for liking those!).

  10. Whoops, commented on the wrong post, sorry!

  11. Fred Brander says:


    As a Santa Barbara County wine pioneer that planted Cabernet Sauvignon ( and Sauvignon Blanc ) and continues to grow it, I appreciate your observations that dismiss the idea that a cool vintage in California is likely to result in better balances Cabs with lower alcohols.

    Growing degree days (GDD) and diurnal temperature range (DTR) are the two principal temperature measures that define a growing season, and their average values are useful in comparing different wine growing regions. While GDD is variable from year to year, DTR remains basically the same, for a given wine region.

    Although the GDD for Napa Valley in 2010 ( and 2011 ) were closer to Bordeaux, the DTR in Napa Valley remained significantly higher than Bordeaux, necessitating longer hang time to achieve full maturity, and the main reason why stylistically Bordeaux and Napa cabs are two different animals. The length of days and sunlight strength will likely play a role but their effect on ripening can not be quantified. Relative humidity is of importance in ripening but is already accounted for in DTR by its moderating effect on temperature.

    For more information relevant to the above, read Brian Croser’s excellent presentation on Cabernet Sauvignon:

  12. Thank you Fred Brander, producer of some of the best Sauv Blancs in California!

  13. Bob Henry says:


    I first discovered your wines circa 1990 or 1991 through Robert Lawrence Balzer’s wine appreciation course in Los Angeles.

    (You might have been a guest speaker.)

    Rediscovered how good your Sauvignon Blancs are from distributor Wine Warehouse’s portfolio trade tastings.

    When do you release your 2012 “Cuvée Nicolas”? And will it be a Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon blend?

    ~~ Bob

  14. Fred Brander says:


    Thanks for bringing up the memory of Bob Balzer’s wine classes. He was a great educator!

    Our 2012 Cuvee Nicolas should be out this April. Although some past vintages have omitted Semillon, I try to include a significant amount in the blend, as the wine has better mouth-feel, more complexity, and greater ageability. The 2012 has about 25%.

  15. Fred,

    Not to “Shanghai” Steve’s blog by detouring from the original subject matter (“Ongoing thoughts on the 2010 Cabernet Sauvignons”), but every time I meet California Sauvignon Blanc winemakers at trade tastings and ask if they ever blend with Semillon, they almost uniformly comment: “I wish I could. But I don’t grow it. And I can’t find it as a cash crop on the open market to procure and blend with my SB.”

    Balzer told us “children” the story of Charles Wetmore founding Cresta Blanca winery in 1882 with cuttings of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon sourced from Yquem. And the legacy of Wetmore’s pioneering efforts is the Wente Winery vineyards today:

    These days, there seems to be just a handful of California wineries releasing Semillon as a stand-alone variety bottling.

    As they say in the stage play/movie The King and I:

    “Tiz a puzzlement.”

    ~~ Bob

  16. Bill Haydon says:

    Every winemaker in California:

    “But, but, but our particular nano-climate was not affected and just to ensure that we made perfect wine (as always), we picked only one cluster off of each vine and then made a severe cut on the sorting table selecting only the best two grapes from those clusters. Consequently, we have none of the problems of which you speak. Unfortunately, and due to our rigorous sorting, production has gone down, so we will need to raise prices.

  17. Fred,

    A postscript to these comments.

    Are you aware of this tome?:

    ~~ Bob

  18. Bob Henry says:


    On canopy management and taming high alcohol levels, see this article:

    “The Effect of Leaf Trimming to Delay Grape Ripening:
    A Beneficial Technique for a Changing Climate?”


    ~~ Bob

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