Tuesday, November 30, 2010

What happened to California Cabernet?

I was visiting my parents for the Thanksgiving holiday and, in what has become a holiday tradition, I raided their wine cellar.

My parents have long been wine enthusiasts. Some of my earliest childhood memories are of being dragged to tasting rooms on family camping trips in Napa or the Sierra Foothills. They have an extensive collection of small production California wines (from some wineries that don't even exist any more) that generally weren't available anywhere but from the tasting room or in restaurants. On my last few visits, I've been going through their wine cellar and pulling out wines that are ready to be enjoyed or nearing past-the-peak-ness to drink with our holiday fare. We've been drinking a lot of circa 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon.

These wines largely pre-date the advent of mass Parkerization, when California wine makers manipulated their wines to increase alcohol and concentration so as to appeal to the Wine Advocate's palate, a process that reached its peak in the early 2000s, when every new boutique winery strove for a 90+ to justify its existence to investors. As a result, these wines are lower in alcohol--13% or less, virtually unheard of in Cabernet from California in recent years--and showcase more lightly steeped tannins, better integrated cedar and spice aromatics, and actual blackberry fruit flavors instead of candy and cough syrup.

(And any asshole who tells you that California can't make lower alcohol wines because our climate is too good and warm and hot is full of shit. 1998 was still one of the hottest years on record and I've had Napa Cabs from that year that were 12.5% alcohol. Zins that were 13.5%.)

Are they great wines? No. They're wines that probably sold for the mid-to-high teens out of the tasting room. But they're largely estate-grown wines made in an honest, straight-forward way. No manipulation. Moderate oak. And while admitting that it lacked a certain heft that I've come to expect from my California red wines, after 10 years in the bottle, it had a level of balance and, well, pleasant-ness that I've never had in California Cabernet that was under $30 a bottle.

I found these wines to be in the same mode as the inexpensive imports from Spain, Portugal and Southern France that I enjoy routinely--the wines I buy for $15 a bottle at a good wine shop and drink with a simple evening meal. Medium to medium-full bodied, moderate tannins, acidity, and earthy characters to balance out the fruit. It's a style of wine I haven't encountered much from California in my 6 or so years of earnest, serious wine drinking, let alone at the price that these wines originally sold for.

So what happened? I'm not sure exactly, other than that we started manipulating wine instead of making it. The good news is, we still have excellent fruit and if we just picked good grapes and let good wine come into being, we can start producing something that's honest and interesting again in California.

1 comment:

Cabfrancophile said...

Seems like an astute observation of the state of CA wines. Maybe vintners shouldn't be blamed for ambition, but aiming for instant gratification is not a laudable pursuit. There's something to be said for wine that expresses place and varietal, even if it's not always aiming for great heights.

Great description of the $15 bottle of balanced, "real" wine. I'm always looking for these--they just need decent structure and complexing qualities to complement the fruit. They certainly exist, but rarely if ever are from CA. Usually these $15 CA wines are the leftovers that are too flabby or unbalanced to go into the more aspirational cuvee. It sure would be nice to see more vintners stop chasing points and fame and get back to making honest, typical wine at modest prices.