Nothing wrong with California cabernet — except the price

Some of the world’s best and most-expensive Cabernet Sauvignon comes from Napa Valley, where the climate and soils combine to provide near-perfect growing conditions.

Finding the right Cabernet Sauvignon (or any wine, for that matter) at just the right price often entails searching through a wall of wine. A good sales representative can be invaluable in making the proper choice.



1. Since 2010, cabernet sauvignon has had its own day. Official #CabernetDay is the Thursday before Labor Day (this year that’s Aug. 31). But don’t let that stop you from trying one before then.

2. With about 720,000 acres worldwide, cabernet sauvignon is most-planted grape in the world. Merlot is No. 2.

3. Cabernet sauvignon is a genetic cross between cabernet franc (red) and sauvignon blanc (white), both grapes used in Bordeaux blends.

4. As noted above, Napa Valley wineries pay the highest price for cabernet sauvignon grapes. Or maybe it’s the customer who pays the most and the vintners just pass the cost along.

5. Remember that some other areas also make great cabernet sauvignon. Chile, thanks to a French invasion a generation ago, now makes world-class cabernet, many of them bearing Bordeaux-like labels.

6. Cabernet sauvignon definitely is NOT a “one-size-fits-all wine.” This black-blue, tough-skinned grape comes in all shapes and sizes and produces wines ranging from light and uninteresting to powerful, elegant and deep.

7. Cabernet sauvignon and steak go together like, well, not much else. The tannins in the wine help cleanse the steak’s fat and protein from your palate. A fatty steak calls for a higher-tannin wine.

8. Pyrazines (technically methoxypyrazines) give cabernet sauvignon its characteristic nose of black pepper and green peppercorn. Other descriptors include cassis, black currant, leather, tobacco, cocoa, and (when unripe) green bell pepper.

And you thought that smell was broccoli.

9. Cabernet sauvignon changed the way the world looks at American wines when, in 1976, a bottle of 1973 Stag’s Leap cabernet sauvignon won what’s now called the Judgment of Paris, beating out some pretty famous French wines along the way.

9.5 Warren Winiarski, the winemaker responsible for that now-famous 1976 cab, will return to Denver this year to judge the Colorado Governor’s Cup Winemaking Competition.

10. A classic Bordeaux blend can be made using only cabernet sauvignon and merlot but the regulations also allow other grapes including cabernet franc, malbec and petit verdot.

I encountered Rick Rozelle working the wine aisles at Fisher’s Liquor Barn last week, which wasn’t completely surprising because that’s where I usually find him, dispensing knowledge and turning on clients to good buys in wines.

This time he was doing something I’d heard him do before but always enjoy hearing — talking a customer out of a top-shelf wine in favor of purchasing something more affordable yet just as tasty.

Once the client left, bottle in hand and smile on face, Rick and I spend a few minutes talking and he noted how many people look to the Screaming Eagles and Opus Ones of the wine world as the ultimate in what’s out there.

Nothing wrong with that, except that both those ultra-premium cabs will set you back a half-month’s rent or more. A lot more.

On the online, a 2013 Opus One averages about $150 a bottle, “and you can get a whole lot of great wines for much less,” laughed Rozelle.

On the whole, all those upper-shelf cabs are overpriced, although that’s subjective to what you have in your pocket at the time, right?

“We’ve had people buy cases of it for weddings and stuff, so it’s not like it doesn’t sell,” Rozelle noted.

Cabernet sauvignon remains “America’s most beloved red wine,” wrote Food & Wines eminent wine writer Ray Isle way back in 2005. “In 2009, California crushed almost 450,000 tons of cabernet grapes, an amount roughly equal to one bottle per person for the entire U.S. population.”

One reason cabernet sauvignon still is so popular (it’s the most-sold wine, period, right behind chardonnay) is that among those millions of bottles are many selling for under $10, although you won’t find many really good California cabs at that price.

You might find something from my colleague Jeff Siegel (, who puts the cutoff line around $10.

“Listen, it’s not easy finding cheap cabernet sauvignon that tastes like cabernet sauvignon,” Siegel said during the 2016 Colorado Governor’s Wine Competition for which he was a judge. “If there were, I’d drink more of it.”

He recently wrote about Avalon cabernet sauvignon, which he described as offering the quality of Napa cabernet “at two-thirds to three-quarters of the price of comparable wines.”

The grapes aren’t Napa, they come from Lodi, Paso Robles, and Monterey County. Which is why Fisher’s carries the 2014 vintage for under $10.

Siegel, who will return to Denver next month for the 2017 edition of the Governor’s Cup, wrote in a recent blog post that too many “value priced” cabernets “are fruity and sticky, without the heft and tannins that cabernet is supposed to have — call them cabernet lite.”

“Or, if they taste like cabernet, they cost at least $20, and that’s not the point of what we do here,” Siegel wrote.

Why are Napa cabernets so good, a fact that helps even inexpensive wines from elsewhere succeed?

Simply, Napa Valley has the perfect climate and soils for growing the grape. But Napa cabernet sauvignon grapes are the highest-priced grapes in California, which means along with accelerating land costs ($300,000-plus per acre), the price of a bottle of wine continues to grow.

Mike Fischer, on the blog Vinsights, wrote that grape costs should not exceed 25 percent of a wine’s selling price for a winery to experience a “reasonable profit.”

Because Napa grape costs are the highest in California, Fischer noted, virtually all red wine made with Napa grapes must be retail priced at $40 or more per bottle for the winery to receive a reasonable profit.

But wait. There are a lot of grapes being grown outside of Napa, and that’s where we should look for affordable cabernet sauvignon.

Paso Robles, Lodi, Monterrey, Central Coast, the list goes on of places where cabernet sauvignon thrives. And that’s just in California.

What about Washington, Chile and Italy?

Cheaper land plus cheaper grapes equal affordable and delicious California and California-quality cabernet sauvignon.

And if that’s not enough, Wine&Vines online recently quoted Tony Correia, a real estate appraiser and consultant from Sonoma, California, saying, “Any land that’s in Napa Valley, in the watershed of the Napa River, that can be planted to cabernet and produce a good crop of cabernet is being planted today, and they can make a call and sell the fruit for $5,000, $6,000 $7,000” per ton.

That’s about 3 1/2 times what those grapes cost in 1995.

The average price per ton for Napa cabernet was $2,000 in 1995. Today it’s approaching $7,000.

We didn’t forget, but we should note that one reason some of the ultras are so ultra is cachet.

People want to feel important and have other people say nice things about them, and one way to impress is to pour a wine everyone knows cost a king’s ransom.

“But that’s not what we’re here for,” to repeat Siegel’s riposte.

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