Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Cabernet is Falling! Wait, Maybe We're to Blame!

Much has been made about the trending of California Cabernet Sauvignon (and now Bordeaux even!) towards higher alcohol levels, more ripeness, and of course the increased use of oak. Some decry the trends while others seem to embrace the style, and it appears to be causing much debate within the wine community. About a week ago I was reading a fellow bloggers recent post, here, and he referenced an article by Dan Berger that dealt with a change of style in California Cabs over the past 20 or so years.

Mr. Berger is definitely in the camp that laments the changing style, he wrote the following: "First, let’s look back on what cabernet used to be. It was dry red wine. It was aged in oak not for oaky flavor, but for maturity and complexity. It was modest in alcohol – 12.5 percent for the vast majority; a few “over-the-top” wines reached 13.5 percent.

Also, it was designed to be aged a little bit, and a few a lot longer. When very young, the wines were tannic and needed taming. I still have some 1970s cabs in the cellar that are in great shape.

Moreover, once the wines got some bottle age and a bit of bouquet, they went nicely with food. Since they had good acid levels, food was a near necessity, and the list included steaks, chops, stews, roasted chicken, game and more."

After reading his excellent article, I started jotting down some ideas about why this has happened, why it's being debated and what the end result may be. As you can see, I continue to be fascinated with the "why" question. The description above sounds like a delicious wine to me, one that aligns with my taste preferences. It would seem to have elegance and structure with all the flavor elements being well integrated. In short, a wine that I would absolutely love to drink time and time again.

Unfortunately, my next thought was this: "Oh..but I also happen to love some of those big, extracted, juicy Cabs too..why is that?"

Well? I wish I knew! It's confusing because on one hand I feel proud to like the styles that a professional like Dan Berger likes, yet I feel a bit ashamed to admit that I also do love bigger, juicier examples, the very types he's writing off as not true expressions of California Cabernet Sauvignon.

In my limited experience in wine retailing, I've been able fortunate to observe a truly wide range of wine drinkers and what they buy. It's fascinating to say the least because I see more of the disparaged, current style selling than of those more traditional Cabs. That's not simply because it's being made, but because the consumer prefers it. All along the price spectrum, the wine drinker is demanding (in an economic sense) the bigger, bolder Cabernets from this state. That goes for a Novella Paso Robles Cab at $7 from Trader Joes all the way up to the high end "cult" Cabs from Screaming Eagle, Bond, Harlan et al. In the middle, $40-$100 cabs like Meyer, Trefethen, Whitehall Lane are all getting bigger and riper compared to the 1980's and 90's, because their consumers keep buying that style. What if, overnight (well, in one vintage), those wineries all switched back to the traditional style? Sales of their wines would stop. I'm not joking.

The bigger the wine, the bigger the score too, just look at Robert Parker's scores for massive wines. Look at what Jim Laube scores those wines at. In turn, those scores drive what people want to buy, which drives what styles are produced. At this point, that circle shows no signs of breaking, merely a potential for weakening as the Millenials move away from big-name critics scores and more into social scores. Aging Baby Boomers still have money and still buy "new" style California Cabernets, driving that market.

In the end, I jotted down that the "crisis" is a creation of our own making. We being the wine industry, to clarify things. So much wine is sold on scores, so much import is given to those scores, that it's concentrated the true power in the hands of a few. Their palates have dictated what we (consumers this time) have been drinking and how the Cabernet has evolved over 20 or more years. Mr. Berger is part of a long list of people complaining about the demise of their preferred Cabs, but it doesn't appear to have any effect for the majority of wine drinkers who buy the majority of wine made and sold in this country. That isn't to try to write him off, not at all, because his take is as fascinating to me as the person who unabashedly embraces the noveau style's perspective is.

I feel excited about what we will experience in the next 20 years of California Cabs.

Beau Carufel


  1. Nice post Beau. It seems to me that the biggest influence to Napa Cab might be the cult-driven prices and how people will not continue to pay them. But in the midst of that there will hopefully open an opportunity for a variety of styles to emerge again.

  2. I think the biggest influence on big cabs is the confluence of those cult-driven prices and the critics scores..Like a perfect storm scenario..So yea if people stop paying those outrageous prices maybe we'll see other styles emerge more and more, which I think can only help California Cabs in the long run.

  3. Interesting read. I'll be back again.

    All the best,

    Rafi Schutzer

  4. Beau:
    Just for the record, after that article I received some 100 (perhaps more; I haven't counted) e-mails in support of the argument, and a total of 2 that were opposed. Is there a silent minority that is still rather large out there that prefers the older style? Seems so.
    Dan Berger

  5. Hi Dan, thank you very much for taking the time to comment.

    I thoroughly enjoyed your take on CA Cabs even if I didn't necessarily agree with all of it. What struck me out of the obviously large amount of positive emails you received would be that perhaps the traditionalist crowd is more likely to comment in support of something they agree with, because they are interested enough in wine to follow it more closely.

    I was trying more to understand the mindset of the casual or average wine drinker that doesn't seek out online articles. Those wine drinkers may or may not have money and may or may not chase scores (that invariably seem to be given to the newer styles of Cab. However, they still buy wine and I believe drive the market that seems to demand ever bigger, more alcoholic wines. As such, they might be the ones who should be educated about the "other" style of Cab that this state can create.

    Regarding your comment, I honestly wouldn't be surprised if there was a silent minority (but a large one) that really enjoys the more traditional styles, and I hope they start exerting more influence on winemakers..I strongly feel the name of the game should be "diversity" with multiple styles welcomed by wine drinkers. It just doesn't seem like that's always the case though.