Featured Wine: Affordable Californian Cabernet


Everyone (who gets interested in wine) knows that Cabernet Sauvignon is considered the King Of Grapes. Unfortunately, it tends to sell for an appropriately royal ransom: because of the grape’s reputation, its most well-suited sites in the best micro-climates command extravagantly high prices per acre, and these costs are, inevitably, passed on to the consumer. There’s also the matter of greed and prestige: many a wine-maker prices his Cabernet Sauvignon beyond the reach of mere mortals for the simple reason that millionaire Masters of the Universe will happily pay whatever it takes to show off their spending power.

So where does that leave the rest of us? For the most part, drinking either a pale imitation of great Cabernet Sauvignon, or not drinking it at all. This dilemma becomes all the more acute when we look to the world’s two most esteemed (but distinctly different) regions for the wine: Bordeaux and California, where wines from the premium sites sell for a platinum price. And yet, if you travel beyond Bordeaux’s legendary First Growths and California’s illustrious Napa Valley, you may just find yourself a bargain.

In California, it’s an especially hard hunt. A Bonterra Vineyards Monterey County Cabernet Sauvignon ‘Organically Grown Grapes’ 2004 tasted recently was hum-drum, lacking in flavor and depth – and not cheap either, at just under $20. But moving yet further south from Napa, into the emerging Paso Robles AVA, with its extreme temperature swings and rugged terrain, I found a fruity, forward, eminently drinkable ‘Proprieter Grown’ Cabernet Sauvignon from Estancia for barely more than $10 a bottle.

Estancia Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon: No rough edges, no high prices, no problem.

How do they do it? Well, Estancia is a vast enterprise – I remember digging their tropical-flavored Chardonnays when I was just getting into wine – with deep pockets: in 1999, they planted a massive 400 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon in the Keyes Canyon Ranches of Paso Robles. But they’re still trying to suggest the personal touch: what grapes they don’t grow themselves they buy from long-term contractors whose methodology they can dictate. Hence the term ‘Proprietor Grown’ – which falls somewhere in between ‘Estate Vineyards’ and the French term ‘negociant’.

A very deep purple, the Estancia Keyes Canyon Ranches Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 offers up that classic Cabernet aroma of blackberries, some of the mint that seems to follow the grape anywhere it’s grown in California, and, thankfully, not too much tell-tale cedary oak. With a touch of Merlot and an even smaller touch of Petite Sirah in the mix, it’s smooth and luscious on the palate with oodles of black fruit (currants, plums, cherries), a hint of chocolate, and the slightly sweet flavoring that comes from 12 months in mostly old oak. Pleasantly balanced at 13.5% alcohol, it offers some slightly dusty tannins, but nothing that would make you consider laying it down for long. It’s not complex – not in comparison to a great Bordeaux or Napa wine that costs four to forty times as much – but it’s no simpleton either. And while I expected a wine like this to drink well right out of the bottle, I was pleasantly surprised that it held on to its flavor for at least a couple of days. Finally, unlike either the austere Bordeaux Cabs or the bruising Napa versions, this one seemed to have no problems matching up to vegetarian food.

Serious wine geeks may well take me to task for gushing so effusively over a relatively straightforward wine, but drinkers on a budget will recognize a bargain when they taste it. Put simply, Estancia produces good Californian Cabernet Sauvigon at a very good price. So what if it’s not from Napa?

The Estancia web site demands proof of age before letting you in. Once you make up a birth-date though, they are full of information, including Vineyard Tours, like this virtual weather map of the Keyes Canyon Ranches, which shows the temperature swings as the clock ticks.

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November 2022