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Golden Child

Cabernet Sauvignon has Californian vintners star-struck

Written by Christopher Waters

  • Old Souls: The original stone winery and caves at Stags’ Leap were built in 1893
  • Stags’ Leap winemaker and general manager Christophe Paubert spends most of his time in the vineyard
  • Paso Time: Steve Lohr and his family settled in Paso Robles to make the ripe, approachable style of Cabernet they enjoy
  • A hilltop sunset at the Lohr family’s vineyard 
  • Sonoma Star: Cabernet’s success is closely tied to Rodney Strong Vineyards, which produces a range of single-vineyard bottlings in the Alexander Valley

Napa Valley
In the beginning, Cabernet Sauvignon put California wine on the map. Decades later, even after the sun has set on so many other Golden State legends — including Mickey Rooney, Lauren Bacall and the cast of The Breakfast Club — Cabernet continues to yield considerable star power, thanks in large part to its ability to produce inky, concentrated wines with ripe blackcurrant fruit and a smooth texture that is enhanced by oak-derived notes of vanilla, spice and cedar.

It’s the variety that encouraged French winemaker Christophe Paubert to settle in the Napa Valley, the heart and soul of the California wine industry, where he runs winemaking operations at Stags’ Leap Winery.

“I think Cabernet is emblematic of California because of its complexity, concentration, ability to age, consistency and quality,” he says without hesitation. “It became the king of the place because of what people did with it. Historically in the Napa Valley, there weren’t many Italian varieties or Syrah or other grapes, which means there’s a higher knowledge of Cabernet here.”

Before becoming winemaker and general manager at Stags’ Leap, Paubert’s resumé included positions at Château d’Yquem and Gruaud-Larose in his native Bordeaux as well as high profile projects in Chile, Spain and Washington State. Like any good bordelais winemaker, he says the biggest draw to him was the terroir of the Stags’ Leap District, the appellation that shares the name of the winery he now calls home.

“I really want to make a wine with a strong identity,” he explains. The quality of the fruit grown at the winery gives him the raw material to do that.

“The reason why Cabernet works so well here is good soil, good heat and the dry climate…. The limit of the winemaker is the limit of the fruit.”

While Stags’ Leap Winery might be better known with consumers for another black grape variety, Petite Sirah, Paubert is quick to point out that he makes much more Cabernet Sauvignon and firmly believes that it’s the best grape for the Stags’ Leap appellation that provides a significant amount of the fruit he works with each year.

He is so keen on the quality of the fruit from the estate that he has stopped buying grapes from some incredibly desirable mountain vineyards in other parts of Napa because they didn’t match the style of wine he wanted to make.

“They decreased the focus of the wine,” says Paubert, who insists that he’s most concerned with creating a coherent expression of the Napa Valley Cabernet from Stags’ Leap. “Concentration without elegance isn’t very interesting to me.”

With three harvests under his belt, Paubert says he’s beginning to define the best approach to growing the grapes he needs and gaining better understanding of the Napa Valley’s diversity.

“Even if Cabernet grows well, it’s not going to deliver the same thing everywhere it’s planted. That’s the beauty of the grape in this valley,” he says. “There are differences between mountain-grown fruit versus southern valley fruit versus northern valley fruit, but wherever you put it, it delivers. It wouldn’t be fun if all of us were to make the same wine.”

I think Cabernet is emblematic of California because of its complexity, concentration, ability to age, consistency and quality. It became the king of the place because of what people did with it. Christophe Paubert, Stags’ Leap Winery

Sonoma County
Having worked his first vintage in 1970 when he was just 19 years old, Rick Sayre now ranks as one of the wily veterans of the California wine scene. The winemaker at Rodney Strong Vineyards has seen the industry come of age and been part of the evolution of wine styles over the years.

He has worked at Rodney Strong in the Alexander Valley region since 1979, where he has the ability to produce wines from Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and other varieties grown in Sonoma County. The calibre of the fruit and premium focus at the winery allowed him to put down roots over the past three decades.

Asked to name the signature red wine variety for Rodney Strong and the Sonoma County region, Sayre doesn’t miss a beat — Cabernet Sauvignon.

“Cabernet has the distinctive flavour, the ageability, the tendency for richness and complexity and a longlasting finish,” he explains. “It definitely is one of the wines you can put down in your cellar and be rewarded with something so sublime and complex.”

Recalling his early days learning the trade from California’s first star winemaker, André Tchelistcheff, Sayre said the potential for Cabernet in California was clear even then. Tchelistcheff had come to California’s Napa Valley from Bordeaux in 1938, where he set about making high-quality California Cabernet as well as other varieties of wine.

“André used to say that anyone could make Cabernet. It’s made in the vineyard,” says Sayre, adding that ripe grapes would reward any winemaker with a good wine. “Actually, André would say that any fool could make Cabernet, but only a fool would make a Pinot Noir,” Sayre continued.

The reason behind this statement is that Cabernet has more going for it and is a much more forgiving grape to work with, while making Pinot Noir is more detail oriented and temperamental.

“Cabernet is more forgiving. It’s so big and so rich. It likes more heat,” Sayre explains. “Pinot Noir is a little more fragile.”

Sayre says he happily makes both varieties at Rodney Strong, but he sees each wine as having different occasions for enjoyment.

“I love wine with food. I usually like wine that complements a meal and enhances an evening,” he says. “If I am having steak or prime rib, I am having Cabernet.” Cabernet also rules the roost in the Alexander Valley where the Rodney Strong winery is located. Its founder and namesake was the first in the region to produce a single-vineyard Cabernet, with the 1974 Alexander’s Crown Cabernet. The winery has added additional single-vineyard Cabernets to its portfolio and Sayre has seen the winemaking program develop apace.

“Each year we get to know our vineyards better,” he explains. “We’re no longer picking truckloads of Cabernet. We are now searching for the sweet spots, finding the best areas in our vineyards. Identifying unique parcels of fruit — five, seven and 10 ton lots — that are brought into our little winery within the winery.”

The micro-winery was developed to isolate small batches of pristine fruit and give them necessary winemaking TLC to make the grade for the reserve wines and Symmetry, Rodney Strong’s top-of-the-line Meritage red.

“The beauty of Sonoma County is that there are little areas, say, a southern hillside that catches a bit more sun, that give you something special.”

We’re no longer picking truckloads of Cabernet. We are now searching for the sweet spots, finding the best areas in our vineyards. Rick Sayre, Rodney Strong Vineyards

Paso Robles
Steve Lohr was 10 in 1972 when he helped his father Jerry plant the family’s first vineyard in Monterey County. Eleven varieties, including Cabernet Sauvignon, went into the 280-acre site in the Arroyo Seco appellation. Today, the Lohr family’s Monterey vineyards have been expanded to almost 1,200 acres, but only four grapes remain — the cool climate varieties Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Noir and Valdigué, an obscure French variety once mistaken for Gamay in California.

“It was really too cool for the big reds, so we started hunting for other areas,” explains Lohr, who joined the business in 2003. “We looked to Napa and then to Paso Robles where we saw styles of wines that we appreciated.”

In the late-1980s, the family purchased a 35-acre site in the St. Helena appellation of the Napa Valley and a much larger parcel in Paso Robles, in San Luis Obispo County, the so-called Central Coast region of California. Central, it would seem, by virtual of its midway position between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The Lohrs were drawn to Paso Robles because its mix of warm days and cool nights — giving as much as a 50°F swing during the growing season — were ideal for growing Cabernet Sauvignon as well as Merlot, Syrah and other red varieties. They now farm 2,300 acres of vineyards in the region, which provides the majority of its production.

“Paso Cab stands out,” Lohr says appreciatively. “It’s more approachable in the first few years (than Cabernets from other California regions), yet has the necessary tannin to nicely age if you want to put it away for 10-plus years.”

Asked to describe the taste of a typical Paso Robles Cabernet, Lohr points to the attributes that give it mass consumer appeal.

“First and foremost, it has really nice fruit flavours – blackberry and cassis. Then nice balance and good mid-palate structure,” he says. “The tannin profile is different from everywhere else, too. We get really nice and mature tannins that are even a bit dusty, that are a little bit softer than elsewhere.”

That certainly defines the Cabernet portfolio at J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines, where its Seven Oaks and premium Hilltops labels deliver rich and ripe yet easydrinking reds.

Lohr says that character is as much influenced by Paso Robles as it is by the house style developed to suit the type of wine that his family enjoys. It also makes sense as a business model since it’s also the style of wine that’s appreciated by wine lovers who want wines that are enjoyable at the time of purchase.

“It really takes a generation to completely understand any region,” he says. “After 25 years, we are starting to really engage the possibilities in Paso.”