World-class West Coast Cabs

Six reasonably-priced bottles to age for a special occasion
Sara Schneider

Here are some West Coast Cabs that are age-worthy but, relatively speaking, won't break the bank.

Chateau Ste. Michelle Meritage 2002 (Columbia Valley, WA; $48). A massive meritage blend from Washington's premier big winery. Packed with fruit and tannin, but balanced.

Clos du Bois "Marlstone" 2002 (Alexander Valley, CA; $50). Majestic structure for the future, but plush fruit for right now ― plums, black currants, and wild berries.

Groth Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 (Oakville, Napa Valley; $55). Grown in the same neighborhood as $100-plus cult Cabs, Groth is a deal. Great structure and solid ripe berry fruit.

Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 (Napa Valley; $25). Martini reds have a solid track record for aging. This one is full of cassis and firm but balanced ― a steal.

Sequoia Grove Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 (Napa Valley; $32). Solid structure; luscious cassis, cocoa, and vanilla; excellent acidity.

Silverado Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 (Napa Valley; $40). Silverado has long produced elegant Napa Cabs with impeccable balance, fruit, and structure.
Karen MacNeil

New buzz for California cabs

Not long ago, if you walked into a wine shop looking for a good Cabernet that would age well ― a special bottle to hang onto for a child's graduation, say ― the clerk's advice would likely be: Drink California Cab now, but buy French Bordeaux to put away. Today, thanks to a recent restaging of a legendary 1976 California versus France tasting, you might hear something new.

Thirty years ago, at the "Judgment of Paris," a California Cabernet (Stag's Leap Wine Cellars 1973 S.L.V.) stunned the judges ― many of whom were French ― by scoring higher than any Bordeaux in the lineup. According to Karen MacNeil, author of The Wine Bible and longtime Sunset contributor, right after outrage in France came disbelief. It was a fluke; a New World wine couldn't possibly have fairly swept the field.

The French found a way to live with it, though. Their theory: All about fruit, California wines show well when they're young. More minerally, with firmer tannins, Bordeaux are made to age. Stage the tasting with some years on the wines, and the California wines wouldn't hold up.

Steak and cabernet: America's power marriage
How to read a wine label
The right glass
Retail detail

The proof was in the bottle this year. The organizers of that Paris tasting gathered the original 10 wines and two panels ― one in London and one in Napa ― to blind-taste them again, for a 30th anniversary reality check. MacNeil tasted alongside the Napa panel at Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts. "Many in the room expected the results to flip-flop," she says. At the very least, she expected to be able to write in her notes about a given wine, "Probably California … "

But as in the first round, it was virtually impossible to distinguish the California wines from the French ones. And this time around, California took not just the top spot; it took the first five places. The highest-scoring wine: 1971 Ridge Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon (which had finished fifth in the 1976 tasting). And it's not even from Napa; it's from the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Will new wines age as well?

Of course, that was then, and this is now. It's no secret that California vintners are making wine differently than they did in the '70s. Our taste (or our critics', or both) runs to wines with bigger, riper fruit (which translates to more alcohol and less acid) and mellower tannins. Since the trio of critical elements that wine needs to age well consists of solid fruit, good acid, and firm tannins, newer West Coast Cabs almost certainly won't live as long.

With the renewed attention on aging, MacNeil believes "vintners just might say, 'You know, we're making wines that are too outrageous. We've abandoned something valuable we should get back to.'" She expects some vinters to pull in the reins a little bit on big, ripe fruit and build wines for a slightly longer haul again.

Even so, considering how well California's wines, fruit-driven even in 1976, have held up for 30 years, you might just hear that wine shop clerk say something until now uncommon: "Take a bet on California."