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California Cabernet


California Cabernet….it was the best of wines….it was the worst of wines….Sorry for that pun from the Tale of Two Cities, but I couldn’t resist! Many people feel very strongly about California Cabernet. Many feel it just comes down to a formula; it tastes the same 9 out of 10 years. Some say the weather is so consistent that vintage does not matter or that it has become a commodity, the same as milk, and that all production is focused on scores, concentration, tannin and alcohol. Others feel that only the French know how to make a great balanced (12.5% alcohol) Cabernet-based wine.

I have more than 25 years of tasting notes on thousands of wines from most every region around the world and I can summarize all of those into three categories:

  • Buy
  • Don’t buy
  • Don’t put in mouth (again)

If I were going to give my best friend, my mother and my minister advice on California Cabernet, only one word comes to mind: Caymus. This is the Gold Medal Standard against which all other California Cabernets are judged. Caymus Cabernet costs $13 – $15 per bottle for the 1989 vintage. The 1985 to 1987 vintage has been selling in the $20 range, but the poor weather conditions of 1988 and 1989 led to its price being lowered. By 1997, the quality, demand and economics had driven the price to approximately $55 – $60 and it has stayed there for more than the past decade.

I would ask you to try most any vintage of Caymus Cabernet. In over 20 years of drinking this wine, my least favorite is the 1989 and my favorite is the 2002. When you try a $200 wine after tasting the Caymus you will definitely appreciate the differences, but also ponder whether it is worth three times the price. On the other hand, at some point you should also invest (maybe with a couple friends) in a bottle of Dominus, Insignia, Opus One or Shafer Hillside in the $100 – $200 range. I will let you judge for yourself!

Bottom line: Caymus Cabernet is the S&P 500 Index of Cabernets. Ninety-nine percent of the smartest investors in the world cannot match, let alone beat, its performance and neither can the same percentage of California Cabernet Wineries. So when you find one of those rare $20 – $30 bottles of Cabernet that you feel is better than Caymus (and it is possible), please send the name and vintage to me. Thanks!