California Red Wines You Need in Your Life
Savoring lesser-known California Cabernets
Cabernet Sauvignon is king in Oklahoma, and it’s not likely to change anytime soon. California Cabs, especially, dominate sales in liquor stores and restaurants, and every good wine list has at least one Cabernet by the glass. While Bordeaux, France, made Cabernet famous, California has made it popular as a single-varietal option. The stylistic differences between France and California are dramatic, and the American palate has landed solidly on the side of California, especially Napa and Sonoma.
Our palates shift toward heavier reds when the weather gets cooler, and Cabernet is one of the obvious choices: blackberry, plum, cassis, tobacco, black pepper, and spices just work in the fall and winter. Rather than trot out a bunch of famous brands Cab drinkers know well, we decided to dig a little deeper to find a few lesser-known wines. They’re usually on wine lists in the sections most of us just glance over, so yes, they’re pricey. But they’re worth it.
It’s already October, so it’s time to think about the holidays, too, and these wines also make bold statements as holiday gifts or for the table at an office party. It’s fine to impress the boss or the in-laws, but it’s more fun to just drink these.
- Alpha Omega ERA. This blended Cabernet is the flagship for St. Helena’s Alpha Omega Winery. The barrels come from stellar Napa vineyards, and the rightly famous Andy Erickson (his name appears on this list twice) consults on the blending process to produce a bold, rich, beautiful wine.
- Crown Point Cabernet Sauvignon. Bold Cabernet occasionally comes from Santa Barbara, too, and the Crown Point wines are remarkable ambassadors for what this region can do with the grape. The goal here is balance, so rather than bombastic fruit and high alcohol, you also get violets, pencil lead and blackcurrant.
- Dalla Valle Cabernet Sauvignon. California’s first cult winery produced its first vintage in 1986. The wines are brilliant, fruit forward, and round. Andy Erickson uses grapes from the Oakville estate to make this complex, layered Cab, featuring baking spices, earthy notes, blackberries, and a touch of smoke.
- Dunn Vineyards Howell Mountain Cabernet. Randy Dunn is widely considered one of the masters of Cabernet Sauvignon winemaking, and his Howell Mountain property yields fruit famous for its quality. This Cabernet can lay down for a long time, but it’s not so tight that it can’t be enjoyed now given a little time to breathe.
- Hamel Family Wines Hamel Family Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon. This Sonoma Valley Cabernet—the badger is an homage to the University of Wisconsin, not local wildlife—is bold and structured, with ripe red and black fruit, cedar, and spice.
- Larkmead Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon. Hailing from Calistoga, Larkmead is an old and respected name in the Napa Valley (founded 1895). The wines are not old and ponderous, though. The lively, nearly exuberant red and black fruits are balanced with graphite and tobacco.
- Pulido Walker Mt. Veeder Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. This might be the Cabernet Napa would send to the World Cup of Cabernet—if such a thing existed. Thomas Rivers Brown’s stunning wines just need to be experienced. He began his California career at Turley in 1997, and in 2010, he was named Winemaker of the Year by Food & Wine magazine. The Pulido Walker Cabernets are known for drinkability when young, beautiful fruit expression, and ripe tannins.