Confessions of a Heresiarch

It’s time to ‘fess up and face the shame. Brace yourself: I just don’t like California Cabernet. I’ve never really liked California Cabernet. Oh sure, there have been a few exceptions over the years – Ridge, Trefethen, Montelena – but for the most part, I just don’t get it. Cabernet sauvignon, from almost anywhere in California, leaves me cold.

It’s not that I actively dislike most California Cabs: I just don’t find them exciting. For my palate, they rarely – very, very rarely – taste of any place at all, and their expression of varietal character is always for me obscured and over-ridden by their one truly California characteristic, an aggressive, abrasive, sandpapery set of tannins. To be sure, these are not as powerful as they were a few decades back, when I really believed that whenever people spoke of “Cabs” they were using an acronym for California After-Burn – but for me those harsh tannins are still there. Consequently, 99 times out of 100, I will drink anything in preference to a California Cabernet. So stoke the fires: here’s your heretic.

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heretic burning

What spurred this confession wasn’t any sort of an Inquisition, but an honest attempt to try to understand California Cabernet better. The Wine Media Guild, in its ongoing efforts to illuminate the dark recesses of its member wine journalists’ minds, staged a tasting of Napa and Sonoma mountain wineries, largely featuring Cabernet sauvignons. This, I thought, is my chance to learn something about wines that have so long put me off. The wines selected for the tasting represented a varied set of winemakers and estates of different scales from two key Cabernet-producing valleys of California. All the winemakers were serious, knowledgeable professionals who worked hard at their craft and thought seriously about what they’re doing. If ever I’m going to come to appreciate California Cabernet, I thought, this is my chance to start.

Alas, it was not to be: I continue not to get it. All around me my colleagues – people whose palates and opinions I respect – were tasting with pleasure and even enthusiasm, while I made notes like “blah,” “characterless,” “harsh tannins,” “how much?!” I don’t claim to have an infallible palate – nobody does, whatever the PR might suggest – but I do have a fairly decent one. And I’m a habitual Barolo drinker, so I know about tannins. So I have to ask myself, What is the disconnect here? What is keeping me from enjoying these wines?

It isn’t the grape, that’s for sure: I learned wines on Bordeaux, and I still love it. But it is true that over the years I have encountered increasing instances of over-aggressive Cabernet, and not just from California. It is certainly a possibility that what’s putting me off is what California soils and climates – and maybe California winemaking techniques – do to and with Cabernet. Certainly the kind of ripenesses that California vineyards routinely achieve were farfetched dreams in Bordeaux in pre-global warming days, when I formed my ideas of what a wine should be. Perhaps I’m stuck with an outmoded notion of wine in general and Cabernet in particular – but what I’ve observed of Cabernet in Italy (and increasingly in Bordeaux) leads me to think that warmer is emphatically not better for this variety.

Which leads me to my major heresy, which will probably end up getting me drummed out of the corps and sent into outer darkness, where I will be forced to drink Sterno strained through an old gym sock: I have long thought that, though California’s wine-producing potential is fantastic, its growers are by and large working with the wrong grapes. I don’t think they have yet found the right grapes for the right places, and they won’t as long as they continue pooh-poohing the idea of terroir. They probably need a few centuries of Cistercians working the land in silence and keeping meticulous records before they discover what varieties will actually work best – and that, of course, is not going to happen.

In the meanwhile, I don’t really believe that Cabernet sauvignon ought to be the variety that California growers count on. I don’t think it does its best there, and I think many other varieties can and will give much better results – especially now, with the climate changing in the ways it is. I don’t believe, however, that the vineyard situation is going to change any time soon, because winemaking has become almost totally market-driven, and the market wants Cabernet – or thinks it wants Cabernet, or is told it wants Cabernet. Unfortunately, for me, I only drink and taste with my own mouth – and I don’t want Cabernet.

Turn me over: I’m done on this side.

heretic burning 2

11 Responses to “Confessions of a Heresiarch”

  1. Nevin Says:

    I think one of the things that happens is given the high degree of ripeness and the California emphasis on Big wines, the way they try to achieve balance is with tannins rather than acidity. Also, there was a time when people looked on tannins as being a sign of a serious, age-worthy wine. California being California, they tended to take it to extremes.

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      I think you’re probably right about the attempt to create balance with tannin rather than acidity. It’s astonishing how many people who really ought to know better forget how crucial acidity is not just for achieving balance but for a wine’s longevity.

  2. Joe Calandrino Says:

    Tom:

    So the problem is this: the exception proves the rule. No one doubts that Napa has produced some profound expressions of Cabernet. We all know the great successes. What remains is the unspeakable volume of near misses, of over wrought, over thought, over-everything-else wines that take up so much space on retailers shelves. Yet so many of these wines fly off the those shelves perpetuating the lie that all California wines are sublime, and the truth that, by and large, the palates of the average wine consumer is more sensitive to a fulsome review than what’s actually on it.

    I have had more delicious mourvedres and zinfandels than Cabernets from California. As the Napa valley heats up, further turning these Cabs into more monstrous caricatures of the varietal, wine-growers there will look north (anybody noticing what Brassfield is doing in Lake county??) and to other grapes to make really interesting wines.

  3. Jonathan Levine Says:

    Tom, I agree with you. I liked the SM Cab. and the laurel was OK. But the others? No way and the prices were over the top

  4. Ed McCarthy Says:

    It’s types like you who should be tarred and feathered and ridden out of the country for your un-American comments. You’re probably a Communist.

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      Ed:

      I hadn’t realized you’d taken a job with Fox News. Complimenti! (Does it hurt, having your tongue that far in your cheek?)

  5. Magda Says:

    Thank you for this confirmation, Tom. I suspected there was something wrong with my taste, not liking the grittiness, burning and harshness of the cabs from here.

  6. Charles Scicolone Says:

    Ciao Tom- you are not alone- I missed the tasting- If I was there I would have been making the same noises-even more so!!!

  7. Ole Udsen Says:

    Dear Tom,

    Once again, we completely agree. Even on the rare exceptions: I am a big Ridge fan (but particularly of the Geyserville…). Lovely piece.

    Best regards
    Ole

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