North Coast California Cabernet Sauvignon


A reader suggested that I might want to do a blog on North Coast California Cabernet Sauvignons because recent vintages supposedly have been excellent.


This was just a great suggestion for a variety of reasons; 1) I’m a varietal guy, it’s all about the grape, I usually don’t pay attention to when the wine was made.  2) It forces us to explore at least briefly the AVA and vintage charts, tools a wine drinker should know about. 3)  It’s an  interesting story. 4) he’s right the 2012 and 2013 vintages have been really good.


So, let’s dig in!


When he asks about North Coast California what he is actually referring to is the North Coast AVA or American Viticultural Area.   AVA is a designated wine grape region as defined by the Alcohol and Tobacco tax and Trade Bureau.  It’s not even close to the European system of AOC (Appellation d’Origine Controlee) which truly tries to protect the place of origin of a wine.  Where as a vineyard  in the United States can and often does belong to more than one AVA that usually can not happen in Europe. Europeans have a greater sensitivity to terroir where place is most important.  In the United States we are more focused on the varietal than where it is made.


North Coast AVA is huge!  Covers over 3,000,000 acres and including 48 sub AVA’s.  Places like San Francisco, Lake County, Martin County, Mendocino County, Napa County, Solano County and Sonoma County all are part of the North Coast AVA.  So, as you can see picking a “north coast California wine”  can be a little difficult.  Both Wine Enthusiast and Wine Spectator list Napa and Sonoma for Cabernet in their vintage charts.


With the place somewhat defined, let’s talk about vintage charts and why they are important to wine drinkers.  A vintage chart is a historical tool tracking vintages in different wine growing regions for a number of years to decades.  They summarize the quality and character of the wines.  They are general in nature, they can help you make good decisions when faced with unfamiliar wines or help you determine when wines you have already purchased will be drinking there best. Remember the “vintage” is the year the grapes are harvested.  There are usually three components to the chart;


  1. Description; sums up the growing season details the weather data such as average temperature rainfall and major storms, or frosts.  Cool rainy years produce light early maturing wines, hot dry years can yield unbalanced wines that don’t age well.  Vintner’s reports and sample tastings.


  1. Score 50 to 100.

95 – 100 Classic Great Wines

90-94 Outstanding

85- 89 Very good

80-85 Solid

75-79 Mediocre

50-74 Save your money drink beer


3) Drink recommendation

Drink:  Drink now because you will see little improvement if stored.

Hold:   these are age worthy wines that have yet to fully mature and need more time in    the bottle.

Drink or Hold: enjoy now but will benefit from more aging.

Past Peak:      wine is declining, if you have some, drink it now.

You can find these on line at any number of sources most popular are Wine Enthusiast or Wine Spectator.


Why is vintage important?  From a straight wine perspective you can’t make a great wine with crappy grapes, just not possible.  With modern technology you can make a decent wine from crappy grapes maybe even a good wine, but what are you willing to pay for it to take a chance?


Technology is flattening the vintage curve.  If you look at the charts over a long period of time the vintages are all improving, because growers have so many new tools to offset the ravages of mother Nature.  Better Weather forecasting allow growers to take action.  Example using helicopters to “dry” the grapes after rain to prevent mildew and rot.  Heaters to protect from frost.  I was just reading about a vineyard who purchased a $400,000 optical sorter that reads the grapes “stats” with an x-ray.  The winemaker and the grower hand sort a sample of grapes to get a profile of the type of grape they want they program the scanner, the scanner “profiles” the grapes selecting the ones that fit the profile. Did it help?  Read the book “A perfect Score” it’s the story of HALL Wines “Kathryn Hall” which got a perfect score of 100 from Robert Parker in 2013.  Those grapes were from the 2010 vintage and if you look at the charts, 2010 was not a great year.


The vintage chart will tell you what you can expect from each years vintage and why.  Where this becomes important is it gives you an idea of what you should be paying for it. Best example is buying wine futures. For us mere mortals it’s useful when buying wine in a restaurant.   Here’s why, you see a bottle of wine from a 2012 or 2013 vintage at the restaurant for $125.  You order, the waiter brings you the bottle, make sure his thumb or finger is not covering the vintage date, because your 2013 might be a 2010 and it’s not worth the $125 but more like $75.  Same thing if you are buying wine in a wine shop check that vitage date with the chart it might be past peak.  If you ordered online and the vintage date isn’t what you ordered, send it back.


Picking a wine to recommend would be hard from this area because it is so large.  Cabernets from this area are also expensive.  I’d suggest looking for second labels or second vins as the French would say.  These are wines made by the same rock star winemakers but at a fraction of the cost say 50% less.  The concept of second Labels began in Bordeaux in the 18th century as a way of producers to use wine not chosen for the First label rather than sell it as bulk.  It’s still a very high quality wine, without all the pampering at the winery as the first growth.  Less time aging maybe not in new oak barrels and most are more approachable for drinking than the Flagship wine.   Here are some suggestions Caravan second label to Darioush Estates my pick was Decoy second label to Duckhorn, Slingshot second label to Stewart Cellars and Turn 4 for all you NASCAR fans this wine is made by Bennett Ranch  owned by Randy Lynch owner of the Lynch Racing.


I hope I answer the reader’s question, I enjoyed writing the blog, I hope you enjoyed reading it.  If you have other questions send them to


Merry Christmas!



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