East Versus West Cabernet Off

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We are pitting Cabernet Sauvignon from the famed Cabernet Sauvignon stalwart Napa Valley against Sonoma, its upstart, funkier neighbor to the West. Napa and Sonoma are separated by the Mayacamas Mountains. Does the Napa-Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon feud rival the epic feud that has rages between East Coast and West Coast rappers. Probably not. Vintners are usually pretty cooperative. But, we thought that it would be fun to pit Napa against Sonoma for your drinking pleasure. Let us know which ones you like best.

We came up with our idea for a East-West Cab rivalry when pondering the perfect wine to recommend for New Year’s. We ultimately settled on Cabernet Sauvignon as Americans love to celebrate the New Year’s Eve with juicy cuts of beef. In our humble opinion, Cabernet Sauvignon and red meat, whether it be prime rib, a brisket, a standing rib roast, a filet roast or any number of cuts of steak (T-Bones, Ribeye) are perfect partners. What could be more American than eating your selected cut of meat with an amazing Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa or Sonoma. I don’t think that it needs to be said, but this incredible pairing is good all year long, not just for New Year’s.

Napa is the King of American Cabernet Sauvignon. It produces famed Cabernet Sauvignon that rival the best Bordeaux (and even the prices for some of the smaller cult producers are rivaling the prices of the first growth Bordeaux, which is not an easy task). It was Warren Winarski and Stag’s Leap Winery’s Cabernet Sauvignon that upset the Bordealais at the epic Judgment of Paris Tasting in 1976. I have to admit that it was this wine, albeit a much later vintage, that helped me fall hopelessly in love with Napa Cabernet when I first moved to San Francisco. Today, there are thousands of vintners producing varying styles of Cabernet with vines that bask in the sun on the valley floor or cling to sides of mountains and hills.

Sonoma is Napa’s neighbor to the west, just over the Mayacamas Mountains. While Napa has been somewhat Disneyfied (apparently, it receives the second most visitors every year after Disneyland), Sonoma is a funky enclave of wine making. Sonoma stretches from Napa to the coast with an astounding number of micro-climates, grape varietals and wine styles. Unlike Napa, Cabernet Sauvignon isn’t the undisputed King having been eclipsed by the upstart Pinot Noir earlier this century. But, what is undisputed is that Sonoma makes some mighty fine Cabernet Sauvignon. And, because they don’t have the cache of Napa Valley, they tend to be offered at much better prices (in our opinion, for the same quality).

Here are our top picks for Napa and Sonoma Cabs. Given the cost of fine Cabernet Sauvignon, particularly those from Napa, we came up with a list of our top five wines (regardless of cost), as well as a list of our top 5 budget Cabs. Any of these wines would be a great addition to dinner or as a wine to be served at a party.  Try them, compare them and let us know what you think.

Top 5 Napa Cabs:

  • Dominus. This winery is owned by France’s famed Petrus. It’s a beautiful wine made in an elegant European style.
  • Caymus. One of my favorite wineries. The Wagner family makes amazing wines (they also own Condundrum, Belle Glos and other labels). The Cabernet Sauvignon was the original and the family’s flagship wine.
  • Joseph Phelps. A biodynamic winery that is intensely focused on quality. Joseph Phelps is better known for its red blend, Insignia, but it’s Cabernet Sauvignon is just as good.
  • Stag’s Leap. The wine that beat the french in the 1976 Judgment of Paris tasting. This winery makes velvety wines that are rich without being overpowering.
  • Shafer. If you like big, powerful Cabs with black fruit, earth and some spice, then this is the wine for you. Shafer started as a family affairs and continues as one.

Top 5 Budget Napa Cabs ($30 and under)

  • Clos du Val. This winery was started by a Frenchman and participated in the monumental 1976 Judgment of Paris tasting. This is a great, down to earth winery to visit and they have continued to make restrained Cabs offered at great prices.
  • Hess. One of my go-to Cabs for parties. It’s generally found well below $20 and enjoyed by all.
  • Buehler. The Buehler winery resurrected a “ghost winery” left over from Prohibition in the 1970’s. In the 1980’s, it was one of the first wineries to hire Hedi Peterson Barrett and both became famous. Since then, Buehler has continued to make fantastic wines at fantastic prices.
  • Hall. A relatively new winery in Napa (the Halls bought an existing winery) that makes modern style Cabernet at good prices.
  • Turnbull. This winery has been producing a library of popular wines since the 1970’s. It’s Cabernet is big and bold, age-worthy and price conscious.

Top 5 Sonoma Cabs

  • Rafanelli. This is a small family winery in northern Sonoma. They make ethereal wine. I have yet to meet one person that doesn’t love their wine.
  • Jordon. The stalwart of Sonoma Cabs. Jordan was founded by a former oilman who spent years researching where to position his winery. A strong, yet elegant Cab.
  • Hawley. This winery is manned by a father and his two sons. The father has over 30 years of experience and their wine reflects that experience. A great value.
  • Gundlach Bundschu. I attended a wedding in the Gundlach wine cave last year and adored both the cave and their wine. This winery sits almost on the border or Napa and Sonoma in the Mayacamas Mountains.
  • Joseph Family Vineyards. This amazing Cab is grown on hillsides next to Silver Oak and crafted by the esteemed David Ramey. A classic Bordeaux style Cab that offers a lovely blend of fruit and earth. Another steal at $40 a bottle.

Top 5 Sonoma Budget Cabs ($30 and under)

  • Chateau St. Jean. One of the first wineries that I visited in Sonoma and continue to take visitors. Chateau St. Jean makes great everyday and reserve wines.
  • Pedroncelli. This winery started in 1934 after the Pedroncelli family began selling grapes for home wine production during Prohibition. Pedroncelli offers a nice selection of wines and their Cab is one of their best offerings (along with the Zin).
  • St. Francis. This winery sits near Santa Rosa and has been making wine since the late 1970’s. They make consistently good Cabs at consistently good prices.
  • Toad Hollow. I like this winery – they make great wine at great prices. It was founded by Rodney Strong (after he had sold his own winery) and Robin William’s half-brother. Today, Mr. William’s widow keeps their tradition alive. The Cab is called Concinnity to reflect that its a “perfect blend”.
  • Louis Martini. A winery that got it’s start before Prohibition and survived Prohibition by making sacramental wine. Luckily for us, it was ready to start up production in 1933 as soon as Prohibition was repealed and continues to make great wine to this day.

* photo courtesy of Bay Nature

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