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California Cabernet Sauvignon

The Theme

When you think of California wine country, you think of Napa Valley.  And no wine is more synonymous with Napa than Cabernet Sauvignon, those big, fruity, chocolaty reds that pair perfectly with your steak.  “Napa Cabs” rival the best wines in the world, and a tasting of a variety of these big American wines is sure to be a hit with your guests.

The Angle

This is a great “blind” tasting.  Napa Cabs are so popular that many good ones come with whopping prices.  But sometimes our palate tells us the money’s not worth it – there’s nothing more fun than discovering the $15-20 wine you like better than the expensive stuff in a blind taste test.  Line up about seven Cabs ranging from less than $10 a bottle to a few big-name wines in the $50 range, disguise the bottles, and let your guests’ taste buds decide.  May the best wine win!

Sample Lineup

  1. Charles Shaw, “Two Buck Chuck” Cabernet Sauvignon ($1.99)
  2. 2008 McManis California Cabernet Sauvignon ($8.99)
  3. 2007 Twenty Bench Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($15.99)
  4. 2006 Franciscan Oakville Estate Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($18.99)
  5. 2006 Robert Mondavi Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon ($34.99)
  6. 2006 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars “Artemis” Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($44.99)
  7. 2005 Silver Oak Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($59.99)


The Wines

We’ve done this tasting several times and it’s always a blast.  In theory, all you need are a selection of wines at all price points, and your local wine merchant can help you assemble a selection that looks nothing like the one above.  However, the wines in our sample lineup above were chosen for a reason – we’ve had many of these wines before and they work really well for this event.  The higher-priced ones represent some big names in Napa that are good to know, while a few of the lower-priced wines have serious potential to be the spoilers that emerge as favorites in your tasting despite the modest price points!

On the low-priced side, if you can find it, you almost have to include “Two Buck Chuck” in this tasting.  It became a sort of California legend when Fred Franzia began distributing it at a $1.99 price point through merchants like Trader Joe’s, and many customers discovered that it wasn’t half bad – particularly for the price!  McManis is another fantastic wine for the money; for less than $10, we know many friends & family who love that wine.  Our friends at K&L Wine Merchants in California alerted us to Twenty Bench a few years ago, believing you wouldn’t find a better Cab for $15.  And Franciscan Oakville…well, suffice it to say that in two consecutive years of hosting this event, Franciscan emerged as the winner, beating out wines three times the price.  It’s one of our favorite cabernets, and a great wine to know about as it’s widely distributed.

The three wines at the higher-end of the sample lineup above represent a trio of big names.  Robert Mondavi is the undisputed grandfather of the California wine industry, a mentor to dozens if not hundreds of winemakers and one of the great marketers of the 20th century.  His winery in Napa is a veritable tourist attraction and though he makes wines at all price points, his higher-end wines are of excellent quality.  Stag’s Leap and Silver Oak (discussed further below) are renowned producers indelibly associated with producing great California cabernet.  They’re on wine lists everywhere and are great “brands” to introduce to your guests.



A blind tasting like this one is a real party – it’s effortless, requires no formal academic discussion of the wines, and as such deserves some fun background party music.  Given that we’re focused on an American classic in California Cabs in an unpretentious setting, we’d suggest classic laid-back American rock.  We’d put together an iTunes mix here that picks unpretentious American classics but focuses on their more upbeat hits.  We’d go with Bruce Springsteen, John Cougar Mellencamp, and The Eagles.

Bruce is a perfect choice: ideal songs for your mix would include “Born in the USA,” “Born to Run,” “Thunder Road,” “Badlands,” “Glory Days,” “Dancing in the Dark,” “Hungry Heart,” “Brilliant Disguise,” and “Better Days”  You also can’t go wrong with The Eagles, the fathers of California rock – go with “Take It Easy,” “Get Over It,” “Hotel California,” “In the City,” “Life in the Fast Lane” and of course “Desperado.”  If you throw in Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer” “All She Wants to Do is Dance,” and “The Heart of the Matter,” well that’s totally fair since he was The Eagles’ frontman.  And for John Cougar Mellencamp, any of “Pink Houses,” “Jack and Diane,” “Authority Song,” “R.O.C.K. in the USA,” “Hurts so Good,” “Cherry Bomb,” or “Small Town” would suit your theme. 



This is a fun, no-frills wine party, not a fancy wine-and-cheese.  But that doesn’t mean you can’t put some mean cheeses out and put some thought into what goes well with Cabernet.  Our friends at Wine Spectator did a great wine-and-cheese pairing issue a few years ago that we enjoyed reading so much we kept; we still use it as a reference.  They picked four cheeses to go with Cabernet: a nice slightly crumbly Dry Jack, a Spanish Manchego, Carr Valley Marisa (an American sheep’s milk cheese), and a cool cheese called “Roomano” which resembles an aged Dutch Gouda. 

Mixed olives would also go nicely as a finger food on the side that will blend nicely with your Cabs (olives don’t go great with every wine, but they are a good accompaniment to big red wines).  If you want to put out some heavy apps as well, we’re not going to discourage you.  Play on the “Cabernet and Steak” idea since that’s one of the great pairings.  We have a friend who slices up grilled sirloin onto bite-size portions of slized baguette with a horseradish cream sauce – that would be perfect for this tasting.  Similar variations on the same theme would be bratwurst, meatballs, or “slider” mini-burgers.  You want your guests to think “Cabernet and Beef” – they’ll thank you later!


Tasting Notes

As with any “blind” tasting, disguise the bottles before you display them.  If you have wine party decorative cloth bags, great; but paper bags or even aluminum foil work fine too.   Number them in some way and then place them around the room to create a flow of traffic for your party.  Have a simple scoring sheet where guests can write their comments (“chocolaty,” “lots of red fruit flavor,” “I think this must be Two Buck Chuck!”) and rate the wines on a 1-5 or 1-10 scale.  When everyone’s tried all the wines, collect and quickly tabulate the scores.  Unveil the wines one by one, making sure to first highlight wines that some of your guests loved (or hated!).  The great thing is, no matter which wine one likes best, everyone’s a winner.  If you pick the Two Buck Chuck, congratulations – you’re a cheap date and can buy a case or two of your favorite wine for what it takes to buy a bottle of the others at the tasting!  If you preferred the Stag’s Leap or the Silver Oak, congratulations – you have a sophisticated palate and are well on your way to becoming a certified wine snob! 

Charles Shaw wines are sold exclusively in Trader Joe’s grocery stores.  From their website: “Lovingly nicknamed “Two Buck Chuck” by a member of the wine press, these California wines have become something of a phenomenon in the wine world, and in our stores. Contrary to many an urban legend, these super-value wines began as the result of an oversupply of wine and a great relationship with a valued supplier. They’ve become the nation’s best-selling wines, not surprising when you consider the combination of low price ($1.99 – $3.49 per bottle, depending on the region) and great taste Charles Shaw wines offer. Depending on the season and the quality of wine available, our selection of Charles Shaw varietals will vary, but the quality never will.”  Decide for yourself!

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars is one of the great producers of cabernet in Napa Valley.  In fact, winemaker Warren Winiarski’s 1973 Stag’s Leap Vineyard cabernet shocked the wine world by winning the “Judgment of Paris” 1976 tasting against some of the great Bordeaux houses.  Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars makes a variety of cabernets; the “Artemis” above sells for about $45, the “Fay” sells for nearer $70, the “SLV” for $120 and the super-premium “Cask 123” for upwards of $200.  We like to include the Artemis to inject a little star power into the tasting.

To that end, Silver Oak is another “star” wine in California.  They make only cabernet sauvignon, and they do it very well.  Silver Oak makes two cabernets, actually – their Alexander Valley cabernet (above) is slightly less expensive at $60-70 while their Napa Valley cabernet sells for nearer $90/bottle.  We like to include both Silver Oak and Stag’s Leap in this tasting because if your guests love them, they’re easy to find and you’re likely to see them show up on restaurant wine lists for years to come.  And if you’re paying with a company expense account, even better!  Either way, we think it’s fun to get to know some of the “reference point” wines from Napa Valley, and a blind tasting is a great way to do just that.

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