"The Collapse of Cabernet"

An interesting article that I must say I agree with for the most part and have experienced first hand. Only time will tell on some of the issues, but we are definitely looking at a different world of cabernet in the US than 25-30 years ago and perhaps not for the better:

The Collapse of Cabernet by Dan Berger
For more than a decade, I have hoped for a miracle. Then last week I realized the worst: Cabernet sauvignon has changed so appreciably that I fear we’ll never see it in the way we once did.

Cabernet has undergone a makeover that has, probably forever, made it little more than a parody of itself, entering a realm that 20 years ago I never would have believed.

Today, California cabernet is a virtual wine, made to be consumed as an aperitif and as young as possible. A long book could be devoted to this sad tale of decline. What follows is a brief look at the collapse of what once was California’s most prized possession.

First, let’s look back on what cabernet used to be. It was dry red wine. It was aged in oak not for oaky flavor, but for maturity and complexity. It was modest in alcohol – 12.5 percent for the vast majority; a few “over-the-top” wines reached 13.5 percent.

Also, it was designed to be aged a little bit, and a few a lot longer. When very young, the wines were tannic and needed taming. I still have some 1970s cabs in the cellar that are in great shape.

Moreover, once the wines got some bottle age and a bit of bouquet, they went nicely with food. Since they had good acid levels, food was a near necessity, and the list included steaks, chops, stews, roasted chicken, game and more.

What we have today, mainly at the $30-and-above price point, are wines that are the near antithesis of this: high in alcohol (almost nothing of supposed quality is less than 14.5 percent; some are 16 percent), very low acid levels (which almost guarantees that the wines won’t age well), and actual residual sugar in many.

This is wine that some reviewers say smells like chocolate, mocha, smoke and roasted nuts. These aren’t aromas derived from fruit; they come from the smoked oak barrels in which the wines were aged, clearly an idea that was never at play decades ago.

The most telling — and damaging — aspect of today’s cabernets is what I hear from wine makers, and always off the record. The phrasing may differ, but the sentiment is the same: “I may make cabernet, but I don’t drink it any more.”

I got an e-mail from Napa Valley wine maker George Vierra, who wrote, “We just opened a bottle of 1980 Vichon Eisele Vineyards Cabernet, 12.5percent alcohol. It had good color; fruity and herby nose, medium body, touch of astringency, correctly balanced, very long finish. I have a few more. Went great with leg of lamb.”

Minutes later came an e-mail from Christian Miller, a wine marketing researcher: “We had a 1991 Simi regular Cab yesterday that had aged beautifully. It would be fascinating to do a tasting of 10 or 20 year old flagship wines vs. ‘secondary’ wines to see which are aging better, although you might have to wait a few years to incorporate the full effect of the winemaking changes of recent years.”

I was a judge at the San Francisco Chronicle wine competition last week and one flight of 60 cabernets was utterly disappointing: almost all were huge, ungainly red wines that had no aroma I ascribe to cabernet. And these oafs had no food compatibility whatever.

The fact that today’s cabs don’t work with food prompted me to suggest that maybe they’d go with chocolate, to which a wine writing colleague argued, “What?! And ruin good chocolate?”

There are complicated reasons for this turnabout, but the bottom line is that we may have lost cabernet for all time. I can’t drink them young; I can’t imagine they will age well, and I cannot figure out why so many people are still buying them.

Is it political correctness? It certainly can’t be for the reasons we adored the grape and the wine decades ago. Have today’s consumers all been brainwashed?

Sure, a few elegant cabernets are still being made, but they are so rare as to be on a list of endangered species. (Curiously, some are reasonably priced, and probably because they don’t smell like chocolate.)

I hear rumors that wine makers are trying to cut back on alcohols. But we are locked in to a system that calls for this sort of mediocrity. And in some ways, the current situation is really laughable since the more you pay for a wine, the more likely it is to be weird and unlike cabernet.

P.S. Is there any connection to the decline in cabernet style and the dramatically increased sales of pinot noir?

Interesting read, and I thank you for sharing it.

Now let me sum it up in one word: HOGWASH!

I know what those wines of the 70s and 80s were like. The wines today are more exciting and more dimensional. the youth thing is the sore point right behind the alcohol thing. I think it’s time for those seeking a walk down ‘memory lane’ to change varieties. Syrah can sure use the boost. [cheers.gif]

These are certainly the greatest times to be a Napa Cab drinker. I have a 30 year window of reflection to say so. Exactly 30 years. [snort.gif]

While my biased opinion is one that would generally agree, since I prefer the ‘old school’ style cabernets from Napa (what few remain), and cabs with secondary and tertiary characteristics over the ‘lush, fruity, rich’ styles that are popular now, this article is rather pointed in bias, and I think it might have been received better if he had just done a flat out comparison of the two styles, so those from both schools could see their preferences, rather than creating such a line in the sand as he has.

Dan sounds suspiciously like Roy Piper. [rofl.gif]

You could merge this with the “Heitz and depths” thread, but then someone would likely accuse you of straying off-topic.
That said, there ain’t much new being said by Mr. Berger. And, as much as I agree with his recycled comments, his conclusion is incorrect.
At $100 to $250 a bottle, the cab fanatics who covet these wines don’t want something food-friendly. They want something that will blow the tops of their heads off. That will make their tongues (and Johnsons) curl up. It’s cocaine for wine geeks. They pay the long green, they are happy with the ego satiating, coveted and worshipped show-boy product and the wineries are happy that they can make money even with all the costs of production and putting on a show in Napa and circus rolls on.
The paradigm of food friendly modest old style cabernets works at the $20-$40 price point in todays dollars (and the $7-$15 pricepoint of the mid to late 70s) but not at the price point that high profile cabs need to sell for these days. Just my 2 sense about a wine category I no longer give a crap about.

The problem here isn’t the message - it’s the messenger. Actually, it’s not just Cab - EVERTHING got bigger. Gee, I wonder how that happened?


OK, I am back from the micro-wave with a 5 gallon bucket of popcorn. What did I miss?
It’s gonna be a fun afternoon.

Is a ‘micro-wave’ like a ‘radar range’?

…the hi-octane kind, with more butter and oak? You won’t be able to drink anything with that, you know.


Are you really saying that Cabs are better now than in the 70’s and 80’s? Why don’t you post a poll and ask experience wine drinkers what era of Cabs they prefer? I stopped buying modern cabs and will only backfill from 96 and older.

I wonder, though, how the general public used to buy and consume Cabernet when it was lower alcohol, harsher at release, requiring aging, etc. Was it known as such, and did consumers buy/consume accordingly? Is it the drive for ‘drink now’ that has changed the market, or is it the dawn of ratings for ‘drink now’ palates what drove the market? There used to be VERY few makers of Napa Cabernet, now there are many hundreds. Perhaps to compete, they feel they needed to make wines that are to the tastes of the public, which increased substantially from the 70’s and 80’s.

Said poll is immaterial, as this group of wine geeks is only a tiny, tiny percentage of the winebuying public, and the public wants ‘drink now’ as they don’t wish to wait 10-20 years to drink the wine they buy when they come to Napa.

Good news, Steve: we will never fight over the same WineBid lot. [cheers.gif]

(I buy nothing older than '01)

“Collapse of Cabernet?” By what measurement? If a wine writer is going to assert that a segment of the wine biz has “collapsed,” doesn’t it behoove them to quote some statistics re: sales?

Now, if someone wants to claim that Napa Cabernet has changed stylistically, that’s fine and dandy, but that’s NOT the same as the collapse of that market segment.


So go through your 30 years of cab drinking, Mike - let’s see your take on it all. See my post above, regarding the 70’s and 80’s, and those who bought cab then.

To this point, I have heard a few ITB folks in Napa state that the public gets what they want…

In today’s reward me now society, customers for the most part want early accessibility in their wines and don’t/won’t wait for them to age as in the past. That is why BDX is shifting in that direction as well for a few producers. We can blame Parker for some of this, but the bottom line is that this style of wine is selling right now.

Or drink Cabs together at the next Berserkerfest. neener

What a whiner! I laughed out loud at his P.S. I thought the growth in Pinot noir sales had corresponded with the shift to more fruit-forward, oaked, and higher alcohol Pinots noir being produced.