Cabernet in Sonoma: Why Cabernet Sauvignon Deserves One More Spotlight in California

Cabernet in Sonoma:
Why Cabernet Sauvignon Deserves
One More Spotlight in California

By Bryce Wiatrak

“As a group, Sonoma cabernets tend to be overlooked—an indignity, and it needs to go,” wrote the wine columnist Frank Prial in a 2000 New York Times article. I couldn’t agree more. Cabernet Sauvignon is rarely an underdog. After all, it is the backbone of many of the world’s most pedigreed, collected, and expensive red wines, from the Médoc to Bolgheri to the Napa Valley. Yet Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon does not possess nearly the brand power of Cabernet wines grown across the county line in the Napa Valley. It also garners less recognition in Sonoma than the county’s most esteemed grapes: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and perhaps for some even Zinfandel. In 2019, the average price per ton of Napa Valley Cabernet was $7,941. In Sonoma, it was less than half that, at $3,056. Sonoma Pinot Noir, meanwhile, was $3,949.

Sonoma County Cabernet should not be such a secret. It trails Pinot Noir in total plantings, with 12,621 acres to Pinot’s 13,094 in 2019. Indeed, Pinot Noir overtook Cabernet Sauvignon as Sonoma’s most planted red grape variety only between 2007 and 2008, riding the California-wide, post-Sideways Pinot Noir boom. Further, what are believed to be the oldest Cabernet Sauvignon vines in North America grow in Sonoma, at the famous Monte Rosso Vineyard, planted by Louis M. Martini in 1940. And yet, more than two decades after his remarks, Prial’s plea to consider Sonoma Cabernet has not been fully answered.

Prial was drawn to the approachability of Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon. He claimed, “As a rule, Sonoma cabernets are rounder and fleshier than the Napa cabernets.” That may be less true today than it was then, as a growing number of ambitious Cabernet projects have cropped up across the county. Other critics often point to the greater comparative value Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon presents versus examples from Napa. That remains almost always true.

But for me, what is most exciting about Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon is the tremendous diversity of expressions available—a range that is conceivably broader than that of the Napa Valley. A single county offers Cabernet from the coast and from the interior, from the mountains and from the valleys, from hipsters and from Robert Parker–approved stalwarts. No matter how you take your Cabernet, Sonoma has one just for you.

A Prophecy for Sonoma Valley What is arguably Sonoma’s most historic corridor is also one of its great terroirs for Cabernet Sauvignon: the Sonoma Valley. Comprising the county’s southeastern quadrant, the valley—unfolding between the Mayacamas Mountains and the next ridgeline toward the Pacific—includes Buena Vista, California’s oldest operating winery, as well as such heritage producers as Gundlach Bundschu, Chateau St. Jean, Kenwood, and Benziger.

The Sonoma Valley is also home to Monte Rosso, the crown jewel of the Moon Mountain District AVA. Brenae Royal is the viticulturist at the iconic property, which today is owned by E. & J. Gallo. “I think Monte Rosso is the representation of Moon Mountain,” she says. It’s the largest vineyard in the appellation, and, Royal adds, “any neighboring vineyards that we have out there have cuttings from Monte Rosso.” Of Monte Rosso’s approximately 250 acres, 118 are dedicated to Cabernet Sauvignon. Of those, 3.73 acres are from the 1940 plantings. 

“We’re really curating each of those vines individually to what they can handle,” explains Royal of the old, head-trained block. “You’re managing those vines for true balance. And I know that’s very cliché to say, but your expectations can’t be production levels.” Mainly, this tedious work involves weighing the canopy growth against the crop load so that these old vines are not taking on more fruit than they can sustain, and are not so under cropped that the fruit loses its acidity, a trademark for the vineyard. As a result, the 1940 block is farmed to about 1.5 tons per acre—half the average of Monte Rosso overall. 

Today, 10 producers, beyond E. & J. Gallo’s brands, purchase Cabernet Sauvignon from Monte Rosso, including Arrowood, Bedrock Wine Co., and Sbragia Family Vineyards. Some of the wines have yet to hit the shelves, following Gallo’s more recent push to sell Monte Rosso fruit to premium wineries and place less into lower-priced blends without any vineyard designation. Still, Monte Rosso is hardly the only great Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard of the Sonoma Valley.

“There are three areas for great Cab in Sonoma Valley, and they have some pretty distinct differences,” says Sam Coturri, who farms many of the top properties in the Sonoma Valley with his father, Phil Coturri, and their management company, Enterprise Vineyards. He also makes wine for his own label, Winery Sixteen 600.

First among the areas he notes is a collection of patches on the valley floor. Much like the fans at the feet of Napa’s mountain ranges, these Sonoma Valley sites feature complex soils that include rocky alluvial runoff mixed with the loam of the bench. Coturri praises the Cabernet wines grown here for their richness.

Second is the Sonoma Mountain AVA, a 2,400-foot peak on the western range. “The standout I always think of there is Laurel Glen,” says Coturri of the renowned winery, whose Cabernet blends demonstrate a lighter hand and more classical aesthetic. Vineyards on Sonoma Mountain generally face east or northeast, capturing the softer morning light and shadowing earlier in the afternoon when the sun is harshest.

Third is, of course, the Moon Mountain District—whose famous vineyards extend well beyond Monte Rosso and include such sites as Montecillo Vineyard, Hanzell Vineyard, and the original Kistler Vineyard. The Sonoma side of Napa’s Mount Veeder, Moon Mountain, in contrast to Sonoma Mountain, faces west. Here, vines above the fog are bathed in the afternoon light. The volcanic soils are intercepted by dramatic rock formations—inspiring the appellation’s lunar name—and the stones radiate heat, narrowing diurnal swings and allowing for maturation to continue overnight.

 
Moon Mountain (Photo credit: Bryce Wiatrak)
Moon Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon is defined by its acidity, even at profound ripeness. Coturri explains, “A Moon Mountain District Cabernet that you bring in at 28 [degrees Brix] . . . the pH is 3.2, 3.3, 3.4.” What is impressive about Moon Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon is its ability to maintain a sense of brightness and some of Cabernet’s more savory qualities while routinely exceeding 15% alcohol by volume. “Winemakers often will come into working with Moon Mountain District Cabernet for the first time and be freaking out—because of potential alcohol, because of pH, because of Brix—and pick too early and have these acidities that are really hard to deal with,” Coturri says. 

“I really love thinking about one of the great Cabernets of the Moon Mountain District as sort of the yin to the Mayacamas Winery’s yang,” he adds. (Mayacamas is the prestigious winery across the ridgeline on Mount Veeder that the Coturri family also farms.) “You have the same sort of intensity that you get at Mayacamas and structure and freshness, but because we’re on the sunny side of the mountain—where Mayacamas is in the shadows over there—you get more richness and ripeness.”

Attention toward the Moon Mountain District seems only to have been growing since the AVA’s formation in 2013. Prices, too, seem to more closely resemble those of Napa. “It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy,” says Coturri. “If we are able to put the resources into farming it and producing it, the wines will prove themselves to be among the elite Cabernets of the planet.” 

Take to the Hills


Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon is not a new concept for Sonoma County, but only in recent years has it begun to capture the same attention as the high-elevation wines grown to the east. The variety was planted at the original, mountainous Fountain Grove Winery in the 1870s, but the vineyard—which supported one of California’s largest pre-Prohibition brands—was torn up in favor of cattle ranching upon its sale in 1934. In this vicinity, production of premium Cabernet has returned and increased for at least the past half century, led by stalwarts such as Fisher Vineyards since the early 1970s and more-contemporary arrivals like Cornell Vineyards in the 2000s. Still, only recently has this area—the Fountaingrove District AVA, and effectively the Sonoma side of Napa’s Spring Mountain District AVA in the Mayacamas—started to form a collective identity for its Cabernet wines.

Just north, Knights Valley offered some of the first hyper-premium Sonoma Cabernet wines, almost exclusively from high-elevation fruit. Among the earliest was Peter Michael, who started planting his Les Pavots Vineyard to Bordeaux varieties in 1989 as high as 1,400 feet near the base of Mount Saint Helena. As Sonoma’s hottest corner, Knights Valley is nonetheless moderated by its straight shot to the ocean. “The far east is not protected by the big Mayacamas Mountains . . . so we are still under the influence of the Pacific Ocean,” says Pierre Seillan, who with his daughter, Hélène, makes the wines for the Jackson Family’s Vérité and Anakota brands at a Knights Valley facility. 

In the Alexander Valley, arguably Sonoma’s most classic and best recognized appellation for Cabernet Sauvignon, Rodney Strong helped pioneer hillside Cabernet, as well as the area’s first single-vineyard Cabernet, from his Alexander’s Crown property, planted in 1971—a time when winegrowing was almost exclusively limited to the bench. At 250 to 350 feet in elevation, the vineyard is hardly mountainous by modern standards, but the move away from the valley floor was significant at the time. Even today, much of the Alexander Valley benchland is cropped high, with vigorous rootstocks and high-yielding clones, leading to greener, often thinner expressions of Cabernet Sauvignon—though there are also several top-quality exceptions.

Much of the current excitement about the Alexander Valley is focused on wines grown far higher off the ground in the eastern hillsides of the appellation. Gauer Ranch, one of the earliest vineyards, was purchased in 1995 by Jackson Family Wines, which renamed it Alexander Mountain Estate. The soaring property reaches elevations as high as 2,400 feet above sea level  and provides fruit for several of the top Cabernet Sauvignon wines in the Jackson portfolio, including Stonestreet and Vérité, the label with a trio of multiregional Sonoma blends—and the county’s most expensive wines. 

Chris Jackson hopes the Alexander Valley’s eastern slopes, including his family’s Alexander Mountain Estate and several dozen smaller neighbors, will become an AVA in the next half decade or so. Pocket Peak, as he calls it, would be the first nested appellation within the Alexander Valley. Wines from this area are concentrated and darkly fruited, with bold, rocky tannins. To my palate, they resemble Napa mountain Cabernet more closely than any other examples from Sonoma.

Nevertheless, Pocket Peak has its singularities. “It will cool down quicker here, it takes longer to warm up, and our nights here, when compared to Oakville . . . will be 10 to 15 degrees cooler,” explains the winemaker Jesse Katz, whose single-vineyard wines for his young Aperture label count among the zone’s dynamic new ventures. Katz notes that the lower eastern range of the Alexander Valley—less towering than the Mayacamas, as Seillan noted—allows for a maritime influence that is greater than what is observed in the Napa Valley. The colder temperatures allow for an extended growing season, while the western exposure confirms a consistent lush, ripe style expected of California Cabernet. Further, the various free-draining, gravelly volcanic soils that blanket Pocket Peak create ample hydric stress from early in the growth cycle, helping shrink berry size and increase skin-to-juice ratios. In all, these mechanisms mandate the densely structured, ageworthy Cabernet Sauvignon that Pocket Peak is becoming known for—wines that Katz describes as rich in tannin but more restrained in fruit character than Napa mountain Cabernet Sauvignon.
 

Hillside plantings at A. Rafanelli
(Photo credit: Bryce Wiatrak)

Two ridgelines over, Shelly Rafanelli finds that Cabernet Sauvignon in Dry Creek Valley has different needs. “I really feel the best stuff comes off the steeper hillsides on the west side,” says Rafanelli, who now leads A. Rafanelli Winery, which her family founded in the early 20th century. While Dry Creek Valley is best known as one of California’s premier appellations for Zinfandel, a substantial amount of Cabernet Sauvignon is also planted in the region. Shelly’s father, David, spearheaded Rafanelli’s Cabernet program, purchasing an established vineyard for the variety in the early 1980s on the valley floor. He quickly found, however, that the soils were too heavy for the quality Cabernet wine he envisioned. David proceeded to source fruit for his first Cabernet wines from the western slopes of Dry Creek Valley, converted his new valley floor vineyard to Merlot (which is more likely to thrive in deeper clay soils), and planted Cabernet Sauvignon on the hillsides of his property in 1991—the best of which would later go into Rafanelli’s flagship Terrace Select. 

While less qualitatively different for Zinfandel, Shelly Rafanelli notes that the drainage provided by hillside sites is critical for top-shelf Cabernet Sauvignon in Dry Creek Valley, as it is in the Alexander Valley. In Dry Creek Valley, however, the elevation also helps protect the vines from the heat that otherwise contributes to the signature jammy character of the region’s Zinfandel. That mitigation is further exaggerated in the western hills, where the aspect favors soft morning sun and around two hours less light each day during the growing season. Rafanelli finds the resulting fruit achieves a structural balance that minimizes the need for blending with accessory varieties. “We have good tannins, but the tannins aren’t so big and brash,” she explains, further noting a huckleberry or blueberry note reminiscent of that found in classic Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel. 

Cabernet in the Pinot Lands


While Moon Mountain or the Alexander Valley hillsides may come across as obvious Cabernet country, the variety has also infiltrated more unexpected terrain, including areas that would otherwise appear sacred Pinot land.

The Fort Ross–Seaview AVA possesses some of the most hallowed ground for Pinot Noir in California. It was here that in 1972, Michael Bohan planted the first successful, modern vineyard in the far reaches of the West Sonoma Coast. David Hirsch followed in 1980. Later, his daughter Jasmine fronted the In Pursuit of Balance movement to champion chiseled, restrained California Pinot Noirs—with her family’s wines, grown in the punishing margins, serving as textbook examples.

For his project Enfield Wine Co., John Lockwood also makes wine from Fort Ross–Seaview—just two miles as the crow flies from Hirsch—but from Cabernet Sauvignon. “There are certainly some sites in Fort Ross that would be too cool for Cabernet and are obviously more appropriate for Pinot and Chard,” Lockwood says. “There’s also a lot of variability.” Lockwood sources fruit from the Waterhorse Ridge Vineyard, a site he thinks is too warm for Pinot Noir. The vineyard, located on a hilltop, experiences almost no fog and faces west, receiving intense afternoon sunlight. The shallow, rocky volcanic soils help reduce yields and ultimately make ripening Cabernet Sauvignon possible.

That’s not to say Lockwood’s wine resembles a more inland Cabernet. Structurally, the acidity is quite pronounced, while the alcohol by volume only reaches 13.4% in the 2018 vintage—low for California but in line with much Bordeaux. Still, it’s not the “mint-jalapeño monster” Lockwood anticipates one might expect. Enamored of the early post-Prohibition wines of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, Lockwood set out to make one “that reflects a more classic period of California Cab.” He takes several steps in the cellar to pay homage to those wines, including adding about 10% of stems back into the tank after destemming. Lockwood enjoys what he describes as Asian pear aromatics from the stems and reasons that the rustic destemming equipment available in the mid-20th century likely let around 10 to 15% of the stems slip through the cracks. And he hopes the added tannin will help his wine age.

Waterhorse Ridge isn’t the sole Cabernet vineyard in Fort Ross–Seaview. Lockwood cites about half a dozen fellow champions of coastal Cabernet Sauvignon, including Red Car’s Mohrhardt Ridge. And Fort Ross isn’t unique in cultivating both Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. Hanzell is one of the few Moon Mountain vineyards located beneath the fog line, a critical feature to its mesoclimate that has allowed the producer to excel with the Burgundian varieties. But Hanzell also cultivates Cabernet Sauvignon—albeit for a much leaner, more herbaceous expression than that of the sun-drenched Moon Mountain counterparts grown on higher ground. The program, which was revived in recent years, has its own devoted following and has garnered significant critical praise.

At the heart of the county, Eva Dehlinger harvests Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir (and Chardonnay and Syrah) side by side on her family’s namesake estate in the Russian River Valley. The region, seen by many as California’s most famous appellation for Pinot Noir, had not yet earned that distinction when Eva’s father, Tom, first planted his vineyard in the 1970s. “At that time, it wasn’t really known which varieties would do well here,” Eva Dehlinger says. “It wasn’t clear this [would] be  great Pinot Noir country.” She continues, “Our first Cabernet block my father put on our red Altamont soils. It was clear to him this was going to be privileged soil.” While the original 1975 Cabernet Sauvignon block has since been uprooted, the 1980 Cabernet vines—planted in similar conditions, which Dehlinger believes are key to the variety’s success in the Russian River Valley—remain in production. The red Altamont soil, which like the more widely known Goldridge is part of the Wilson Grove Formation, is most commonly found on hilltops. The drainage it provides helps reduce vigor, and the increased sun exposure the Cabernet receives at higher elevation further contributes to consistent ripening. While the 1980 block extends to the bottom of the south-facing hill, the grapes grown at the base and in different soils are omitted from the Dehlinger blend.

In truth, temperature is barely an issue for growing Cabernet in this corner of the Russian River Valley.

“Really, what I’m pushing up against is not so much can good Cabernet be grown here but can I harvest the Cabernet before the rainy season starts,” Dehlinger says. Beyond the specificities of the various meso climates across her property, Dehlinger enacts several viticultural practices to help Cabernet Sauvignon, a notoriously late-ripening variety, achieve phenolic maturity in an efficient time frame.

Much of this relates to cluster thinning—Dehlinger’s Cabernet vines are often left a single cluster per shoot—and canopy management. “If you have a very wild canopy and a lot of shade, then you will get the greener elements,” explains Dehlinger. “While I do celebrate that spiciness and the complexity that comes from a cooler climate, I don’t want it to get out of hand.” Sunlight exposure can minimize the impact of methoxypyrazines, which impart Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux varieties with herbaceous, green notes often characterized by a bell pepper flavor when underripe. Dehlinger finds that a tall canopy wall gives the Cabernet vines enough surface area for photosynthesis, but by removing lateral growth and exposing the fruiting zone, she can keep the savorier tones under control.
 

A flight of Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon wines
(Photo credit: Bryce Wiatrak)

Perhaps Cabernet Sauvignon in the Russian River Valley shouldn’t be so surprising. The typical Pinot Noirs of the region are famously generous and opulent, at times only faintly resembling expressions of the variety from colder locales. “It’s not right off the edge of an ocean cliff,” Dehlinger admits of the Russian River Valley. But even for Sonoma Coast vineyards that are, delicate, lower-alcohol wines are often a stylistic choice. Myriad generous and opulent Pinot Noirs are also produced alongside the Pacific. Lockwood makes an astute comparison to the Santa Cruz Mountains—another AVA, just south of San Francisco, that extends across the Coast Ranges and pushes against the water. Here, some of the most celebrated Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir wines in California are bottled from Ridge, Rhys, Mount Eden, and Thomas Fogarty. The results speak for themselves—so why not attempt the same on the Sonoma Coast?

Although the Burgundian varieties have seemingly marked their territories, there remains plenty of reason to question if Sonoma truly has the right grapes in the right places—or if it will down the road. “What I’ve joked for a long time is that Waterhorse was my hedge against global warming,” Lockwood says, though with some seriousness. “Fifteen years from now, I’m going to have the best Cabernet vineyard in California.”

Tasting Notes


Kamen Cabernet Sauvignon Moon Mountain District 2018
One of several youngish prestige Cabernet projects in the AVA—Kamen’s first release came in 1991—this wine shows the hallmark characteristics of Moon Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon. Grown at 1,100 to 1,450 feet in a biodynamic vineyard farmed by the Coturri family, Kamen’s Cabernet shows a massive tannic heft, matched by a warming 15.5% alcohol by volume and balanced with a persistent line of acidity. All of this is typical of Moon Mountain structure, while the flavors of pomegranate molasses, chocolate sauce, and poached fig reflect a ripe, gratifying style.
 
Cornell Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Fountaingrove District 2017 97 Points
Founded by Henry and Vanessa Cornell, with Elizabeth Tangney as winemaker and Françoise Peschon as consulting winemaker, Cornell bottles some of the most alluring wines in the Fountaingrove District. The 2017 Cornell—only the fifth vintage—shows dazzling rosewater, violet pastille, and sandalwood aromatics, followed by flavors of tart plum, macerated black cherry, and blue fruit flavors. Exceptionally balanced and finely chiseled, the wine offers impressive elegance and purity.
 
Aperture Bordeaux Blend Alexander Valley 2018 96+ Points
Jesse Katz describes Oliver Ranch as on the border of the prospective Pocket Peak area. It sits on a plateau on the eastern hillsides of the Alexander Valley and has a combination of volcanic and river deposit soil influence. The wine finishes with tremendous length and demonstrates great polish in its tannins and intensity of flavor.
 
Skipstone Oliver’s Blend 2018
Another ambitious project in the eastern hills of the Alexander Valley, owned by Fahri and Constance Diner and with Philippe Melka as winemaker, Skipstone offers expressive, suave Bordeaux-styled wines. The 2018 Oliver’s Blend is a monovarietal Cabernet Sauvignon that tastes distinctively Californian in its generous, expansive black fruit tones and persistent tannins. Tasting of plum compote and blueberries, the wine has great compaction and length.

Skiptstone Preface Red Blend 2018
The 2018 Preface Proprietary Red blend offers up a gorgeous scents of preserves, blueberries with hints of cloves, star anise, and roses. The bright palate is lush and full-bodied, rich and captivating with an appealing structure of well balanced fruit culminating with silky grained tannins and pleasing flavors that finish very long and pleasantly. Preface is a Merlot-dominated Bordeaux Blend made by Philippe Melka, rounded with the addition of both Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon (10%) for structure and aromatic expression. Only 175 cases were produced.
 


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