California cabernet sauvignon, especially from Napa Valley and Sonoma County, has been a sales phenomenon for at least 40 years. Even as California wine production continues to grow and lesser-known varieties gain interest, cabernet sauvignon remains the most popular varietal red wine.
And though fine quality can be found up and down the state, Sonoma and Napa dominate the high-quality wine production market. The following wines are listed in order of preference within each category.
While different expressions can be attributed to Napa’s varied appellations, a “Napa style” generaly emphasizes pronounced fruit, lavish oak, richness, concentration and firm body but supple texture. Ideally, this results in a wine enticing to drink now but that can be enjoyed for years. Some producers go overboard with this style; these get it right:
2016 Chappellet Signature ($70). From a contemporary Napa pioneer producing highly prized wines since 1967. Its flagship Pritchard Hill has become one of Napa’s iconic cabernets. At about one-third the price, the Signature is wonderfully expressive with layers of fresh fruits, suggestions of earth and cocoa; approachable with a lush texture and the structure to evolve for 20 years.
2015 Gamble Family ($60). This family of highly regarded growers, with a history in the valley of more than 100 years, has produced a lively wine with generous fruit, toasty oak and a supple yet well-knit frame.
2015 Duckhorn ($75). Duckhorn has produced quintessentially Napa Valley cabernet since 1978. Over the years, its portfolio has grown to include appellation and single vineyard bottlings. But the Napa Valley Duckhorn signifies the winery’s reputation for large- scaled, deeply flavored wines. It is complex, balanced, immediately appealing and polished, yet firmly structured.
2015 Frank Family ($58). Within just 25 years of operation, this winery (owned by a former Disney president) consistently produces exemplary expressions of Napa cabernet. This one offers rich cassis fruit, a cedary note and soft but firm tannins.
2015 Charles Krug Vintage Selection ($125). Napa’s oldest commercial winery (1861) has been in the Mondavi family since 1943. And the current generation continues the tradition of quality with this fruitful, full-bodied, powerful wine.
Over in Sonoma County, several valleys produce really good cabernet. Alexander Valley cabs, especially, can rival Napa. And the prices usually compare favorably.
2015 Jordan ($57). A mainstay in the valley (and a top destination) since the mid-1970s, this is Jordan’s first cab aged completely in French oak. It is refined and balanced, elegant with lively acidity, earthy and herb notes.
2014 Kendall-Jackson’s Jackson Estate ($40).
The Jackson family has been winegrowers since 1974 and produces a number of excellent Alexander Valley cabs. This one under their flagship brand showcases several estate vineyards with bright fruit, notable structure and rich tannins.
2015 Rodney Strong ($28). From this 55-year-old winery’s hillside estate vineyards, this forthright yet confident wine nicely balances oak and fruit, light herbs, finishing lush, structured and velvety.
2015 Murphy-Goode ($28). With family winemaking history in Alexander Valley since 1985 and farming before that, this is a nice everyday cab that delivers rather straightforward black fruits with suggestions of herbs and cocoa in a solid frame.