The earliest documented planting of European grape varieties, including Cabernet Sauvignon, was around 1833 by Jean-Louis Vignes, a French immigrant who settled in Los Angeles. He imported vines from Bordeaux, France, and planted them at his vineyard, El Aliso, in what is now downtown Los Angeles.

From there, several pioneers played crucial roles in establishing Cabernet Sauvignon as a premier grape variety in Napa Valley. Charles Krug opened Napa Valley’s first commercial winery in 1863. The Mondavi Family purchased Charles Krug in 1943 and was instrumental in popularizing Cabernet Sauvignon. In the 1940s, they started replacing old Italian and other field blend varietals with Bordeaux varietals. Their successes in the 1950s and 1960s set the stage for Napa Valley to become a renowned region for high-quality Cabernet Sauvignon at reasonable prices.

One of the family, Robert Mondavi, split from Krug Winery and founded his own winery in 1966 in St. Helena in an architectural classic. His winery produced fine Cabernet from the outset, and Robert became a global emissary for the Napa Valley wine region.

Other leaders advancing the case for Cabernet Sauvignon as king of the Napa Valley were Inglenook, Beringer, Louis Martini, and Beaulieu Vineyards (BV), where André Tchelistcheff led a wine-quality revolution in the valley, introducing practices like clean winemaking and the use of French oak barrels. He crafted the fine Georges de Latour Private Reserve. Up the road, Joseph Heitz founded his winery in 1959. In addition to his always tasty Napa Valley wine, he drew fans with his Martha’s Vineyard bottling, which exhibited a distinct terroir.

Beringer Private Reserve

New Cabernet Sauvignon stars in subsequent years included the founders of Caymus (Charlie Wagner), Chappellet (Donn), Joseph Phelps, Shafer (John), Spottswoode (the Novak family), and Stags Leap Wine Cellars (Warren Winiarski). I’ve always preferred their wines over the high-priced, high-alcohol fruit bombs from the so-called cult wineries. The cult wines generate high scores from certain judges, but all taste alike and don’t do well with food except BBQ and ribs. Wealthy score-mongers collect the cults as trophies and for bragging rights. This keep prices astronomical, even though the wines taste alike, lack distinction – a sense of place – and don’t age well. The fruit disappears behind the alcohol. Other than that, they are wonderful!

Pardon the lengthy preamble. This leads to celebrating older, classic California Cabernet Sauvignon wines we tasted over the past six months. Vintages range from 1970 to 2015, alcohol levels from 12.0 to 14.5, and prices from $10 in 1974 to $95 in 2017. The wines are listed in order of vintage year. Overall, I continue to be impressed with how the more classic wines can age with style and grace.

Robert Mondavi, Beaulieu, and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars

  • Napa classic, from a magnum (soft cork fell through, decanted) 1970 Robert Mondavi Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Unfiltered Napa Valley. Light ruby, amber edges, rim variation, low viscosity (12.0 alc.); leathery, dried leaves, red fruit, berry nose; low acids, soft tannins; some depth; decent flavor; short, smooth, semi-elegant finish; several years past its prime. 17/92.
  • 50+ year old 1970 Beaulieu Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Georges de Latour Private Reserve ($10 in 1974). Very pale brick, amber edges, low viscosity (12.5 alc.); herbaceous, red fruit, wood, tea leaves, Cabernet nose; soft acids; soft-medium tannins; semi-long red fruit and tea leaves finish; past prime. 16.5/91.
  • Napa classic 1981 Heitz Cellar Cabernet Sauvignon Martha’s Vineyard. Light-mid ruby, amber edges, some viscosity (13.5 alc.); red fruit, herbaceous, cassis, wood (eucalyptus) nose; low-mid acids; softening tannins; nice balance at 13.5 alc.; semi-long, tasty red fruit and wood finish. 17-17.5/92-93.
  • 1986 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon Cask 23. Light-mid ruby, brick/amber edges: some viscosity (13.1 alc.); red fruit, herbaceous, light mint, cassis and leather nose; low-acids; low-mid tannins; a little past its prime; decent fruit still; wonderful Cabernet flavor; a little short. 17/92.
  • Consistently rich Stag’s Leap viticultural area (AVA) star, 1996 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon S.L.V. Mid-ruby, amber edges, viscous (13.8 alc.); Napa Cabernet nose; herbaceous, cassis, red fruit, tobacco, oak, mint; balanced; medium acids, tannins, depth; long elegant red fruit and wood finish. 17-17.5/92-93.
  • Nicely aging 1997 Silverado Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley. Mid-brick, amber edges, viscous (13.4 alc.); berries, cassis, red fruit, light herbaceous Cabernet nose; mid-acids/tannins; balanced; good Cab fruit on the palate; long semi-tight red fruit finish. 17/92.

Beringer and Spottswoode

  • Napa classic 2004 Beringer Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Private Reserve. Mid garnet, brick edges, viscous (14.4 alc.); herbaceous, red fruit, mint, berry nose; mid acids/tannins; balanced; excellent style; semi-long red fruit and berry finish. 17.5/93.
  • Another evolving classic is the 2005 Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon Estate. Mid-brick, amber edges, viscous (14.1 alc.); herbaceous, berries, mint, leather, wood nose; mid acids; mid+ tannins; long, deep, slightly hot berry and wood finish. 17-17.5/92-93.
  • Napa 2010 Stony Hill Cabernet Sauvignon ($60 in 2013). Mid-garnet, amber edges, viscous (13.5 alc.); berries, wood, herbaceous, mint, Napa nose; balanced; low-mid acids; softening tannins; semi-long red fruit and berry finish. 16.5/91.
  • Tasty Napa Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 Ramey ($47 in 2016). Mid ruby, rim variation, amber edges, viscous (14.5 alc.); smokey, mint, cassis, berries, Napa nose; soft acids; low-mid tannins; long, semi-lush, balanced Cabernet finish. w/filet. 17/92.
  • Fine second label Napa Cabernet 2012 Spottswoode Lyndenhurst ($75 in 2015). Mid-garnet, garnet edges, viscous (13.9 alc.); mint, red fruit, berry, cassis, herbaceous Napa nose; balanced; low-mid acids; softening tannins; round, semi-lush Cabernet finish. 17/92.
  • Napa, St. Helena, classic 2013 Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon Estate.  Sharp mid-garnet, viscous (13.9 alc.); berries, mint, cassis, herbaceous red fruit, and wood nose; mid acids; mid+ tannins; medium depth; a little unbalanced now; semi-long, tight, berry, mint, and wood finish. Needs time. 17-17.5/92-93.

Spring Mountain, Sequoia Grove, and DuMOL

  • Napa 2013 Spring Mountain Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. Mid-dark garnet, brick edges, viscous (14.2 alc.); smokey, cassis, herbaceous, red fruit nose; mid acids; mid tannins; balanced; semi-long, semi-deep red fruit finish; some style. 16.5/91.
  • Nicely evolving Napa Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 Carl Roy Diamond Mountain.  $32 in 2015 (Wine Access). Dark garnet, viscous (14.5 alc.); ripe grape, herbaceous, black fruit, black currant, cassis, licorice nose; mid+ acids; mid+ tannins, softens with air; good Cabernet character; long semi-hot chewy finish. 17/92.
  • Another good vintage is the 2013 Spottswoode Lyndenhurst Cabernet Sauvignon ($80 at the winery, 2016). Mid garnet, rim variation, viscous (13.9); berries, mint, cedar, herbaceous nose; low-mid acids; mid tannins; balanced; slightly tart; long semi-chewy finish. w/filet. 17/92.
  • Napa 2015 Sequoia Grove Cabernet Sauvignon Winemaker Series Rutherford Bench Reserve ($75 in 2020). Mid garnet, rim variation, brick edges, viscous (14.4 alc.); Napa Cabernet nose; mint, herbaceous, berries, cassis, light oak; low-mid acids; mid tannins; balanced; good depth; semi-long Cabernet and wood finish. 17/92.
  • Rich Spring Mountain, Napa, 2015 DuMOL Cabernet Sauvignon Ballard Vineyard. Mid garnet, rim variation, viscous (14.5 alc.); red fruit, berries, mint, complex Napa Cabernet nose; mid acids; mid+ tannins; balanced; long, deep, Cabernet finish. 17.5/93.