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Great California Cabernets at Every Price


Lovers of fine California Cabernets have a reason to be excited about what’s happening. These days, a great Cali Cab can be found in every price range. There isn’t any reasonable person who should expect that a great $20 Cab offers the same pleasures of a great $200 Cab; at the same time, if $20 is what you choose to spend, there’s no reason you should feel inferior. There’s something for everybody out there.

Here are some of our strongest recommendations—30 of them—for Cabernet Sauvignons from California currently on the market that deliver the highest quality for their price.



(in ascending order of price)

Ancient Peaks 2013

Paso Robles | $15–18 | 90 pts

There is excellent quality here for the price—purity and freshness you so rarely find in this price category, and a wine that doesn’t taste manipulated in any way, even rarer to find. And would you believe this is a single-vineyard estate Cab? That’s crazy. Okay, so it’s a straightforward wine but flawlessly so. No harsh edges to be found, and the mouthfeel is very pleasant—soft and supple. Bottom line is, it tastes really good . . . anyone got a problem with that?   search   direct


Jason-Stephens 2012

Santa Clara Valley | $18–20 | 90 ptsJason-Stephens-Cab

There’s a burgeoning wine scene in Silicon Valley—makes sense, right? Tech geeks love wine too. And if this affordably-priced Santa Clara estate Cab is a sign of things to come, there just might be a new industry that Silicon Valley is about to disrupt. The wine industry could certainly use more disruptors as newer, younger wine consumers are not interested in the old stories, especially since a lot of the old, storied wineries charge an arm-and-a-leg for their product. Jason Goelz and Stephen Dorcich, the young team behind Jason-Stephens, are onto something here, with this decidedly modern-styled Cabernet that’s very silky and approachable but also somewhat aggressive in tone—smoky and spicy with a cigar box overtone. Not just your average Cab.   search   direct


True Myth 2013

San Luis Obispo | $19–24 | 91 pts

When you’re vertically integrated, that’s a boon for the consumer. Meaning, when a winery like the Niven Family’s True Myth can source grapes from prominent vineyards just miles up the highway in Paso Robles and vinify and bottle the wine in their own facilities, that brings costs down and you can end up with a superb Cabernet for roughly 20 bucks. Just a tasty crowd pleaser that will have more depth the longer you wait to open it. Medium bodied with flavors of dark berries, black and red currant, clove and milk chocolate. Yum.   search   direct


Franciscan 2012

Napa Valley | $20–25 | 90 ptsFranciscan-Cab

One of the most recognizable names for consumers when it comes to California Cab, and it delivers. Established in 1973, it’s safe to give Franciscan credit for changing the business model and popularizing Napa Cab for the masses. What a value proposition: Oakville estate fruit in a bottle for a single 20-dollar bill and change. In our book, this makes Franciscan a hero. Complexity and richness of plum and blackberry with tantalizing notes of vanilla, mocha, rock and savory spices—very solid and approachable. Just can’t go wrong with this, and the winery hasn’t for over 40 years.   search   direct


Justin 2013

Paso Robles | $20–25 | 91 pts

Hey now. This is ridiculous. When a landmark winery in California’s central coast has been making a basic Cabernet for 30 years, you expect it to coast on its name. Instead, you get something of a modern classic in its price point. Full of black fruit richness with red fruit details on the outskirts, this is as easy, approachable, enticing, inviting, savory and enjoyable as affordable California Cab gets. The heat of the vintage brings out a certain ripeness that makes it ready to consume, like, now.   search   direct


White Oak 2012

Napa Valley | $29–35 | 91 pts

Some interesting facts about White Oak: the owner is a former salmon fisherman, and only 10% of the grapes grown at the winery’s vineyards are used for its own wine. A robust business selling their grapes to premium producers allows for a solid, reasonably priced Napa Cab under their own label that exceeds all expectations. Provocative tannins are the main selling point, as well as a nice buttery texture and intriguing hint of caramel popcorn and vanilla.   search   direct


Louis M. Martini 2012

Napa Valley | $30–38 | 91 pts

One of the pioneering Napa wineries to survive the Great Depression and the era of Prohibition, there’s something romantic in every bottle of Louis Martini Cabernet. To call this wine a classic, however, would sound too retro. Vibrant and fresh as ever, this is a rich, chocolaty Napa Cab as relevant as Pablo Picasso or Igor Stravinsky. There was a progressive, forward-looking vision that informed the wine’s esthetic from the start, and that vision is still fully intact.   search   direct


Flora Springs 2012

Napa Valley | $32–40 | 92 pts

Located in St. Helena, Napa, sharing the same side of the road as the extravagant HALL winery and the ever-popular artisanal food and wine shop Dean & DeLuca, the Flora Springs winery and tasting room sits relatively quietly. You know what they say about the quiet ones. Watch out, because this is one of the most quietly beautiful Cabs out there in this price range. Really, all you want is here: elegance, full-bodied flavor and rich concentration of fruit, chocolaty goodness, savory qualities and lush mouthfeel—all delivered in a very crowd pleasing manner. Will be a crowd favorite on any table.   search   direct


Campovida, Heart Arrow Ranch 2012

Hopland, Mendocino County | $40 | 92 ptsCampovida-Cab

Wow, this is fun. The winery has a tasting room in an industrial area of Oakland, and the winemaking facility and vineyard are in Hopland and the Redwood Valley of Mendocino County, the furthest northwest winemaking region of California. You got it—cool climate Cab in Raider Nation. The elevation of the vineyard is 1200 feet, and it’s biodynamically farmed too; and the wine is produced in 100% neutral oak barrels. These unique elements make for an atypical experience of Cabernet to which you really cannot draw comparisons. What you get is a beautifully and fascinatingly clean, pure, fresh, bright, focused, silky, medium-bodied and easygoing—and fun!—North Coast Cab that is clearly not from Napa or Sonoma. Only 6 barrels made, so the only way to get a bottle is straight from the winery.   direct


HALL 2012

Napa Valley | $40–47 | 92 pts

Consistency is the HALL winery’s hallmark. The 2012 vintage is a good showcase for high quality across the board, from the Winery Exclusives we’ve tasted down to the Napa Valley Collection. The entry-level Cab sets a standard in the price range and, while not as intense or displaying as much personality as pricier offerings in the lineup, it’s deeply enjoyable. Dark in color, chocolaty and exhibiting flavors of boysenberry and plum, with hints of sage and menthol, it also possesses a pleasant nose, smooth tannins, good structure and backbone, and balanced oak. The good news is you don’t have to wait at all to open it.   search   direct


Pine Ridge 2013

Napa Valley | $40–50 | 93 pts

A Cabernet comprised of fruit from Rutherford, the Stags Leap District and Oakville, as well as some Merlot from Carneros. The nose is dusty and the mouthfeel is smooth as silk. Raspberry, chocolate, cassis and oak are dominant. Just rich and unctuous in the best Napa Valley way. In terms of price to quality ratio, few compare. Ideally priced for gifting purposes, especially if you want to impress a client, but, by all means, stockpile this wine for yourself and no one will blame you for being selfish.   search   direct


Chateau Montelena 2012

Napa Valley | $45–50 | 92 ptsChateau-Montelena-Cab

A big name in Napa thanks to a victory at the 1976 Judgment of Paris, as captured in the movie Bottle Shock. But the story is way bigger than just one critical moment in history for American Chardonnay, as this Calistoga winery has been around since 1882, and their renowned Estate Cabernet since 1978. The Montelena portfolio today includes this modern-era Napa Valley Cab, and, while the grapes are sourced, the wine has that Old World charm characteristic of this legendary house’s stylea combination of expressive fruit of blackberry and cassis flavors, excellent structure and ageability, soft tannins, pleasing acidity and great balance. American Margaux.   search   direct


Hourglass HG III Red Blend 2013

Napa Valley | $50 | 93 pts

Gripping and powerful. This second wine from an estate whose limited-availability, flagship Cab is hot with the Robb Report crowd is a seamless, balanced, plush and rich Bordeaux blend that’s attractively priced for the level of depth and sophistication within. Loads of concentrated dark fruit with tremendous nuance. High class for sure. Simply, and undeniably, delicious and enjoyable.   search   direct


Ramey 2012

Napa Valley | $50–55 | 93 pts

A true amalgam of Napa Valley fruit, many important hillside and valley floor appellations are represented in this Cab: Mt. Veeder, Diamond Mountain, St. Helena, Oakville and Rutherford. Black currant, chocolate, savory spice and oak are prominent in the flavor profile. Its richness, roundness, soft tannins and approachability are all fundamental California North Coast. At 8,600 cases produced and widely distributed around the world, this is a signature Cab. Or, more importantly, an ambassador Cab, as it fully represents to the rest of the world just how uniquely pleasurable, while sophisticated, an American Cabernet Sauvignon can be.   search   direct


Chappellet, Signature 2012

Napa Valley | $55–60 | 93 pts

It just doesn’t get more solid or reliable for the price than Chappellet’s Signature Cab. Great in any vintage from one of the most high class names in Napa—and the warm, open and bountiful vintage of 2012 works to this wine’s advantage. The character of fruit is always a standout in Chappellet wine, as well as excellent structure, complexity and length. Concentrated and succulent, gripping and enchanting. Pure gratification. Do give this some time, and try to resist opening until at least 2018.   search   direct


Matthiasson 2012

Napa Valley | $60 | 94 ptsMatthiasson-Cab

San Francisco Chronicle’s 2014 Winemaker of the Year makes an incredibly fresh and vibrant, handcrafted Napa Cab. One of the most respected viticulturists in the business, Steve Matthiasson considers himself a farmer first, and that salt-of-the-earth vibe is all over this wine. Made with grapes culled from vineyards he’s closely involved in managing, there’s a tremendous purity and visceral beauty inherent. Aromatic as a berry blossom and softly expressive in black, blue and red fruit and savory spices, this is as ‘auteur’ as Napa Valley Cabernet gets.   search   direct


Chateau St. Jean Cinq Cépages 2012

Sonoma | $65–70 | 94 pts

When it comes to wineries you can find at your local Walgreens drugstore, Chateau St. Jean is a longtime favorite. That’s not a backhanded compliment—it’s good to know you can find quality wine at 3 a.m. when staggering home after a late-night binge. This is CSJ’s flagship wine, and you most definitely will NOT see it at any Walgreens. Smoky, very forward and juicy, round and full bodied—really, this is quite bawdy and racy stuff. Being entirely self-indulgent is the way to enjoy this luscious and savory Sonoma Cab at its best.   search   direct


JUSTIN Isosceles 2012

Paso Robles | $65–70 | 94 pts

Has long been the benchmark of Paso Robles Cabs, and that won’t change soon. The 2012 bottling is comprised of 77% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Merlot and 11% Cabernet Franc, and its alcohol content is very high at 15.5%. The Cab manages to avoid being a massive fruit bomb, however, with its impeccable balance and sharp focus. It’s an incredibly savory red wine, with flavors of raspberry, rhubarb and spice all wrapped up with smoky tannins on the long and graceful finish. An aptly named wine given its structural symmetry.   search   direct


Hayfork, Lewelling Ranch 2012

St. Helena, Napa | $70 | 94 pts

Every now and then we are fortunate enough to make a “discovery” of a winery we should have heard of long ago. A small, family operation with a loyal following, Hayfork produces a flagship Cab that is highly compelling for fans of the highly concentrated, super-ripe Napa style. With a dusky nose and supremely powerful tannins, the wine begs to accompany a juicy ribeye—or to be sipped at a leisurely pace on its own, a suitable component to experiencing the slow life.   search   direct


La Jota, Howell Mountain 2012

Howell Mountain, Napa | $65–75 | 94 pts

Just another spectacularly delicious Cab from Christopher Carpenter (winemaker for Lokoya and Cardinale as well). Big and muscular, perfectly fitting the archetype of the distinctive wine produced from the volcanic soils of Howell Mountain. Concentrated flavors of blueberry and red fruit, with a vein of minerality and tannic bite of smoke and cracked pepper. Texturally soft, elegant and caressing on the palate, stash it away for 4-6 more years to reveal its full beauty.   search   direct


Cliff Lede, Stags Leap District 2012

Stags Leap, Napa | $70–80 | 94-95 pts

One of the finest expressions we’ve encountered of the distinctive terroir of Napa Valley’s precious sub-region of Stags Leap. Fruity but forceful nose of dark berries, cherries and violets, followed by additional notes of cassis, dark cacao, graphite and tobacco—all within the wine’s impenetrably dark purple color and lush concentration. What really stands out is the ultra-smooth texture and supple tannins that absolutely sing, building towards a finish of sublime length. The wine is glam and opulent yet lean—soft curves with strong backbone.   search   direct


Dunn, Howell Mountain 2011

Howell Mountain, Napa | $90–95 | 93-95 pts

2011 was an iconoclast’s type of vintage in Napa, and you gotta be a lover of the atypical and left-of-center in order to fully appreciate the types of Cabernets legendarily iconoclastic winemaker Randy Dunn, and his son Mike, make. Like a Jean-Luc Godard film, the experience of the whole comes from aggregating non-linear pieces from the outer edges and pulling them in towards an emotional center. With Dunn’s wines, this requires time in the bottle. Still very young, we expect the rustic and plaintive notes of earth and tar, green pepper, lavender, menthol, licorice, dark berries and ripe plum to all come together gloriously in one very individualistic whole . . . somewhere around the year 2022.   search   direct


Mark Herold, Brown Label 2012

Napa Valley | $95 | 95 ptsMark-Herold-Brown-Label-Cab

Big (15.3% ABV big) and bold best describes this 100% Cabernet from artisanal winemaker Mark Herold (best known for cult-Cab Merus). Dark, dark fruit (Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan dark) dominates the palate of this syrupy elixir. A note of graphite is a nice touch to the wine’s balance, and the smooth tannins complement its immense structure. Ready to drink now but best reserved for a special occasion at least 5 years out, when the wine will be killer.   search   direct


Pine Ridge Vineyards, Stags Leap District 2012

Stags Leap, Napa | $100–125 | 96 pts

The Stags Leap district of Napa Valley produces some otherworldly Cabs, thanks to the area’s unique soil combination of loam, clay and rock, laden with minerals. Here is a tremendous example of that great terroir. Gorgeously silky with smoothly integrated tannins, from one angle it’s a soft, medium-bodied and restrained wine—but from another angle it boasts beautiful, concentrated dark berry and black cherry flavors along with vibrant acidity. It’s truly a complex symphony, with many layers beneath the surface, quietly adding up to a decadent whole.   search   direct


Robert Mondavi Reserve, To Kalon Vineyard 2012

Oakville, Napa | $110–125 | 95 pts

Though it sounds clinical, it’s the truth: the Mondavi To Kalon has long stood as a reference point for iconic Napa Valley Cabernets. The wine has stature, perseverance and a time-honored, stately elegance. In the 2012 vintage, one of the crown jewels of Napa vineyards gives us an earthy Cabernet, more reminiscent of an Old World style. Velvety, sumptuous texture yet with a muscular backbone, there’s a generous core of black fruit flavors with subtle notes of anise, rose petal and graphite. This is one vintage you must tuck away at least another 3-6 years to reach a pitch-perfect level of maturity.   search   direct


GKG 2013

Napa Valley | $120 | 96 pts

A celebrity photographer and star winemaker team up to make stellar Cab. This is big. Like, 15.5% alcohol big. It’s also very boutique—limited availability at under 300 cases made and with a cult-like personality. Big and gorgeous on the nose and palate, it’s the whole shebang: bold and ripe blackberries, blueberries, red cherries, cassis and currant and dark roast coffee. Also, elegant structure, lush tannins, glycerin-smooth texture, beautiful balance and seamlessness. Greg Gorman and Dave Phinney, like two mad scientists, have created a monster.   search   direct


HALL, “Kathryn Hall” 2012

Napa Valley | $130–150 | 97 pts

Art matters to the folks at HALL, and one visit to the extraordinarily artful premises of the winery is all it takes to know. But what difference does it make in the wine? All the difference, it appears. If every aspect of the external environment in which the wine is created is given an elevated touch of class, sophistication and artistry, then those same esthetic values inform the internal quality of the wines. And what a thrillingly artful wine the Kathryn Hall is in 2012. Black and purple fruit popping on the nose and aromatic as a garden of lavender and violets, the difference in this richly flavored, concentrated Napa Cab is the ethereal quality of its creamy texture—complimented by a soaringly beautiful balance of acidity that is just the artistic detail that makes this wine so special, not to mention incredibly enjoyable.   search   direct


Continuum 2012

Pritchard Hill, Napa | $190–200 | 96+ ptsContinuum

Brought to you by Tim Mondavi, son of the late Robert Mondavi. The iconic artwork on the bottle, named “Light of the Vine,” is a painting by Tim’s daughter, Chiara, of an old Cabernet Franc vine. The wine, in contrast, is dark as night. Starting with a chocolate and espresso nose—with an interesting hint of earthy peat—fantastically rich flavors of blackberry, mulberry and ripe cherry ride over forceful and sumptuous tannins on the palate. A striking and powerful wine, but also supremely balanced as a great Pritchard Hill wine should be.   search   direct


Ramey, Pedregal Vineyard 2012

Oakville, Napa | $190–200 | 100 pts

From a small, decidedly non-iconic Oakville vineyard on the eastern slopes of Napa Valley comes a Cabernet Sauvignon that reaches great esthetic heights in the hands of a master. Great artists manage to create great art from under-explored sources, and winemaker David Ramey does exactly that with the Pedregal vineyard. Astonishingly refined in its finesse, the wine is relatively opaque in color yet viscous and rich in concentrated dark fruit, with conscientious use of oak and otherworldly smoothness that is Barry White in his prime, deep-bass sexiness. A masterpiece that is pure bliss.   search   direct


Cardinale 2012

Oakville, Napa | $240–250 | 97+ pts

Winemaker Christopher Carpenter (who also makes wine for Lokoya and La Jota, to name a few) continues to make his indelible mark in Napa Valley with blockbuster wines, including this 2012 bottling from Cardinale. Faint nose of rose petals, violets on the palate, warm mouthfeel, rich concentration with effortless balance and beautiful, bright acidity. So striking in its gorgeously focused texture. Only a shadow now of what it will become with years in the bottle. In time, the 2012 will likely be discussed in the same conversation as the 100-point 2006.   search   direct


March 18, 2016


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