VinePair Podcast: Can Anything Dethrone Cabernet Sauvignon?

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On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” hosts Adam Teeter, Joanna Sciarrino, and Zach Geballe discuss Cabernet Sauvignon and why it’s so popular among American wine drinkers. Will Cab’s dominance on the American market ever be replaced by other varieties being produced across the country?

For this Friday’s tasting, your hosts try three classic Cabernets from California: Inglenook 1882, Robert Mondavi Estates Oakville, and Louis M. Martini Monte Rosso. Tune in to learn more.

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Joanna Sciarrino: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Joanna Sciarrino.

Zach Geballe: In Seattle, Washington. I’m Zach Geballe.

Adam Teeter: From Louis M. Martini Winery in beautiful Napa, Calif., I’m Adam Teeter. And this is the Friday “VinePair Podcast.” I’m still here. I’m still in California. Don’t worry, I’m taking the red-eye home tonight. I have a question: Have either of you ever taken a red- eye?

J: Oh, yeah.

Z: Oh, yeah. I flew so many red-eyes from Seattle to New York.

J: Yeah, I used to go from New York to San Francisco for work. Red-eye is the worst idea.

Z: That way is worse.

A: I’ve never done it before. I’m already regretting it.

Z: The west to east red-eye is not so bad. It’s a little rough, but you at least arrive and it’s morning and you’re like, “OK, I have to be awake.” Arriving on a West Coast city at 4 a.m. is rough.

A: Yeah, I could see that.

J: And then going to work.

Z: Yeah, and then having to do stuff.

A: What red-eye would that be? When would you leave the East Coast?

Z: I don’t know, if your flight was at midnight or 1 a.m, it’s about a six hour flight and you’re going to arrive at 3 a.m. local time.

A: No thank you. Yeah, I’m a little bit nervous, but we’ll see.

J: You’ll be fine.

A: I’m going to get through it.

Z: Have a couple of cocktails on the flight. It’ll be good.

A: Yes. I’ll just annoy my seatmate, “Hey, hey, hey.”.

Z: Can you guys sleep on airplanes?

A: I really can’t.

J: Me neither.

A: Yeah, I’m really bad at it.

J: I really envy people who can.

Z: Adam, when I flew out to meet you for Wine 2 Wine a few years ago, it took three flights to get there, and I was on an airplane for over 24 hours. I didn’t sleep at all, which was really rough.

A: It’s really rough.

J: Oh my God, that’s awful.

A: Even if I take an over-the-counter sleeping pill or something, I can’t do it. I can’t fall asleep. It’s also not comfortable. No one likes it.

Z: Let’s talk about something else.

A: We thought this would be a great conversation today. So I’m in Napa Valley. Or as Keith Beavers, host of “Wine 101” says, “America’s premier luxury wine region.”

J: Cab country.

A: Cab country. So Cab’s been the dominant red varietal in the U.S. for decades. Is it ever not going to be?

Z: I have thoughts.

J: I bet. My answer is no. Go ahead, Zach.

Z: The answer to this question depends on two things. One is the time horizon you’re talking about and also how we envision certain trends in the wine industry evolving over time. Those things are obviously related. I think that for the foreseeable future, I agree with Joanna’s general contention that Cabernet Sauvignon has built itself into this behemoth that is very hard to imagine toppling. On the other hand, I think that there are two points of data that I would find interesting, things that I’ve read about and heard about, that would perhaps point to some of its fragility. And one of them is the situation that we see in some of these premium Cabernet regions, where hotter temperatures, more difficulty growing. And Cabernet has gotten to where it is, both because of its connection to fine wine in France, but also because it is capable of being grown in a really wide range of climates. It does well in a lot of different places. It’s not the most versatile grape in that regard, but it’s much more versatile than what I would think is its closest competition, which is Pinot Noir. Pinot struggles because it’s difficult to grow. It needs more specific growing conditions. The other piece of this, and this is the part where I think things might change, is Cabernet Sauvignon has, to date, aligned well with what Americans expressed flavor preferences in wine. Here’s where I think things could change: Our generation and younger doesn’t seem to want those flavors the way that our generation and older have. Where you could see some of the cracks showing up for Cabernet Sauvignon is, for example, you don’t see a lot of natural Cabernet Sauvignon for a number of reasons. One of them being that Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are expensive, but another one is just the flavor profile. You’re not going to make a lighter-bodied, fresher style of Cabernet. I mean, people say they’re doing that, but it’s just inherently not super well-suited to that because of how tannic it is as a variety. And also because in most of the places we associate with Cabernet Sauvignon, it’s just too expensive to make into anything other than what it was already made into. I think there’s a possibility that it trapped itself in a form and in a style that is going to become less and less resonant with people. Not that it’s going to go away, but would it shock me if it was no longer the most popular wine in America in 10 years? I don’t think I’d be shocked. I might be surprised, in part because I don’t see any one variety that’s going to rise up and so clearly supplant it, which is maybe the issue. But I do think that we might see its iron grip start to loosen.

A: Joanna, you said no.

J: That it would never go away.

A: Oh, you think that it’ll never go away?

J: Yeah. Well, I mostly think it’s because of things that we’ve discussed on the podcast before. It embodies premium wine in the United States. Unless there’s something that will come to replace it, and Zach doesn’t seem to think there is necessarily, people will continue to think of Napa Cab specifically as America’s premium wine offering.

A: Yeah, I tend to agree with you both. There are a lot of really good points being made that just, as you think about it logically, it just doesn’t seem like there’s anything that can knock it off its pedestal. The other grapes like it have issues. With Merlot, I think softer structure, tannin, and bad image still. Sorry to everybody out there who loves Merlot, but it does have a bad image. I think it’s gonna take a long time. And even then, when it had a good image, it still wasn’t anywhere close to Cab in terms of its popularity. Zinfandel is very much on the way down, right? It’s in decline, people.

J: I also think people don’t understand Zinfandel, either. I think it has a bad image.

A: Exactly. And no one’s doing American Malbec. I think Malbec, while it is really beloved in the U.S., I do think it suffers from being seen by most consumers as an “affordable” wine. I know there are premium Malbecs. Don’t come for me, Argentinian winemakers. But most Americans don’t consider Malbec all that premium. So there’s that one. Zach made an excellent point about Pinot Noir. It just can’t be done well in a lot of places.

Z: I might cynically argue that being done well might not be a prerequisite for being the dominant variety, because I think there’s a lot of very bad Cabernet Sauvignon out there. Pinot Noir, if anything, could do it because it is our second most popular variety in the country and there is a lot of demand for it. But I think it’s a price issue more than it’s a production issue.

A: Right. I like Syrah a lot, but it’s not going to happen. It is always interesting to me that Cabernet is very popular and it gives a lot to the consumer in terms of flavor, structure, etc. And when you talk to people like Brenae, who runs the Monte Rosso vineyard, it’s very easy to grow. Which I always am so surprised to learn. When I first learned that I was shocked. I guess that does make sense. But it is why you see Cab getting planted in Virginia, getting planted in New York, everywhere. I think that also helps to reinforce its dominance. If you stroll into a winery in the Piedmont area of Virginia or the Charlottesville area of Virginia, and you’re asked if you want a Cabernet, you’re like, “Oh, OK. That must be the high-end grape.” And that’s just what everyone’s come to think. That’s why you see the rebellions from younger ones. They’re like, “We’re going to make crazy natural or field blends or whatever.” That’s for a consumer that’s trying to think outside the box. But I think Cab is going to always be, at least for the foreseeable future in our lifetimes and probably the lifetimes of a generation after us, it’s going to be like IPA in craft beer. Like there will be other wines and grapes for other people, for people who are a little bit more exploratory, etc. But the vast majority of people are just going to drink Cab and love Cab. And there’s nothing wrong with that because the vast majority of craft beer drinkers still really like IPA and drink IPA.

Z: Well, and I think you make a very good point about how it’s both viewed as the premium offering in so many different wine regions around the country, and also how, because of its premium identity, it is the thing that many of these producers look to plan and look to produce. Because they know that a meaningful portion of potential customers are going to come in and be like, “Well, let me try a Cab.” And if you try to say, “Well, actually, we grow X,” then some people are going to turn around and walk out the door. They may not literally, but they’re not buying wine. They might taste and they’ll leave or they’ll be like, “Oh, OK, I’ll get one bottle.” But you got a Cab and people are suddenly on board. And I find that fascinating. There might be an incredible story to tell. Because I believe, and again, I’m doing this off the top of my head, but I think there was a time in America when Cabernet was not the most widely planted variety, even in California. Not too long ago, maybe in the ’70s. And actually Merlot was more widely planted. But it was not varietally labeled, generally. So that’s a big part of it, too. Cabernet Sauvignon not only became the most planted, but it’s also often the variety that’s on the label. As a component in the blend, as you see it, even in France, in most cases, it’s different than saying, “OK, this is Cabernet Sauvignon.” Even if in a lot of these cases the wine isn’t 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, it’s obviously the dominant portion of the wine and it’s the thing that people gravitate towards. I want to ask you guys one question about this before we get into tasting, which is, how do you feel about Cabernet Sauvignon? For how much we talk about wine on this podcast and we talk about wines we like, very rarely do any of us say, “Oh, I opened a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon.”

J: Yeah, I really don’t ever drink it unless I’m with my parents sometimes. They have some at home, and they’re nicer and they open them. But otherwise, I really don’t gravitate towards it myself.

A: I don’t drink it that often, either. I drank it a lot when I was a much younger wine drinker, because again, this is what premium is. I have some really nice bottles and I will open them once in a while and I 100 percent can appreciate it. But yeah, it’s not what I gravitate towards. If I’m having red meat, first of all, I drink a lot of stuff from Italy, etc., but then I love Syrah. We were just talking about Syrah. I would do that with a burger or Pinot with a burger. Also, the problem with Cabernet that we haven’t talked about is, I think the reason that people like us don’t drink it that often is because it is one of the few grapes that can take a lot of oak. But just because it can take a lot of oak doesn’t mean it should have a lot of oak. But a lot of producers give it a lot of oak. And for me, I just can’t do wine like that anymore. It’s not the kind of wine I’m looking for. I want a wine that is much more purity of fruit, much less oak influence with higher acidity. I also need a lower alcohol level. There’s one person in my household that also drinks, my wife, and we can’t sit down and have a 15.5 percent Cab. We just can’t; we will be wasted. If it’s a weeknight, we just open a bottle of wine and we have it with dinner. But let’s say making a burger or steak or whatever, we probably started with a cocktail and after we had a cocktail, we wanted to have a bottle of wine. And I’m not going to have a huge high-alcohol bottle of wine or I’ll be flat on my face. What’s your opinion?

Z: There is one thing I want to say before I answer that question that I think is an important point that goes along with the oak regimen for these wines. I think it helps explain that, in America in particular, a good portion of this wine is influenced by two things. One is it’s influenced by tasting room impressions and that style of wine pops in the tasting room in a way that a more delicate, subtle wine may not. Especially if you’ve already been tasting some wine during the day. And it’s also, of course, driven by critics’ scores. Certainly many of the most famous critics are heavily influenced by fruit ripeness, oak intensity, etc. Those things explain a lot about why some Cabernet Sauvignon is made that way. I would say that we drink it in this house, probably more than the two of you, but not a ton. When making things that might pair well with Cabernet Sauvignon, I’m at least as likely to gravitate towards Nebbiolo or Syrah or something like that. But we do have a fair bit of it in the house, and I do open them from time to time. One of the funny things about Cabernet Sauvignon as a wine is that, despite its predominance and despite how much people like to talk about food and wine pairing, it’s not actually the most interesting wine to pair with food. Especially the classic Napa or American formulation. What it’s really good for is drinking by itself. That is a whole thing unto itself. Sometimes, if my wife and I are just going to have wine and we’re not sitting down to dinner — it doesn’t happen that often, but it does happen from time to time — then that’s often the wine we open because it’s actually very enjoyable for that. If the kids are asleep or one of them’s out of town or something and we’re going to watch a movie, it’s a great wine for that in my opinion. But at the table it’s actually sometimes not, because of its intensity and because of how much is going on. It can overwhelm a lot of foods. We don’t eat ribeye steaks all that often; we do from time to time. But there aren’t that many dishes, as someone who had to put together an unfortunate number of wine dinners with Washington producers who made multiple Cabernet Sauvignons. OK, how many different red meats can we put in one tasting? Because it’s just fatiguing for everyone involved. That’s kind of where we stand. But I enjoy them when I open them generally. I just don’t go for them at the rate that the average American does for sure.

A: It’s actually really interesting that you just said what you said because I hadn’t thought about it until you brought it up. A lot of the times when I open the Cabernets that I have at home, it is when Naomi and I sit down to watch a movie. Well, this is the drink for the night, and we want to drink it slowly throughout the two and a half or three hour movie. And you will do that with a Cab because it’s too intense to finish a bottle and then have to be like, “Are we gonna drink the whole thing? You drink it very slowly. You appreciate it while you’re watching a movie on a Friday night, and it’s a really nice experience. That’s something that’s also interesting; I think a lot of Americans probably are drinking Cab on its own. They’re not drinking it with a big dinner because we don’t eat as much red meat as a society as we used to. It is kind of overpowering for other things. But look, at the end of the day, Cabernet makes a really delicious wine. It really does, and I can see the appeal. I don’t think that it’s ever going to be any less dominant than it already is. I think it’s going to continue to be America’s No. 1 red wine for a very long time. And with that, we all have Cabernets in front of us. Let’s drink them. Joanna, what do you have?

J: So I have 1882 Inglenook 2018. I’m sharing it with Keith right now.

A: Oh, God. Keith always gets good things shared with him.

Z: I mean, says the guy who’s at a famous Napa winery right now. I’m sure you’re not suffering. What did they pour for you, Adam?

A: Keith’s going to be so jealous. They poured for me a Martini Monte Rosso Vineyard Cabernet.

Z: Yeah, nice.

A: It’s probably a pretty great one, too. Sorry, buddy. I’m pretty excited about this one. What about you?

Z: I have the Robert Mondavi Estate. These are the Estates label from Robert Mondavi, their Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon.

A: So we all have really classic Cabernet producers, too.

Z: I thought that was kind of cool.

A: Yeah, I love that. I love the Monte Rosso one, too, because Monte Rosso vineyard is one of these grand cru vineyards of the U.S., if you want to call it that. But I love that they make Monte Rosso Vineyard Cab at Martini. Martini’s always made Cab from that vineyard. Actually, it’s in Sonoma. There had been lobbying by people who owned the vineyard or people who bought fruit from the vineyard to move the Napa County line to incorporate the vineyard. Because so many producers in Napa love the fruit so much. But it’s a Sonoma vineyard, and I think it just makes a really beautiful Cab and is one of these nice little reminders that, yeah they can make great Cabs in Sonoma, too.

Z: And lots of other places.

A: Yeah.

Z: I think my bottle really does encapsulate what people love about Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s got some ripe fruit character to it, black cherry, fig, and stuff. It’s got some oak, but it’s not overly laden with it. But there’s definitely a cinnamon-vanilla-chocolaty thing going on. It’s definitely got some booze. It’s not crazy boozy, but I can feel it, and it’s really delicious. Apparently, Cabernet also goes really well with podcasting. I didn’t know. I’ve never drank Cab during the podcast before. Good to know.

J: I like that. I like my wine, too. It’s good.

A: What do you think about it, Joanna?

Z: That’s a really detailed tasting note there.

J: I’m so sorry.

A: My Monte Rosso — which is the 2018, by the way — definitely has a little bit of oak here, but it’s not overpowering. You really get some black pepper, you get a bit of smoke, which you obviously get from oak. That’s the wood characteristic coming in. But then there’s the deep, dark fruit, like blackberry, plums, things like that. On the palate, there’s this really bright acidity which clearly comes from the climate here. It’s hot enough during the day to really ripen everything. But then at night, it gets so cool in that vineyard that the acidity is really nicely retained. So it is much lighter on its feet than you would expect. I don’t know about yours, but this wine is over 15 percent alcohol. And that should make this wine feel really heavy and weighty on the palate. And it doesn’t because the acidity is so high, and it’s just so well balanced and integrated. It’s a really nice wine. Again, that’s another reason why I don’t think Cabernet is going away anytime soon. Well, guys, I’m going to go get on my red-eye now. I’m going to fly back to NYC. And moving forward for the next few weeks, I will be in the studio. No more travel for me.

J: Woo!

A: I know you’re so excited, Joanna.

J: I am. I like when we’re all in the studio. It’s nice.

A: Zach’s just piping in from Seattle. All right, you both. I’ll see you on Monday.

J: Have a great weekend.

Z: Sounds great.

Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.

Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all of this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team, who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.

Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.

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