Wine Guy Explains Wine Things: Good Cab, Bad Cab

Wine Guy Lou Amdur of "Lou: A Wine Bar" returns this week with some thoughts about West Coast Cabernet Sauvignons, several tips on What Not To Buy and the answer to the question "Why do I always feel so gross after drinking Charles Shaw wine?"

Everyone who saw the movie "Bottle Shock"* knows that Cabernet sort of put Napa Valley on the map. Is there a rule of thumb about which ones are the best?

I'm pretty opinionated about Cabernet so don't get me started. When it's too cold, cabernet can be kind of green. If it's too hot, you will leech out anything that's unique to cabernet. Napa Valley is pretty friggin' hot. A lot of the cabernet that lots of Californians think they love is just super over-ripe with tons of alcohol and tons of oak added to it. The fruit is just massive and one-dimensional. That's what Robert Parker termed "the fruit bomb." So the hotter the area, the less interesting - to me - the Cabernet is.


High in alcohol, high in extract. It's a real mouthful of wine. These wines are never subtle, pretty obvious. They remind me of a really robust Barossa Valley Shiraz - over the top. And I never want to drink them. One sip and I'm done. If you look in Napa Valley, there's a lot of Cabernet being made. But my favorites are from the cooler climate areas like Mt. Veeder.

Because Mt. Veeder is still part of Napa but their wineries tend to be on steep mountainsides, right?

You just need a few hundred feet and the wines get a lot more elegant.

What about cabs from Paso Robles?

Paso Robles, which is much warmer than Napa, most people are growing Syrah. The Paso Cabs that I've had are DIS-GUSTING. But some people love them! Because they're way over the top. It's like, "I want a big wine!" "Well have I got a wine for you! This Paso Cab will put hair on your chest!" Again, I'm not knocking people's tastes who love these wines. They're just way not me. If you're somebody who wants the most massive wine you could ever imagine? It's up there

I want a cheat sheet. Where are the do-not-buy-Cabernet-from-here zones?

Anything Bulgarian, do not buy. Anything from India or Mexico - unless you're willing to get your freak on - do not buy. There's a lot of red wine made in Eastern Europe that's really cheap and cabernet made and tends to be Frankenstein wines.

Do you mean a wine so monstrous that villagers would chase it with pitchforks?

[Lou sighs] Wine that is just kind of just slapped together with different parts. Some of it is traditional and is made sweeter. I don't care for those wines. They're probably really well made but they're not my cup of tea. So mostly from Eastern Europe I would stay away unless it's something that's, like, bargain basement and it's like, "Fuck it. Just try it!" At most it's going to be something that's innocuous and well made. The term "Frankenstein wines" is used to describe wines mostly from Australia. They're highly manipulated and designed to appeal to a very wide demographic. Some winemakers really try to MAKE their wine rather than grow them. It's basically what happens with modern mainstream wine-making: The first thing you hear out of some wine maker's mouths is how long the wine stayed in oak versus talking to other winemaker's where the first thing out of their mouth is, "I farm on chalky soil." So is someone really a farmer, albeit a gentleman's farmer as is the case of the Burgundians? Or are they technocrats, graduates of fancy schools and look at winemaking as a technical exercise?

Washington state is supposed to make good Cabs, right?

They've learned from all the lessons of California. Their wine industry is much younger and they've also had a chance to evolve from where California was. I like Barnard Griffin's wines. I think they're really solidly made. They have a good concentration without being over the top. They're a little earthy. I think they do a really good job.

What should you spend no less than for a bottle of Cabernet?

I've seen good cabernets for eight or ten dollars. Good California Cabernet. I'm personally not a fan of South African Cabernet. They're made in a very international, clean style. I'm not knocking South African wine. All I'm saying is that we do that here in the States. The terroir is a lot less interesting: These wines are all about the making and less about the fruit. Compared to the funky Eric Banti wines that you and I love so much. You can go to Trader Joe's and buy any $10 California Cabernet and be happy. If you love California Cabernet. These are not going to be profound wines meaning you're not going to be turned into a state of transcendental ecstasy. If we're talking really inexpensive cabernet, Bogle makes a really good cab that's under $10. McManus also makes a really good cab as well. With both of these wines, the vintage is way unimportant. I keep trying different Chilean Cabernets. I personally don't drink that much southern hemisphere wine, but I've tasted some really inexpensive Chilean Cabernets that are coming in at, like, seven bucks retails that are actually pretty good. I wouldn't go out of my way to drink them, but if somebody brought a bottle to a party, I'd be perfectly happy to drink it.

Oops, I found another $5 in my pocket. What now?

You are starting to get into entry level okay Bordeaux. I would suggest actually trying a bistro-level Bordeaux. By bistro, I mean something that's going to be a Cabernet wine that has a good quantity of merlot added to it to make it drinkable when it's young. Cabernet is a thick-skinned grape variety and yields a tannic wine. There are things you can do to the wine to make it less tannic, the basic thing being aging the shit out of it in oak barrels. The oak tannins combine with the tannins of the grape and some of that tannin will fall out as a consequence. I also think the oak tannins can give a sense of roundness to a wine. What I would suggest in the $15 range is an entry-level bistro bordeaux. One that I've enjoyed is Haut Goujon. This is a right bank wine. It's 60/40 merlot cabernet. Because of the merlot, you're getting something that is ready to drink and with the cab, you're getting some structure and tannin and a wine that's a little livelier than something that would be 100% merlot. Try a blend.

I'm embarrassed to say this, but I'm still not sure I'm clear about the whole Napa Cabernet is good, Napa is bad thing.

If you like earthy wines that are more reserved and really dry, Napa is not the best place. There are some growers and Mt. Veeder is the place where some of that type of cabernet is grown. But by and large, the California style - and there are some people who grew up loving this - is a richer, fatter style. So it depends on what you like in a wine. If you love California Cabernet, then what you love is that rich, full-bodied style. You love the oak and you love the alcohol. So almost any wine from Napa is going to be serviceable. Almost any $15 non-Ralph's supermarket bottle is going to be a youthful wine. It may not be the most interesting bottle of wine you've ever had, but the level of wine-making craft in Napa Valley is so high right now that unless you have a completely disastrous vintage - which is rare - pretty much every year you're getting a very serviceable wine. I'm not talking Charles Shaw. Oh that's another wine to avoid: Charles Shaw cabernet. In fact, all Charles Shaw wine. Never ever buy Charles Shaw wines unless you love guzzling pesticide-driven industrial wine.

Is that why I get a headache after, like, two sips of Two Buck Chuck?

It's Central Valley grapes that are grown in the hottest part of the Central Valley and they're all machine harvested. Basically, they use Pectolytic enzymes to make the cell walls burst and extract every iota of flavor out of these grapes, which don't have a lot of flavor to begin with. It's too hot to grow quality wine grapes in the Central Valley. The thing I always tell people is that usually there's two to three good-sized bunches of grapes that go into making a bottle of wine. When you go to the farmer's market and buy good grapes, how much do you expect to pay? Even the cheapest chemical-sprayed non-organic grapes for a buck a pound are a good deal. So if you're paying a buck a pound for grapes and it takes three to four pounds of grapes to make a wine, already the base cost is going to be more than a bottle of Charles Shaw. So clearly they're picking the most mass-produced crappy fruit and they also have to get the maximum amount they can from it. They apply all the tricks of modern winemaking. Using enzymes is probably the least of the sins they're committing.

For more of Lou Amdur read his wine blog "Tasting Notes" at

*"Bottle Shock" is based on the famous 1976 Paris tasting when a panel of eight French men and one French woman assembled to participate in what everyone assumed would be a lopsided blind tasting -- six California Cabernet Sauvignons and four of the most bad-ass red wines from the Bordeaux region. The 1973 Stags Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley won.

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