cabernet vs. cabernet

Thursday, June 02, 2011

There is no doubt that when it comes to cabernet sauvignon, bottled as a varietal wine, not as a messy "Bordeaux blend", the Napa valley owns the pole position in the race for consumer mind-share.

But while researching and writing upcoming articles for the Seattle Times and the Wine Enthusiast, I began thinking more seriously about how Washington cabs stack up. I did some poking around at reviews from my California-based colleague, Steve Heimoff. I compared scores and prices.

Remembering that Napa alone has as much acreage as the entire state of Washington, it is no surprise that there are plenty of great cabs to be found. At a price. What is surprising – should be shocking to those who don't live here – is how many great cabs come from Washington. As a percentage of production, if you look at scores, and especially if you look at QPR, Washington takes second place to no one.

I invite you to set up your own comparison. Pick a price point and/or a score range. Go to the Wine Enthusiast website (see link to the right) and access the database. Drill in to cabernet sauvignon – Napa – Columbia Valley and see what kind of a list you pull up. Then grab a few bottles and a few friends and taste them all blind. See how WA vs. Napa stacks up.

You pick the Napa cabs. Here are a few from Washington to try:

Animale 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon (Red Mountain); $28
Chateau Rollat 2007 Rollat Cabernet Sauvignon (Walla Walla Valley); $38
Den Hoed 2007 Andreas Cabernet Sauvignon (Horse Heaven Hills); $80
Efesté 2008 Big Papa Old Block Cabernet Sauvignon (Columbia Valley); $49
Forgeron 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon (Columbia Valley); $30
Gramercy Cellars 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon (Columbia Valley); $45
JM Cellars 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon (Red Mountain); $38
Southard 2008 Whipping Boy Cabernet Sauvignon (Columbia Valley); $25
Waters 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon (Columbia Valley); $54

While you are at it, think about the importance of old vines. Napa was extensively replanted in the 1990's. Those vines are now coming into maturity. Washington has cabernet vineyards dating back to the early 1970s. Think about mountain fruit. Altitude makes a big difference in defining flavor, style, ageability, depth, texture and balance in the finished wine. For my NW palate, the real gems of Napa are coming from mountain vineyards, not the valley floor. Washington has plenty of altitude to go with latitude and attitude.

Finally, here's the one that no wine critic is ever privy to. How much manipulation has been going on? When I taste wines blind I can only guess about that, and rare is the winemaker who will 'fess up about reverse osmosis or spinning cone or specific coloring/nutrient/tannin additions to the wines they craft. But my gut (and that is a bonafide Greg-gut) tells me that at the high end, Washington cabernet is far more likely to be natural and non-interventionist than blockbusters from down south. Pure speculation on my part, so don't hammer me too hard if you disagree.

Food for thought. And wine for drinking. Let me know what you discover and I'll do a follow-up down the road.


Marlene Rossman said...

Paul, you (I and others) have been flogging WA State wine for years.
When I lived in Manhattan, I couldn't get much California or WA State wine.

Every reputable shop was "Eurocentric." So I began buying WA State wine after my first taste of Quilceda Creek. I have lived in California for 8 years now and STILL drink a good deal of WA State Cab. If any of the big boys (QC, Betz, Cadence, Fidelitas,etc) were from Napa, their prices would be at least twice what they are.

As a wine columnist, I have the good fortune to be able to speak to some of the great winemakers. Bob Betz told me that "as a child of the 60's, he does not believe in charging $100+ for his wines. It is winemakers/wineries like Betz and other WA State greats that keep me coming back. Make no mistake, I enjoy my Cali Cabs, but for QPR there is NOTHING that compares with WA State Cabs.

Peter Rosback said...

Disclaimer: take my comments with a grain of salt: I've made WA Cabernet for many years. I also make Napa Cab and, while not in a unique situation to judge, have many thoughts and much experience about the issue of relative quality and value. This is what I've told my Napa growers: Washington is going to eat your lunch (in the long haul).

Fruit is far cheaper; the grapes more naturally fit for making into food-friendly, long-lived wines.

It's no secret that much Napa Cab is ripened past the point of the ability of yeast to take it to dryness. Many are ripened past 28 brix, watered, saigneed and acidulated. This is decried by some, but, in my eye, a statue should be erected in Napa for the person that came up with this formula for producing the Napa Cabs many people enjoy (and gag up major bucks for) today. We haven't seen such wines age well. Many of us don't find them particularly food friendly. They do have merits, though.

Sam said...

Great post Paul.
As a winemaker, I have friend and colleague from Argentina that I studied enology with at WSU. This kid is smart and has experience making wine around the world. Now that he has spent time tasting here and in Napa, it was interesting to get his prospective. I think his thoughts line up completely with what Paul is saying. As he puts it, Washington best asset is that we can offer Cabernet Sauvignons that are every bit as good as Napa (be that a completely different style) at an incredibly lower cost. On the macro level, He thinks Cabernet Sauvignon is where Washington can compete(s) based on value. He was struck on is visit to California at the cost of some of these wines. “Solid wines for sure” as he says, but he had a hard time seeing the sustainability of the prices being asked.
In our conversations we admire the pure enjoyment of drinking a silky Napa Cab…. And appreciate the consistent skill level of CA winemakers. In both CA and WA, the professional winemakers who know their vineyards and how to handle it in the cellar knock it out of the park.
I have seen consultants come up from CA and treat it perhaps like they were making wine back home, working the fruit hard for extraction, using oak chips in the fermentors, adding enological tannins and other tricks. Then again I have seen/heard some my fellow WA winemakers do that as well. For me nicely grown WA Cabernet needs a deft hand and for me it’s often pressed out early. Tannin management is my biggest concern with cab. But this is just something different between the two states, I don’t think either is right or wrong, whatever makes the best wine.
As a side note, I always find it interesting to hear predictions on what the next big grape is in Washington State. As a young -eager beaver winemaker, it has been and always will be Cabernet Sauvignon. That’s where I am putting my eggs or hevos. Mourvedre? Grenache? I don’t have the stones for that. Malbec maybe….my Argentinean friend has a hard time appreciating the WA state version but I think to him it would be comparable to liking Chilean Football.

Anonymous said...


As a washington wine honker I agree with you completely. I have enjoyed many of the california big boy cabs over the past 10 years (thankfully usually on someone else's dime) but I always buy WA when its me paying or drinking at home. I have converted many friends and colleagues but usually in order to do so I have had to avoid telling them where the wine is from and wait for them to ask. They are almost uniformly shocked at A) how much the wine costs and B) where it is from. I really should be a sales rep for Andrew Will, Betz, and Woodward Canyon with the number of folks now on their mailing lists after getting hoodwinked at dinner at home or at a restaurant where I was lucky enough to find one of these wines on a wine list.

Chris Wallace said...


I have been an enthusiastic red wine drinker for the past 20 years. I am particularly fond of both Napa and WA Cabs. My first love was Napa: I found their wines to be more accessible and better value than the BDX I had been drinking. And then WA came on the scene and I found them to provide the same enjoyment as Napa but at a much better price point. But now my tastes have evolved to where I think WA makes the best Cab S, regardless of price point. Bob Betz, MW once described WA Cab S as "new world fruit with old world structure" and I think that nails it. If WA were priced the same as CA, I would still choose WA. I just thank my lucky stars they are not priced like BDX!

PaulG said...

Thank you all for your thoughtful comments. I had expected a little more controversy! Maybe I have crossed the line into the "Hometown Fan" category and so am easily ignored by those who disagree. But just to be clear, I have always felt that being a critic of Washington/Oregon wines was as valuable (and more important) than being a booster. I have done both for a quarter of a century, four books, innumerable newspaper columns, thousands of scored reviews, and god knows how many blog posts. I am puzzled that there does not seem to be a dynamic, unified, concerted and successful marketing and promotion effort that really broadcasts the important message about Washington wines. If I can churn out a free blog several times a week, shouldn't those who do this as a fulltime job be just as effective?

Anonymous said...

I guarantee that there is plenty of controversy out there directed at BOTH Washington and California wines as compared to their old world counterparts. The "style" they represent doesn't sit well with everyone, as subscribers to the highly acclaimed Seattle-based Internet retailer, Garagiste, will attest. When something from WA is offered there, it's usually a "Mystery Wine" and has been deeply discounted. As for going back to Washington's "roots" in the 1970s, I personally think there's much to learn from those days and the types of wines that were produced. But as long as the public prefers (over)ripe and sweet reds with a cellar life of 3-5 years max, there will be a market for most everything from Washington. And after all, this is a fan page -- right?

PaulG said...

Anon - you are generalizing to such a degree that I can't begin to pick your comments apart. But no, this is not a "fan page." This is a blog, written by a veteran journalist, with no commercial support, connection, or input. I hope you were being facetious, but I fear you were just being oblivious.

Anonymous said...

At a recent tasting of '07 Washington Cab's our group found a amazing uniformity of taste profiles among wines from famous and not so famous wineries, but one of our group who is a former CA wine maker commented that he missed the "cedar" taste that he associated with Cab's.
Does WA terroir eliminate the component or does the "fruit forward" style mask it?

PaulG said...

Re: the cedar taste. That comes from aging in new French oak barrels. Expensive new French oak barrels. It can be found in WA wines as well as CA wines. Has nothing to do with terroir or any sort of "fruit forward" style.

Anonymous said...


Re your comment "Thank you all for your thoughtful comments. I had expected a little more controversy! Maybe I have crossed the line into the "Hometown Fan" category and so am easily ignored by those who disagree."

I think you hit the nail on the head. You can see where some of the comments are coming from and it is from WA fans. I really think that a bunch of folks out there wouldnt read your blog because the wine is not from CA therefore it is not worth drinking or reading about. You are now battling the same limitation that has haunted the WA wine industry since its inception. Frankly I am surprised that you are in any way surprised by this.

Personally I really dont care. I respect your opinions and I really enjoy the wines. Increased recognition = increased demand = increased prices. I dont like CA prices and that is one of the reasons I got into WA wines. I dont really want to see the herd head this way with their checkbooks open driving many of my favorites into the stratosphere.

Just one WA wine addicts opinion though.

PaulG said...

Well Anon wine addict, I guess I tend to see the big picture of all I do and forget that for a lot of folks I am defined only by the blog, or only by the newspaper column, or only by the reviews and scores in Wine Enthusiast, or only by my books. So yes, I agree, if someone is only looking at this blog, it has a NW slant. That's intentional. But if you look at my newspaper columns, I cover a lot of California and occasionally other parts of the world. I just can't do everything everywhere.

Anonymous said...

I dont want you to "do everything everywhere" I, and I am very sure most of your other followers as well, rely on you for the NW angle. No one else matches your knowledge and professionalism in the WA/Oregon area and I dont tend to agree with Harry Wine Spectator. I like it when you go off of the reservation (i.e. out of the PNW) in your sunday Seattle Times pieces because I tend to agree with your palate and you understand that most of us cant fork out $75.00/btl. However I would encourage you to never lose your PNW focus and continue to be excellent in your area. You cant and shouldnt " everything everywhere".

Anon Wine Addict.

PaulG said...

Believe me, I feel blessed to have the NW as my base for work and life. No way would I ever leave or lose this focus. It's too precious. Thank you for the kind words.

Kim Roberts said...

Granted I'm a Washington winery owner, but it's true, Washington wines excel in national and world markets, yet they are not fully appreciated here at home. Unlike Californians who consume mostly California wines, Washington’s wine consumers have not fully embraced their own producers. There’s no better way to support our own economy than for our state residents to seek out our state’s products. It should be especially easy to make this choice since Washington wines are such high quality. Thanks for your support on this topic Greg, I think it takes at least seven times of hearing the same message before it resonates.
Kim Roberts, Westport Winery

PaulG said...

Gonna change my name to Greg Paulutt I swear. I get Gregged more than Pauled.

cw said...

But then what will happen to your "greg-Gut?"

Art said...

I know there's definitely controversy over natural/organic/BIO wines, but since you touched on the subject here, I'd like to see more journalist exploration of the issues vis-à-vis Washington wines. You've touched on it in the past, and I've commented, but I hope you will continue to ferret out those producers who are manipulating and intervening the least. (It seems to be a bigger deal in Oregon, for some reason.) By the way, I was at a Sonoma restaurant recently, and the wine list tagged each selection as organic, BIO, or sustainably farmed, which I really appreciated.

I might add that I'd like Washington Cabs (and other reds) even more if they were over all less sweet and extracted (sometimes reminding me of cough syrup) as well as more ageable (tired of dumping out old Leonettis). But that might just be the nature--and the beauty--of the beast here.

PaulG said...

Art, non-interventionist winemaking is not related to organic or Biodynamic vineyard practices. The manipulations that go on once the grapes are picked is what I was questioning here. And winemakers are quite guarded and ultra careful about what they disclose to "the press" – eg, me. Unfortunately, no matter how many years and how long a track record I put into this work, I am still "The Press" and more often than not am tarred with the same brush as the out-of-state writers. If the Spectator says 2007 was a poor vintage in Oregon, wineries tend to include me in that same group, even though I said repeatedly that many good, even great wines were made. Same with 1999 in Washington. And so on and so forth... I guess I'll just tattoo a big old Scarlet "P" on my forehead.

Anonymous said...


Wow, "sweet and extracted (sometimes reminding me of cough syrup)". What do you think of CA cabs which I think of being both sweeter and more extracted than their CA brethren?

Anon Wine Addict

Falanghina said...

This is my fav : Forgeron 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon

Chris Wallace said...


Never apologize for being a fan of the wine regions that you review. I am not in the wine trade, I am just a consumer, so I am just the sort of guy that you are writing for. And let me assure you, consumers do not want to hear wine reviews from critics who don't like the region. Let me explain.

If you do not like the style of wine produced in a particular region, then your reviews are not going to assist consumers who DO like wines from that region and are contemplating buying them. We as consumers want to know that our reviewers have a bias in favour of the region they are reviewing and can therefore tell us which wines within that region are giving the most pleasure. That is where the wine critic creates value for his audience. Why would I want someone who does not like PNW wines give me his comments on them? Fair enough, they are not his thing, opinion respected, but now bring me someone who is into these wines, who has developed an ability to discern and who can communicate; that is whose opinion is worth something to me. And I would suggest to all consumers. A person such as one of your commenters above who thinks that WA produces over-ripe wines and chucks his Leonetti that has gone past 5 years, likes a totally different style of wine than I do. His opinion on WA is of no value to me or anyone else interested in WA wine.

Meadows loves Burgundy and we want to hear which ones; Parker loves CdP and we want to hear which ones; Jancis loves BDX and we want to hear which ones; you love wines from the PNW and we want to hear which ones you praise and which ones you don't. Consumers don't really want reviewers to tell them which regional styles are best; consumers have found a region they like and want advice on what to drink within that style.

Fans can still be critics and provide valuable reviews. I don't think the same can be said for detractors.

PaulG said...

Chris - thank you for this very thoughtful post. Critics (like winemakers) can feel isolated and it is one of the most rewarding aspects of this blog that I feel a deep and immediate connection with readers. You don't have to agree with me, but I do appreciate thoughtful and intelligent commentary!

Post a Comment

Your comment is awaiting moderation and will be posted ASAP. Thanks!