Serious Grape: California Cabernet for Every Budget

On Fridays, Deb Harkness of Good Wine Under $20 drops by with Serious Grape. This week, the best of affordable Cabernets.


Photograph from hahnfamilywines on Flickr

California produces many different wines, but the state's iconic grape is arguably Cabernet Sauvignon.

California Cabernet is a tricky thing to purchase, however--or at least I've found it tricky. Top-level wines from Napa can be very expensive, highly limited, or both. Widely-available wines can be bland and lack the distinctive varietal characteristics that make Cabernet so popular. The result can often be a wine with mushy flavors that makes you say "Hey, this wine tastes red!"

If you want more from your Cabernet than "red," here are my recommendations for wines that stand out at prices that range from $10 to $25.

$10 or Less

Finding good examples of California Cabernet at this price point is a challenge, but I like the 2006 Ravenswood Cabernet Sauvignon Vintners Blend. Its dark color hints at the richness to come, and its currant, plum flower, and spice aromas let you know this is way more than just red. There are bright currant and pomegranate flavors, along with touches of herbs and spice. I like the dusty aftertaste of cocoa, too. (find this wine)

$10 to $15

A more traditional style of Cabernet can be found at a slightly higher price in the 2006 Dancing Bull Cabernet Sauvignon from Rancho Zabaco. This is the kind of Cabernet I love, with some green pepper notes in the aromas to offset its plummy spiciness. The flavors are an intriguing combination of red and green, with herbs, currants, and more plums that turn more towards blackberry and mocha as the wine opens up. This one has a dusty, cocoa powder aftertaste, too. (find this wine)


The 2006 Solaire by Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon, a new label, is a great choice of you are looking for a wine that is just under $20. Its Central Coast fruit produces fresh raspberry aromas followed up by a lick of tar that keeps the wine interesting. Expect to taste cassis, plum, and earthy flavors wrapped up in solid tannins that pucker the sides of your tongue slightly. This wine really shines with food, so pick up some steaks or mushrooms to help bring out its best. (find this wine)


Spending a bit more will get you a wine with a Napa Valley pedigree and a bit more bottle age. If you are indulging in a sensible splurge, I recommend the 2005 Bennett Family Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve. It's a very good example of a Napa Cabernet, with black cherry, beef tea, and tomato leaf aromas. The flavors include blackberry, plum, and mocha notes with smooth tannins and a nice brightness. (find this wine)

All of these wines are widely available, and the price brackets reflect the winery's suggested retail price. When I checked the suggested retail against current market prices, however, I found many of them retail for less--some as low as $7. So it pays to shop around.

Author's note: I received these bottles as samples.