Cabernet Sauvignon: The King of Grapes

It’s versatile, it grows easily, and everyone knows it. What’s not to love about this favorite wine?

Long referred to as the world’s most famous wine grape, Cabernet Sauvignon also possesses immense depth. Grown in almost all wine regions around the globe, from Sicily to Sonoma, Chile to Bordeaux; the red wine grape expresses its flavor differently depending on the region. A detection of green bell pepper might emerge on the palate with one bottle, but with another it’s all about silky notes of chocolate and cherries.

Those diverse flavor profiles, and that you can explore the world simply by sniffing, swirling, and tasting this grape, continue to make Cabernet Sauvignon an easy sell to diners. Not only is it familiar to many, it’s also a wine that’s been available in the U.S. since the middle part of last century, first as an import from Bordeaux, France; and later as a New World varietal stemming out of wine production pockets in California.

In 2009, Cabernet Sauvignon was California’s second-leading table wine sold within the U.S., representing about 16 percent of total volume, according to Gomberg, Fredikson & Associates. Similarly, sales of Cabernet Sauvignon inside American supermarkets spiked 6.5 percent during 2009, compared to the previous year, according to data by the Nielsen Company.

“Cabernet Sauvignon is definitely the biggest red wine varietal in the U.S. You can take it all the way back to Bordeaux,” says Austin Hope, winemaker at Hope Family Wines in Paso Robles, which began making wine in this Central Coast area of California in 1978. Cabernet Sauvignon wines fall within its Liberty School and Treana brands.

“Cabernet has changed dramatically over the last 10 years but it’s definitely the go-to wine. It used to be much more brawny, with a tannic edge,” Hope says, “but they’re silky now.”

The King of Grapes

What was once an oaky, husky red wine is now lighter and delicate, but with equal amounts of dark fruit and complexity.

“Over the years it’s been less about aging and more about drinking immediately,” says Stephanie Putnam, director of winemaking at Raymond Vineyards in Napa Valley. “The focus now, instead of extraction, is about velvetiness and softness.”

Yet one of the challenges restaurateurs face is getting customers to look beyond Napa Valley, where the winemakers are traditionally celebrated for turning out bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon that score high with wine critics. In fact, within one of the most storied, legendary wine regions—Bordeaux, France—is where the world’s most expensive bottles are produced, including Chateau Lafite Rothschild (a majority Cabernet Sauvignon blend); a bottle of the 2002 vintage will set you back about $1,000.


Napa Valley is also caught in this sea change where budget wines are crowding the marketplace as expensive bottles continue to be produced, and the middle price points for Cabernet Sauvignon constantly shift. Opus One and Harlan Estate wineries in Napa Valley produce expensive ($200-plus a bottle)—yet there are value Cabernet Sauvignons (costing less than $15 a bottle) cropping up each year.

“Cabernet Sauvignon is the king of grapes and it never seems to go out of style,” says Casidy Ward, who with her husband Lynn Hofacket owns Hidden Ridge Winery in Sonoma County, which they founded in 1997. “It’s like chocolate—people are never going to stop consuming it. It is a very popular grape.”

Before planting four clones of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes in 2000, revealing the first vintage three years later, Ward and Lynn weighed the pros and cons of planting Chardonnay, Merlot, Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon for their vineyards.

Driven by Consumer Demand

Cabernet Sauvignon won out—in part due to consumer demand, but also because neighboring vineyards were showing great success with the grape. (An additional 1,000 vines of Petit Verdot on the property are used for blending with Cabernet Sauvignon in small amounts.) From a farming perspective, it is easier to grow than, say, Chardonnay, because its thick skin can endure excessive rainfall and other small acts of nature.

“We decided to go the route of the Cabernet Sauvignon because it was a little bit new. In some ways, our area isn’t as representative as we might want it to be,” Ward says. “We’re just one step out from Napa and we can offer something a little bit different.”

Hidden Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon retails for just under $100 at all Morton’s The Steakhouse locations, some eateries in Northern California, and independently owned restaurants like Al Fiore (inside The Setai in New York City), Nobu in San Diego, and Mastro’s Steakhouse in Phoenix.

“We are trying to be under $100 on wine lists because we feel that’s an important psychological barrier,” Ward says. “As a new producer we have to offer more flavor for the money to get people to try us.”

For those in the restaurant business, sharing stories from the wineries—ones that capture the heart and soul of not only the winemaker but the terroir (French term for earth) on which it is grown—is key to attracting customers to Cabernet Sauvignon.

That’s what Charles Krug Winery, which has been making wines that include Cabernet Sauvignon for 150 years, and is Napa Valley’s first winery, strives to do. Its different Cabernet Sauvignon wines retail for between $27 and $150, with the restaurant mark-up in addition.

“Wine lists are so intimidating, not only for customers but for servers too,” says Dennis Carr, the winery’s vice president of marketing. “We’ve really tried to help with education of the staff. We really try to get our people in front of the staff and talk about Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, and that it’s concentrated, with full flavors, and can stand up to steaks or pastas with red sauces, or even salmon.”


Stories about where the grapes are grown and the winery’s history are passed along to restaurant staff, in addition to the tasting notes, so that they may be shared with diners. In today’s marketplace Carr sees blends that soften the wine’s profile, a trend that started in the 1990s and has continued to evolve. As a result of the trend Cabernet Sauvignon has become more complementary to food pairing and contains fewer tannins.

Keep It Less Than $100

Todd Graff, who is winemaker at Frank Family Vineyards in Napa, travels about four weeks out of each year to visit some of the restaurants that serve his wine, including Cabernet Sauvignon (between $80 and $100 on wine lists). He likes to see how the food is presented at each restaurant so he can better promote the wines remotely, and to better educate the restaurant’s staff.

In the past he has offered incentives to a restaurant where the person who sells the most of his wine receives a three-liter bottle. Since joining the winery in 2003 he’s switched to using only Napa fruit. (Frank Family Vineyards used to make wine with some fruit from Alexander Valley in Sonoma County.)

One of his goals is to not have the wine sold for more than $100 on a wine list. “If we can get it into the $99 range that opens up a lot more options—and it’s two digits versus three digits,” says Graff, who feels that the wine goes best with a steak.

Frank Family Cabernet Sauvignon has not been a difficult sell for servers. “It’s consistent year in and year out. Wait staff never have a problem recommending it,” Graff says. “We really strive for balance as much as possible. Our goal is to have our clients drink the whole bottle.”

Raymond Vineyards, in Napa Valley, finally debuted a first-time offering for the restaurant business in an attempt to bridge the gap. Last year a team of sommeliers working at restaurants in Northern California spent a day at the winery blending Cabernet Sauvignon from appellations in Sonoma, Lake County and Napa.

“We launched a Cabernet Sauvignon-only brand called Sommelier Selections exclusively for restaurants. It’s actually blended by sommeliers,” says Raymond Vineyards’ Putnam. “The winning blend is actually what we bottled for our 2008 wine.”

Sold at a suggested $9 per glass, the wine has been so successful that a second blending session with sommeliers was scheduled for May. Its barrel-to-barrel program was introduced in March.

Restaurants have the option to order its Cabernet Sauvignon (the only wine available right now) in 10-liter “eco bags” that can be stored behind the bar and sold at around $8 per glass. “There are benefits from an economical standpoint as well as an environmental standpoint,” says Putnam. “Once you tap into the bag it stays good for up to six weeks. Restaurants can’t hold all of their inventory, and so they are looking at wines to drink now.”

A Taste of Terroir

Offering a variety of Cabernet Sauvignons from around the world—and not just California—is a keen interest of Sarah Sutel, beverage director at Elsewhere Restaurant, which opened in New York City earlier this year.

“I wanted to showcase how grapes can take on terroir,” she says, explaining why she features Cabernet Sauvignon from the Stag’s Leap District in Napa Valley; Carneros District in Sonoma; Mendoza, Argentina; and Veneto, Italy. Among her favorites is 2007 Cliff Lede “Stag’s Leap District” Cabernet Sauvignon ($225 on her wine list).

“I like Cliff Lede because it’s a newcomer to the Napa Valley scene,” Sutel says. “It trains its bloodhounds to hunt down tainted corks, which I think is really cool, and cuts down on the chance people will accidentally receive one. A story like this can help sell the wine to somebody who is on the fence.”


Farther south in California, wineries along the Central Coast continue to struggle against Napa’s popularity and familiarity. The 2004 film Sideways brought some attention to the region, mainly for Pinot Noir, but Cabernet Sauvignon growers have profited from the fame too. It used to be, says winemaker Austin Hope, that you wouldn’t see wines from Paso Robles on wine lists outside of California. Now they are featured in major cities along the East Coast.

“Paso Robles is pretty much the hot topic right now. It’s high time we have our time,” says Hope. A bottle of Liberty School Cabernet Sauvignon is on wine lists for just under $30 and Treana Red Table Wine (a Cabernet-Sauvignon based blend) often sells for around $70. What Hope likes about these two wines is that they don’t need to be paired with food—their nuances shine even without.

Changing Habits

Jaclyn Stuart, beverage manager and sommelier at Margaux Bistro & Wine Bar in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, and co-author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Wine and Food Pairings, will often suggest to customers that they splurge on red wine and eat casual foods. This is a departure from 1980s and 1990s dining habits where if you ordered a Cabernet Sauvignon you were expected to drink it with steak. About a sixth of her wine list consists of Cabernet Sauvignon, ranging from $30 (California) to $850 (Bordeaux).

Stuart often points diners toward Washington state Cabernets. “They’re really rustic, with a minty quality and lots of black currants. Cabs should have a good backbone and nice body with black currants,” she says. Chilean versions are another of her favorites for their olive and green pepper notes and easy-drinking quality. Cabernet Sauvignons from Australia she finds to be ripe and fruity, with “borderline jammy notes,” whereas a South African Cabernet Sauvignon might have smoky and savory notes.

To help guide wait staff in suggesting what diners should eat with Cabernet Sauvignon, Raymond created a beef-pairing cheat sheet. For each level of Cabernet Sauvignon under the Raymond label, a different cut of beef is suggested. Mountain-grown Cabernet Sauvignon, such as Hidden Ridge’s version, is a natural pairing with meats other than steak, co-owner Ward says.

“It goes with lamb and some of the game meats like antelope and some people like Cabs with tuna tartare or beef carpaccio,” she says. She likes to sip Cabernet Sauvignon with flourless chocolate cake too, enjoying the weighty, rich flavors in each.

Stuart reminds those in charge of a restaurant’s wine list to not forget about what happens in the kitchen, for pairing with food is part of the experience. “When you’re building your wine list, think about your menu too,” she says. 

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