34 Showstopping California Cabernets
By James Molesworth
There’s a gap coming in the wine supply channel as many California Cabernet bottlings take a hiatus due to the wildfire-ravaged 2020 season. One simple way to work around that is to plumb the late-release 2019s and 2018s. These are two superb but distinctive vintages, as the 2019s offer pure, unadulterated fruit and 2018s tend to show a bit more tannic spine and deeper growls of terroir.
There are some real Insider wines in this batch of releases: Chris Phelps’ day job is the in-house winemaker for Inglenook. But his Ad Vivum bottling, sourced from the Sleeping Lady vineyard in Yountville, Calif., is a throwback-styled Cabernet that rewards cellaring. And 2020 isn’t a complete write-off: Pinot Noir specialist Etude offers a very overlooked Cabernet program headlined by its Oakville bottling, which is made using grapes from the famed Vine Hill Ranch vineyard.
And don’t forget to keep an eye out for our annual California Cabernet report in the upcoming Nov. 15, 2023, issue of Wine Spectator.
95 points | $350 | 310 cases made | Red
This is dripping with fruit compote flavors, including fig, boysenberry, black currant and plum, while warmed fruitcake and melted black licorice notes weave in and out. Cuts a wide swath on the finish, as tar and warm humus notes provide a dark backdrop. For fans of the power style. Best from 2025 through 2038. —J.M.
95 points | $350 | 289 cases made | Red
This has showy, succulent ripeness, with crushed plum, boysenberry and blackberry flavors that meld with melted licorice, apple wood and a flash of sassafras. Polished and long, with a nice iron twinge through the finish to keep things honest. Drink now through 2038. —J.M.
95 points | $150 | 540 cases made | Red
A broad, fruit- and toast-driven version, with waves of cassis, plum reduction and blackberry paste pushed by tarry grip and ample sweet toast and Black Forest cake notes. Everything knits together through the finish, with a sparkle of savory adding energy along the way. For fans of the big, modern style. Best from 2025 through 2038. —J.M.
95 points | $210 | 425 cases made | Red
A classic Spring Mountain Cabernet, this delivers a range of captivating boysenberry, loganberry and mulberry fruit flavors that are vivid and defined, while racy iron and tar streaks provide support. Packs singed anise, wood spice, apple wood and mesquite notes in the background, along with sweet bay leaf and a savory tickle. The finish pulls everything together and then just drives on steadily. Best from 2025 through 2040. —J.M.
94 points | $200 | 350 cases made | Red
Dark, winey and a bit of a throwback, this rock-solid Cabernet offers a nice deep well of dark currant and boysenberry reduction notes mixed with warm paving stone, tobacco and freshly plowed humus for a rock-steady baseline, while violet and sweet bay leaf details add nuance in the background. A well-grounded version, with cut and drive that bodes well for cellaring. Best from 2025 through 2040. —J.M.
94 points | $225 | 22,226 cases made | Red
Lush and polished, with waves of cassis and blackberry compote pouring through, underscored by chocolate, espresso crema and roasted vanilla bean. Maintains a lush, velvety feel through the lengthy finish, where flashes of sweet tobacco and warm earth peek through. For the power Cabernet crowd. Best from 2024 through 2038. —J.M.
94 points | $155 | 346 cases made | Red
Ripe and focused, with a vivid beam of plum puree and mulberry compote flavors pumping through, carried by a racy graphite-edged structure and layered with singed alder, tobacco, black tea and ganache accents. Very solid for the vintage. Best from 2024 through 2038. —J.M.
94 points | $250 | 235 cases made | Red
Ripe and plush, with a broad wave of mulberry, loganberry and plum reduction notes, layered with melted licorice and blackberry ganache and backed by hints of hibiscus and violet. Shows solid structure underneath, with a cast iron feel providing nice contrast to the fleshy fruit. Drink now through 2038. —J.M.
94 points | $175 | 100 cases made | Red
This has a lovely beam of raspberry and boysenberry pâte de fruit backed by gently mulled plum and black cherry fruit, all laced with light anise, singed apple wood and black tea notes. Shows subtle sassafras and loam details, which add more range through the finish. A touch exotic in style, for which it will certainly have fans. Drink now through 2035. —J.M.
94 points | $115 | 680 cases made | Red
Alluring, with lovely açaí berry, plum and blackberry compote notes supported by a well-inlaid cast iron hint. Reveals a lovely backdrop of violet and black licorice through the finish, with the fruit keeping pace. Polished, but not overly so. Nicely done. Drink now through 2038. —J.M.
94 points | $350 | 470 cases made | Red
Juicy and focused, with a taut beam of dark plum and dark currant fruit laced with licorice root, sassafras and cast iron notes. Sneaky long and focused, with a finishing kick of mulberry and anise adding range. Drink now through 2038. —J.M.
94 points | $160 | 600 cases made | Red
This marries black currant and blackberry reduction flavors with a sleek iron structure and a backdrop of warm earth, espresso and tar. Grippy and tight, but with serious coiled-up energy and a late flurry of violet, bay leaf and savory elements. For the cellar. Best from 2025 through 2036. Tasted twice, with consistent notes. —J.M.
94 points | $210 | 490 cases made | Red
This late release has a densely packed core of boysenberry and blackberry paste wrapped in roasted apple wood, bramble and sweet bay leaf notes. The finish is driven by heavy tarry grip. A textbook mountain Cabernet that needs a touch more cellaring to open fully. Best from 2024 through 2036. —J.M.
94 points | $165 | 200 cases made | Red
A restrained style, with a large core of warmed cassis and plum puree moving slowly and steadily, letting in flashes of violet, smoldering tobacco and warm humus along the way. Reveals tobacco and warm paving stone notes that echo through the broad, yet fine-grained and well-defined finish, which has a lingering echo of purity. Lovely. Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Best from 2024 through 2038. —J.M.
93 points | $175 | 315 cases made | Red
Direct and polished, with cassis and black cherry compote notes gliding through, laced with cocoa, alder and black licorice. Nice steady, persistent finish. Drink now through 2036. —J.M.
93 points | $125 | 185 cases made | Red
A showy style, with plum, açaí and blackberry compote notes taking the lead, imparting a lush, well-fruited feel, while sleek toast, spice and bramble hints fill in through the finish. Drink now through 2036. —J.M.
93 points | $72 | 414 cases made | Red
Ripe and sleek in feel, with açaí and blackberry pâte de fruit notes rippling along nicely, flecked with violet, sweet bay leaf and savory hints and supported by a cast iron note on the finish. Packs a nice sanguine echo at the very end. Drink now through 2036. —J.M.
93 points | $200 | 2,839 cases made | Red
Shows the flashy ripeness of the vintage, with a mix of plum, boysenberry and blackberry compote flavors pumping through, inlaid with roasted mesquite and sweet tobacco accents. Packs a nice finishing kick of warm earth that keeps this just grounded enough. Drink now through 2035. —J.M.
93 points | $140 | 1,050 cases made | Red
Richly fruited, with a broad, caressing wave of mulberry and blackberry preserves rolling through slowly, laced with black licorice and violet notes and coated with a warm, toasty edge on the finish, where an echo of warm earth keeps this honest. Drink now through 2035. Tasted twice, with consistent notes. —J.M.
93 points | $140 | 1,150 cases made | Red
This has mint, violet, cassis and plum puree aromas and flavors that spill forth, with a sleek, polished feel from start to graphite-tinged finish. Offers judicious toast that lets everything play out nicely. Drink now through 2036. —J.M.
93 points | $205 | 140 cases made | Red
This has a fresh, focused core of red currant and black cherry flavors laced with cedar, dusty earth and iron minerality along the way. Fresh, fine-grained and reserved through the finish. Very Rutherford in feel, with the minerality bringing nice precision. Best from 2024 through 2036. —J.M.
93 points | $210 | 463 cases made | Red
Fresh and polished, with a nice open-knit core of plum sauce and boysenberry preserves laced with alder and warm earth. The fruit keeps the upper hand on the finish, which shows nice underlying energy. Drink now through 2035. —J.M.
93 points | $250 | 1,988 cases made | Red
Offers lots of fun, juicy blackberry and dark plum compote flavors tossed with cocoa, licorice root and Black Forest cake. Fruit-driven and frankly toasted on the finish, but has the energy for balance. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. Drink now through 2033. —J.M.
93 points | $90 | 982 cases made | Red
A solid, densely built version, with a core of cassis, plum reduction and blackberry paste flavors that meld nicely with warmed vanilla, singed tobacco and loam, with the latter really asserting itself through the broad finish. A bit amped up, but will have fans for sure. Best from 2024 through 2036. —J.M.
93 points | $140 | 983 cases made | Red
This dark, structured late release has settled in nicely, showing poise and focus with the core of mulled cassis and plum fruit offset by lively spice and chaparral notes in the background. The long, grippy finish is driven by a cast iron spine as the fruit keeps pace. Best from 2024 through 2036. —J.M.
93 points | $150 | 3,897 cases made | Red
Hyperripe, with tiers of cassis, plum puree and blackberry paste supported by deftly inlaid mocha, tobacco and violet notes. The polished finish lets a subtle iron twinge creep in amid the lush fruit, giving this a needed counterpoint. Obvious in style, but will have fans for sure. Drink now through 2034. —J.M.
93 points | $140 | 867 cases made | Red
This late release has a core of violet, cassis and blackberry backed by a graphite-edged structure. Shows ample sweet tobacco and toast shadings on the finish. Drink now through 2030. —J.M.
93 points | $175 | 695 cases made | Red
This has a gutsy profile, with a large core of cassis and blackberry fruit punctuated by sweet bay leaf, menthol and smoldering tobacco accents. Shows nice tar-tinged grip that supports the finish, but lets the fruit keep the upper hand. Enjoyable now for the overt fruit, but should gain some nuance in the cellar as well. Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot. Drink now through 2034. —J.M.
93 points | $270 | 336 cases made | Red
Shows heavy sweet bay leaf and sassafras accents amid a core of gently mulled red currant, raspberry and red cherry fruit. Reveals pretty red tea accents and bright iron notes that run throughout, adding lovely cut, freshness and drive. A very typical Spring Mountain Cabernet. Drink now through 2035. —J.M.
93 points | $98 | 250 cases made | Red
Alluring, with steeped boysenberry, mulberry and blackberry fruit flavors enlivened by heavy sweet spice, black tea and bramble hints. The juicy finish is framed by an applewood accent. Drink now through 2036. —J.M.
Cover photography by Elan Villamor