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The elusive under-$20 California cabernet

Cabernet sauvignon is California’s classic red, but finding interesting and inexpensive cabernets is often a challenge. Here, TODAY wine columnist Edward Deitch uncorks a refreshing, complex exception to that rule.
/ Source: TODAY

Cabernet sauvignon is California’s classic red, but finding interesting and inexpensive cabernets is often a challenge. Sure, there are lots of budget cabs around, but they tend to be soft, fruity, one-dimensional affairs with little individuality. Honestly, if you’re spending under $20, I think you’re apt to find more exciting wines from France’s Bordeaux, where cabernet and merlot are the two main grapes and are blended in varying proportions, depending on the appellation.

That said, there are exceptions, like the 2006 cabernet sauvignon from Vina Robles, a producer of Bordeaux- and Rhone-style wines in the warm-climate Paso Robles area of California’s central coast, about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The wine, which is just being released, has a suggested price of $19 and shows unusual complexity.

Vina Robles is a relatively young winery started by Hans Nef, a Swiss restaurateur and businessman who released his first wines 10 years ago. Some 17 grape varieties are planted in three vineyard sites covering almost 900 acres, and cabernet sauvignon accounts for just under half the total, an indication of its importance for the company.

At this point, however, production is still relatively small — about 4,300 cases of the ’06 cabernet were produced — and the wine shows it. This is an excellent cab in the under-$20 category, made entirely from estate-grown fruit, with good tannic structure and ample acidity, qualities that make it interesting, easy to drink and a good companion for food. I enjoyed it with pork chops pan-seared with chopped fresh rosemary and sage, and it will also match well with most beef and lamb dishes.

Although it is called cabernet sauvignon, the wine is actually a blend of 76 percent cabernet and 24 percent petit verdot, which is used to provide tannin (the chewy quality that gives a wine structure) and acidity and balances the sweetness of the cabernet.

Although newly released, the ’06 is drinking well now, showing notes of ripe blackberry and cassis and touches of cocoa and black licorice. Oak is subtly integrated and the wine has a bright, refreshing finish, or lift, which makes you want to take another sip. Like many California reds, it’s not exactly low in alcohol (14.5 percent), but it feels lighter than it is, which is the trick when trying to create wines of balance and elegance. With this substantial, good-value cab, Vina Robles shows how it’s done.

Edward Deitch is the recipient of the 2007 James Beard Foundation Journalism Award for Best Multimedia Writing. He welcomes comments from readers. Write to him at