Cabernet grapes as we know them today date back some four centuries to the first cross-breeding of Franc and Sauvignon grapes in southern France. When the winemaking industry came to California and realized the great potential of the dry, warm climate, the history of California Cabernet Sauvignon took off. California’s temperate climate helps the Cabernet grapes grow, though the versatile vines can thrive in many places that more sensitive grapes cannot, making it one of the most productive wines in the history of the state. How did it grow to such successful measures in California?
Long before the American colonists ever dreamed of throwing tea into the Boston Harbor, California proved to be an attractive region for viniculture of many varieties. The first grapes planted in the soil by Spanish colonists and missionaries grew in the late 1600s, prior to the invention of Cabernet Sauvignon itself. As the Cabernet grapes grew in popularity across Europe, they spread into European colonies over the decades.
The first vineyard in California to ever maintain consistent productivity came under the control of Franciscan priests located near San Diego. Father Junipero Serra, remembered as the father of California wines, planted only a smattering of Cabernet, since these grapes needed to be imported from across the world at great cost. Most of the productivity of early Spanish vines came from a hybrid grape resembling today’s Palomino grapes, and was known as Mission Wine.
First American Involvement
When American settlers began to cross the continent (or take the longer ships across South America) to get to California, they too realized the great potential of the region for viniculture. A Frenchman named Jean Louis Vignes, who hailed from the eponymous wine-making region of Bordeaux, looked to establish aconsistent plot in today’s Los Angeles. California remained a backwater, however, until the gold rush of 1948, when settlers crossed the Rocky Mountains and the demand for wine skyrocketed. Since California was only minimally affected by the Civil War, the state enjoyed great prosperity over the next half century, with wine production increasing in turn. One of the pioneers of California Cabernets, Agoston Haraszthy, helped to create new breeds by bringing vine cuttings from Europe.
While Serra is remembered as the father of California wine, Harazsthy is known as the father of modern winemaking in California. In 1858, the California State Agricultural Society published his paper, “Report on Grapes and Wine of California.” The treatise helped spread his practical knowledge of winemaking and inspired other Californians to grow grapes themselves. By the turn of the century, California produced some ten million cases of wine, some in redwood barrels when other timber supplies ran low.
European Wine Blight
One of the darker periods of wine history occurred in the late 1800s, when European wine production bottomed out as a result of an aphid species that wiped out French, German, and Spanish vineyards. The history of California Cabernet Sauvignon became part of the history of international wine in the 1860s, because European wine producers had no choice but to import foreign Cabernet vines and grapes that proved more resistant to the aphids. As a result, almost all the native European Cabernet grapes died out, and much of the European Cabernet we drink today originates from American vineyards.
In 1919, the federal government announced the criminalization of wine along with beer and spirits. Overnight, wine production ceased due to the laws against the creation, sale, or shipping of any types of alcohol. The price of Cabernet grapes and wine shot up as supply bottomed out while demand remained high: a ton of grapes that cost ten dollars in 1919 cost eighty dollars in 1921 and a staggering four hundred dollars by 1924. Despite the efforts of the government to keep drinking down, Cabernet continued to flow, and eight years after Prohibition began, wine consumption in the USA had doubled.
Despite the booming sales, Cabernet at the time had extremely low quality – much like the “bathtub gin” that bootleggers ran — since winemakers could name their own prices. Prohibition ended in 1933, and, ironically, wine consumption fell in the US to about half of its level during alcohol’s criminalization. The damage had been done, however: out of the 700 California wineries that produced Cabernet Sauvignon in 1919, only about half survived Prohibition.
The Judgment of Paris
In 1976, British wine merchant and aficionado Steven Spurrier organized a wine competition that would seek to crown the best producers of each vintage between France and the United States. The belief that French wines would reign supreme, espoused by Spurrier himself, was shattered when California cabernets swept the blind taste-tests judgments; one French judge even demanded her ballot back after the reveal. In the aftermath, international demand for California wines spiked. Thirty years later, a “Judgment of Paris” anniversary taste-test, with Spurrier again organizing the event, re-affirmed the California dominance over their French counterparts.
The Prominence Of Cabernet Sauvignon
Since the post-war era, Cabernet has been a major player in California wine production. Seventy-five thousand acres of California countryside are devoted to production, creating half a million tons of Cabernet grapes to be pressed and fermented, with a full sixteen percent of all California wine sales coming from Cabernet Sauvignon. Today, Napa Valley Cabernet grapes retail for no less than five thousand dollars per ton, an average of about fifty dollars per bottle. Many Napa winemakers hail directly or indirectly from the Bordeaux region of France, including Clos de Val’s connection to the Guestier family and Beaucanon’s connection to the de Coninck family.
Many more borrow from the Bordeaux business practices of mixing together up to five different wine variants to produce the final product, combining Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc with Merlot, Verdot, and Malbec. French winemaking emphasizes no strict importance to the percentages of each wine in a blend, instead dictating each be added according to soil and climate. Unlike Bordeaux in France, however, which enjoys only four soil types, California Cabernet grows in no less than 33 soil series to generate a rich variant of wine.
The Future of California Cabernet Sauvignon
Since this article was first published, there has been an interesting new development in California’s most-produced wine grape. In 2016, a UC Davis research team led by plant geneticist Dario Cantu sequenced the entire Cabernet Sauvignon grape genome. This was the first commercial wine grape genome to be sequenced. The information from the grape’s genome will allow California winemakers to use its existing traits and combine them into new varieties of Cabernet Sauvignon that are better equipped to handle climate change.