Smart consumers should appreciate Cabernet Sauvignon from Mendocino and Lake counties as much as their Napa Valley counterparts. The wines from the highland valleys and mountain slopes of these two northern California counties have much the same structure and concentration as Napa-grown wines, often at a fraction of the cost.
Reliable producers like Barra and Paul Dolan in Mendocino County, and Shannon Ridge and Steele in Lake County, make excellent Cabernets that score 90 points or more almost every year. They sell for far less than the average Napa Cab.
Similar terroirs to Napa and Sonoma
The same broad volcanic and tectonic forces that shaped Napa Valley and Sonoma County formed the Mendocino and Lake county regions. Mendocino enjoys cool evening breezes, similar to those in most California coastal growing areas, but can have hotter summer daytime temperatures.
The terroir in these counties is distinctly different from that of the Central Valley, where most of the wines labeled simply as California American Viticultural Area (AVA) are grown. Seeing Mendocino AVA, Mendocino County AVA or Lake County AVA on a label is generally a guarantee of a richer, more classic expression of the grape variety.
High-elevation Cabernets from Lake County
Just north of Napa County, Lake County is landlocked and high in elevation for a California wine region. It includes the 18-mile-long Clear Lake, the second-largest natural body of freshwater in California, and Mount Konocti, a dormant volcano that rises to more than 4,300 feet.
On the south side of Clear Lake, the Red Hills AVA has a reputation for high-quality Cabernet Sauvignon. This region is home to many top-rated, full-bodied and higher-priced bottlings like those of Obsidian Ridge, Sol Rouge, Spoto and Hawk and Horse.
Vines in the Red Hills are planted at between 1,350 and 2,600 feet in elevation. They grow in reddish volcanic soil that’s low in nutrients and studded with shards of black obsidian and quartz crystals. The poor soil conditions translate to relatively low yields and small berries, which provides a high ratio of skins to juice during fermentation. This causes dense fruit flavors to develop, as well as rich, fine-grained tannins that help the wines age well.
Mendocino’s red wines and redwoods
Mendocino County is due west of Lake County and north of Sonoma County. It counts 90-plus miles of Pacific Ocean coastline, as well as warm interior valleys where late-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon finds the heat and long growing season that it needs.
The terrain in Mendocino is mountainous and known for its giant redwood trees. But in spots where the land smooths enough to accommodate agriculture, grapevines date to the 19th century.
Much of the Cabernet Sauvignon is grown in the Mendocino AVA, which occupies a valley and benchland around the small city of Ukiah, and further north in the Redwood Valley AVA.
Several of the top-rated wines and best values come from vineyards and wineries founded by Italian-Americans. That includes the super-reliable, estate-grown Barra of Mendocino Cabernet Sauvignon and its sister brand, Girasole Vineyards, as well as the single-vineyard Contento Cabernet from Brutocao Cellars.
Two go-to brands, Parducci and Paul Dolan, are named for their notable founding winemakers, but are now owned by the Mendocino Wine Co. Head Winemaker Bob Swain oversees the production of generous, seamless and firm-textured Cabernet Sauvignon under both brand names at the winery facility on Parducci Road.
The Parducci family, while no longer involved with the brand, is still in the wine business. At McNab Ridge Winery, Rich Parducci makes powerful and polished Cabernet at both the entry and reserve levels.
Behind the price
The average price per ton for Mendocino Cabernet Sauvignon grapes in 2018 was $2,205, while Lake County was slightly lower, at $2,061. Both are very high when compared to the state average of $1,019. Meanwhile, Napa grape growers sold their crop at an average of $7,925per ton.
The relationship of grape prices to wine prices reflects the model promoted originally by independent grape grower Andy Beckstoffer. His company, Beckstoffer Vineyards, owns land and grows grapes in all three counties.
He said that a fair price for a ton of grapes is roughly 100 times the retail price of a bottle of wine made from it. So, $2,500 per ton correlates to $25 a bottle, $8,000 a ton merits a $80 price.
That formula has proved generally accurate, a perennial pricing guide for California wines. In the case of Mendocino and Lake Cabernet Sauvignons, it’s the key to their amazing affordability.
Six Cabernets to Seek Out
Barra of Mendocino 2017 Estate Grown Cabernet Sauvignon (Mendocino); $20, 92 points. This is a broad, rich and relaxed wine made from organic grapes. It shows generous black-plum and blackberry flavors, full body and grippy, moderate tannins. It does a great job of filling a big frame with opulent, delicious and ripe fruit, while adding subtle spice and wood-smoke nuances that enhance each sip. Editors’ Choice. —Jim Gordon
High Valley Vineyard 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon (High Valley); $32, 92 points. Delicious, fruit-soaked flavors and a smooth texture make this full-bodied wine almost irresistible. It is drenched in ripe blackberry, blueberry and cocoa flavors, and feels shaped by new oak without becoming overtly oaky in flavor. Best through 2023. —J.G.
McNab Ridge 2015 Family Reserve Largo Cabernet Sauvignon (Mendocino County); $30, 93 points. This is a quietly powerful wine that wraps deep black-cherry and cranberry flavors in a firm but smooth texture of fine-grained tannins and full body. It has a satisfying sense of depth to the ripe fruit and subtle oak-spice accents, and a polished mouthfeel that seals the deal. Best through 2025. Editors’ Choice. —J.G.
Obsidian Ridge 2016 Half-Mile Cabernet Sauvignon (Red Hills); $65, 95 points. This layered, complex and polished wine is compelling from the first scent of clove, black plum and black cherry to the rich, saturated flavors and the lingering spiced-plum finish. A warm layer of soft tannins envelops the palate as subtle blackberry and dark-chocolate notes emerge with repeated sipping and linger on the finish. Aged for 18 months in all new Hungarian Kadar barrels, it will mature through 2030. Cellar Selection. —J.G.
Parducci 2016 Small Lot Cabernet Sauvignon (Mendocino); $15, 91 points. Generous in dark-fruit flavors and rounded in texture, this full-bodied wine is mouthcoating in concentrated tones of black cherry and blackberry. A spicy oak note don’t intrude, while this feels moderately tannic and well balanced. Best Buy. —J.G.
Shooting Star 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon (Lake County); $16, 91 points. Never mind the screw cap, this velvet-textured wine is generous, fruity and deep without overdoing the oak. Its rich and saturated blackberry, black-cherry and fig flavors are warm and mouthfilling while soft tannins bolster the texture and give it a slight sense of restraint on the palate and finish. Editors’ Choice. —J.G.