Berger: Dismay over cabernets

The cynic in me has been saying for a few years that the more you pay for a cabernet sauvignon, the less like cabernet sauvignon it smells and tastes.

Sure, that is a gross generalization that's hard if not impossible to prove, but a discussion I had recently with four men who ought to know helped certify the concept.

All have long made wine and are judges at major wine competitions where, in the last two decades, they have seen a decline in the cabernet-ness of California's most popular red wine.

Three of the men are current winemakers and didn't want to be identified for this story. The fourth is Dr. Richard Peterson, former longtime winemaker (Beaulieu Vineyard) and a consultant to many wineries.

Peterson said he was dismayed by many of the high-end cabernets he has tried over the last few years, noting that so few of the expensive wines he tastes have much relationship to the grape variety.

After trying a number of $30 to $40 cabs recently, Peterson said, he was struck by the fact that there was very little to like in these wines that he said were "dark and heavy." He said almost all of the wines had over-ripe flavors, a lot of oak, high alcohol, low acidity, and a lot of tannin.

"These wines were not cabernets," he said, "they were caricatures of cabernet!"

We chatted about the fact that many red wines, not just cabernets, recently have become so intensely colored and flavored that they defy identification. As such, it has become impossible to taste the merlot in a merlot, the syrah in a Syrah, or indeed virtually any distinctive varietal character in a varietally labeled red wine.

Even Pinot noirs are being made so dark that they taste more like syrah, said two of the other three winemakers to whom I spoke.

Peterson noted that the price of the wines was not only too high for average consumers, but he noted that there was better varietal character in many wines at lower prices.

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