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Friday Fishwrap
Finding The Best Buys In Cabernet Sauvignon

By Stephen Eliot

Labor Day has always struck me as the last stand of summer, and, while I am not quite ready to put the grill into storage, this weekend is a wistful reminder that the opportunities for cooking outside are fewer as the days become shorter. The menu at Chez Eliot this weekend centers on a rare Porterhouse and the wine will be Cabernet Sauvignon.

Good Cabernet rarely comes cheap, and there has been more than a bit of handwringing over the last several years at just expensive the best have become. I cannot say that I am thrilled at the prospect of spending more than $100 on a fine bottle to partner with this Monday’s meal, and, in truth, it is a rare treat, but I would not argue that those who have successfully created a following for their wines should altruistically charge less than the market will bear. The debate will go on as to whether or not high-ticket bottlings are really worth the price, but supply and demand are the ultimate arbiters of worth, and the value of any wine is determined by what the consumer is willing to pay.

Now for the good news. One of the great joys in doing what we do here at CONNOISSEURS’ GUIDE is the surprise that comes in finding wines of outstanding value, and I am happy to say that there is still plenty of well-made California Cabernet to be had without need of a second mortgage.

Listed below are six recent standouts that check in at $20.00 or less and, in most cases, are widely available in the market. They are all thoroughly enjoyable wines, and they will change the minds of those thrifty wine lovers who believe that good Cabernet is beyond their reach.

88 ANCIENT PEAKS Cabernet Sauvignon Paso Robles 2009 $17.00
It is increasingly difficult to find good Cabernet under $20.00, but this well-made bottling fills the bill. It leads with attractive aromas of ripe currants, cream and a hint of raspberry, and its nicely fruited flavors exhibit surprising richness and depth. It is finished with an edge of grippy tannins and gets a bit coarse as young Cabernet can, but its fruit stays the course, and it has the substance and depth to comfortably age for five or more years.

88 BENZIGER Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma County 2008 $20.00
This wine is what widely available, moderately priced Cabernet should be all about. Its mid-volume aromas focus nicely on ripe cherries with intimations of currants and are supported by whiffs of oak and graphite. It is fairly supple and even a bit rounded at entry before youthful tannins firm it up in the late going. It does dry a touch in the finish, but service with grilled steaks or chops will overcome that minor concern. Its fair price adds to its charms.

87 B. R. COHN Silver Label Cabernet Sauvignon North Coast 2009 $20.00
Young, energetic, nicely oaked and sporting focused black cherry fruit that tilts to quiet but evident whiffs of tart berries, this one comes up medium-bodied and somewhat narrow but still fruity in palate impression. It adopts a less pushy style than most Cabs of the day yet has just enough heart to make itself at home next to simple grilled steaks and chops. Its price makes it doubly attractive.

88 COLUMBIA CREST Grand Estates Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley 2009 $12.00
It has been some time since we have seen a twelve-dollar Cabernet that was as deep and defined as this noteworthy offering from Columbia Crest, and, if not as dense and dramatic as its some, it shames more than a few of its prestigious cousins costing a great deal more. It is a delicious wine now but will age with ease, and it should not be missed by any who are looking for a lovely everyday Cab.

87 FIRESTONE Cabernet Sauvignon Santa Ynez Valley 2009 $20.00
It may not be the deepest or most complex Cabernet to be had, but this nicely filled, oak-enriched effort is long on well-ripened cherries and never veers from its fruity course. It is full and fleshy in feel before tightening just a bit as its nominal tannins take hold, but a few years in the cellar will bring it to its best, and it is a fine value in every regard.

87 RODNEY STRONG Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma County 2009 $17.00
A little lighter and brighter than its higher-priced siblings but just right for its price, this direct, clean and decently fruited offering finds a touch of richness in a veneer of roasted vanilla oakiness. Medium-full in body, balanced and just tannic enough to live up to its varietal heritage, this one will make a fine mate to grilled steaks and burgers today and, even though it can age for a bit, does not require that you lay it away before pulling the cork.


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