Three Top California Cabernets and Taste Buds


Thirty five of us climbed a stairway to our balcony seating perched above Cole’s Chop House’s main dining room in downtown Napa.  The wine service table was crowded with a military style line up of thirty bottles of three different California Cabernets; an admittedly and deliberately ignored wine category since a self-imposed hard stop in the mid 1990’s.

California Cabernet Sauvignon2009 O’Shaughnessy Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain ($158 list price)

2008 King’s Row Cabernet Sauvignon, Diamond Mountain ($195 list price)

2010 Herold “By Mark Herold Wines” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa ($176 list price)

All three are impressive and remarkable specimens, making me glad Jim Gallagher, Cole’s Wine Director, recommended them for my reunion with top quality California Cabernet. Indeed, they raised doubt around the reasons I stopped buying these kinds of wines.  They also rekindled a nagging personal debate on the driving forces that queered me to California Cabernet; was it unavoidable personal palate changes, unfortunate submission to peer pressure and trendy new wine categories, or a more digestible and honorable rebellious flight away from price inflation towards more competitively priced wine regions?  While these are inarguably expensive for casual restaurant drinking on ordinary nights out, or even at home with their $100 retail price points, expense gets excused by fans of blessed California pedigree.  O’Shaughnessy is made by the talented Sean Capiaux, King’s Row by proprietor and heralded consultant Martha McClellen, and the Herold by Mark Herold who claimed his fame making the first ten vintages of high scoring Merus Cabernets before the winery was acquired by The Foley Group in 2007.  Again, all three will delight anyone that appreciates well made wines, they are all fascinations if nothing else.

As in previous vintages, the O’Shaughnessy matched my style preference and was my favorite wine of the three.  The King’s Row and Herold were similar to each other in style with tannins that discourage early drinking (the King’s Row afflicted with harsher tannins and the Herold with more manageable, softer tannins), the Herold a darker and more brooding mass of liquid backed by the same intensity of alluring rich fruit also found in the King’s Row. Their aromas are forcefully arresting.  Both are simply too tough for me to drink young.  I am not sure what food they would not overpower, but was certain they should be admired by anyone that tasted them and got knocked backwards from their big flavors, loud nuances, and overwhelming intensity that comes with these kinds of California Cabernets. They are remarkable in that way.  I liken the experience to varied appreciation of body builder physiques; some are attracted to their look-at-me, pumped-up showiness while others contrarily process them as unattractive and unnatural manufactured profiles.

O’Shaughnessy wines are pretty.  They are mostly soft, round, bright, voluptuous, quiet, contained, and manageable.  They show pure fruit in a restrained way, and offer intoxicating perfumes that fit the overall personality of the wines. The wine does not kick you in the shins like the other two.  Appreciation of their presence requires attention and engagement.  You need to be a partner in the dance; they won’t lead all the time. O’Shaughnessy is less like a roller coaster ride and more like a slow luxury barge cruise down easy, ripple-free canals.

This California Cabernet reunion helped reassure me that my palate has probably changed since the ’80’s and ’90’s.  My boycott is not purely defined by trends nor price. I used to like these wines a LOT. I am also convinced by this article from MedlinePlus that indicates lifestyle is affected by the changes in sensory perception as we age. We are born with 9,000 taste buds and a significant percentage die or erode later in life.  Sense of smell, a significant perceptor of taste, also weakens with age. Less salivation, a defining gustatory encourager, occurs as we get older.  Here is an excerpt from the article:

The number of taste buds decreases beginning at about age 40 to 50 in women and at 50 to 60 in men. Each remaining taste bud also begins to atrophy (lose mass)…If taste sensation is lost, usually salty and sweet tastes are lost first, with bitter and sour tastes lasting slightly longer.

It is comfortable for me to speculate that the physiology of sensory perception has turned my attention away from big flavor California style, even while quality wines that are appreciated by so many, like Herold and King’s Row, exist. But, O’Shaughnessy wines are different.  I like them, a LOT.  The 2009 O’Shaughnessy can be acquired for $75 a bottle if you shop well.  So for all you aging winos that have fled our borders for Mosel’s Riesling, Loire Valley’s Chenin, Austria’s  Blaufränkisch, Sicily’s Frappato, or Beaujolais’ Gamay as examples, you should know it is safe to drink O’Shaughnessy.

  • Tom Lee

    So is your buying moratorium over?

  • awjapko

    For O’Shaughnessy Howell Mountain it is!

  • Stacy Summers

    mmm! cool wine!