In the past, I've described the 1980s as the Golden Age of California Chardonnay — a phenomenon that led to widespread overplanting of the grape. Much the same can be said about the 1970s and Cabernet Sauvignon, with the overplanting concentrated — with unfortunate results — in Monterey County. Perhaps it shouldn't have surprised anyone that the foggy, cool climate of an area dubbed "America's salad bowl" for its strong agricultural dominance produced wines that smelled and tasted far too vegetal. Bell pepper juice, anyone? Alas, there were few takers, and, as a result, many of the county's Cab vines were either ripped out and replaced with, or grafted to, other varieties. Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Blanc went on to thrive in the region.
Still, curiosity got the better of us when we spotted a Monterey Cab for $6.99, and this purchase inspired a tasting of wines from underdog Cab regions — areas that often fight for credibility amidst the cacophony of commentary about the ever-exalted wines of Napa and Sonoma. After all, California itself was once a scrappy underdog in a wine world dominated by — what's that place called? Oh yeah, France. So why not give Monterey County; the Central Coast, most recognized thanks to Sideways for its Pinot Noir; and the East Bay's own Contra Costa County, known for its Zinfandel, a fighting chance?
We had the best luck with the 2003 Viano Vineyards Contra Costa County Cabernet Sauvignon ($6.49). Viano is located in Martinez and has earned praise and awards for its Zinfandel, but I loved the Cab's rich floral aroma and pleasing notes of leather and cranberry. I thought the clean yet substantial aftertaste finished it off nicely, while our Token Winemaker found it a bit thin.
Sadly, no surprises from the 2004 Monterra Monterey County Cabernet Sauvignon ($6.99), which had that telltale overly vegetal aroma — more green olive than bell pepper, to me. The taste had a sweetness to it, à la grape soda, and the aftertaste was negligible.
Also in the grape soda camp was the 2004 Bear Ridge Central Coast Cabernet Sauvignon ($6.99). The Central Coast probably has the most tenuous claim to the underdog label, given its relative fame. But despite its strong credentials, we didn't love the Bear Ridge, which had a stewed vegetable aroma, an uncharacteristically light, nutty taste, and a too-subtle aftertaste.
In this dog fight at least, Contra Costa County wins. In Viano we've found a Wineaux' bonanza right in our own backyard, with an array of under-$10 wines in its private stock collection, several more reserve wines under $20, and generous case discounts. Taste for yourself at 150 Morello Avenue in Martinez, Wednesday through Monday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.