Although there are some who claim that Cabernet Sauvignon may have initially appeared somewhere other than southwestern France (Spain's Rioja is often mentioned as a possible origin), most agree that the Bordeaux grape is the global model. It derives from a long-ago French marriage of Cabernet Franc, which is said to have come from Italy, and local Sauvignon Blanc.
California Cabernet Sauvignon Timeline
Robert Livermore planted the first commercial vines in the now namesake Livermore Valley; C. H. Wente, James Concannon and Charles Wetmore followed up locally with winemaking in the early 1880s.
French nurseryman Antoine Delmas brought French grapes to the Santa Clara Valley. The first Cabernet Sauvignon planted in the Santa Clara valley in a vineyard owned by Almaden and the first commercial release was Almaden’s “Cabernet-Malbec.”
Morris Estee credited with planting the first Cabernet in Napa Valley in the Hedgeside estate, just off the Silverado Trail. The wine was sold as a “Claret.”
James Concannon imported Cabernet Sauvignon vines from Château Margaux to start a vineyard of his own in the Livermore Valley. He was one of the first winemakers in California to bottle Bordeaux-style wines while setting the stage for the variety’s future. Most Cabernet across the state can trace its lineage to three clones: 07, 08 and 11, the three he allegedly smuggled from Château Margaux, which were decades later propagated at UC Davis.
Osea Perrone saw the birth of what would become Ridge Vineyards after he bought and began cultivating 180 acres/445 ha of land in the Santa Cruz Mountains on the Monte Bello Ridge.
Inglenook’s Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon won a Gold Medal at the Paris World Fair.
Much of the Cabernet that was brought in from Bordeaux died due to phylloxera wave one.
Martin Stelling began accumulating large parcels of land, including the To-Kalon Vineyard, and he along with Andre Tchelistcheff and Caesar Mondavi, were among the first growers to recognize that Cabernet Sauvignon and the Napa Valley were a perfect ‘made in heaven’ match.
Robert Mondavi left Charles Krug to open his namesake winery and became a beacon for focus on Cabernet Sauvignon, a wine that had been varietally labeled at Krug since the 1940s. He is also celebrated for introducing European grape growing and winemaking techniques to this variety after coming back from a trip to Bordeaux in 1962.
Single vineyard designation with Cabernet began across the state led by Ridge, Joseph Heitz, Diamond Creek and others.
First Bordeaux-style red blend (Meritage) created; “Insignia” by Joseph Phelps. Sonoma County’s Clos du Bois is the second with “Marlstone” in 1978.
“The Judgment of Paris” was conducted by Steven Spurrier on May 24. At this celebrated blind tasting in France’s capital with France’s top wine critics, Stag’s Leap 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon astonished the wine world. This ushered in a new era for Napa Valley, which is now the third-largest global producer of Cabernet Sauvignon.
Led by Napa Valley Cabernet, the first California Cult wine to be sold via mailing lists was Grace Family.
Baron Philippe Rothschild entered into a partnership with Robert Mondavi to found Opus One, the first international investment based on creation of a great Cabernet-based wine.
Robert Parker awarded the 1985 Groth Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon a perfect 100-point score. This was the wine from California (and the United States) to receive 100-points.
Cabernet Sauvignon became the eighth most grown grape in the world.
Dr. Carol Meredith of UC Davis determined that Cabernet Sauvignon was a cross of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc and suggested it was an accident occurring from two nearby vineyards of the parent grapes that naturally crossbred in Bordeaux long ago.
First rumblings of backlash against wine and wine styles championed by Robert Parker, especially his take on California Cabernet. Movement towards less extracted wines takes hold.
Cabernet Sauvignon became the most planted vinifera grape variety globally.
UC Davis research team, led by plant geneticist Dario Cantu, sequenced the Cabernet Sauvignon grape genome. This was the first commercial winegrape genome to be sequenced.
Just how popular is Cabernet Sauvignon? According to the OIV (Organization International du Vin), as of year-end 2017 there were over 840,000 acres/340,000 hectares of Cabernet planted globally. As recently as 1990, there were 247,000 acres/99,957 hectares planted. Cabernet Sauvignon is so universally prevalent that it has its own holiday: International Cabernet Sauvignon Day is celebrated every August 30!
The first documented instance of importation of Cabernet Sauvignon to California dates back to 1852, when Antoine Delmas, a French nurseryman, brought French grapes to the Santa Clara Valley. The first documented commercial plantings were at Santa Clara Valley’s Almaden winery by Charles LeFranc.
As with Chardonnay, international recognition of California’s arrival on the scene came in 1976 with the “Judgment of Paris” blind tasting, in which Stags Leap Wine Cellars 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon famously dethroned several top red Bordeaux. According to Nielsen data, Cabernet Sauvignon was America’s number-one red wine by volume and sales in 2019, representing 51% of U.S. wine sales in food stores with the lion’s share coming from California.
For a deeper dive into the history and evolution of the grape in California please see UC Davis’s study on The Black Grapes of Bordeaux.