Brian Cain

When Ordinary is Extraordinary in the World of Everyday American Cabernet Sauvignon

Brian Cain
When Ordinary is Extraordinary in the World of Everyday American Cabernet Sauvignon

When Ordinary is Extraordinary in the World of

Everyday American Cabernet Sauvignon

Rude Tasters take a look at a grocery store mixed bag


Dr. Kathy Chase was intrigued by a couple of recent tastings which showed some pretty ordinary wines purchased at grocery stores.  A handful of them turned out to be magnificent, to say the least.   We’ve done Merlot and mixed varietals, but, why not Cabernet Sauvignon under $15 that can be found at Meijer?


As always, the format is double blind, so only Kathy knew the identity of the wines and even she did not know the order in which they were served or which wines were in which flight.   You’d think this would be easy, right?   No, not a single taster spoke up and said “this is a Cabernet Sauvignon tasting”.   Well, I sort of did.   I suggested that there was a distinct possibility that we might be tasting Michigan Cabernet Franc.  However, the wines were very soft and easy with none of the cold weather leanness that one would expect from a northern climate wine region.   So, I was thinking maybe West Coast Cabernet Franc, but, the flavors were not dense, cassis-scented or ripe enough to fit that profile either.   All of the wines had a very similar style which Tony Senna suggested that maybe these were different blends from the same winery or same terroir   Alice suggested Italian reds of some obscure blend.   They were all plump and round, yet not terribly ripe or displaying any of the sort of dense black fruit essence one normally expects from West Coast Cabernet Sauvignon.   For the most part, the absence of big, mouth coating tannin ruled out West Coast Cabernet Sauvignon too.  In fact, West Coast Cabernet Sauvignon never even occurred to me.   Anybody reading this thinking,  “boy, this group of tasters really hasn’t learned much after nearly fifty years of finely orchestrated wine tastings” underestimates the difficulty of identifying wines in a double blind format no matter how mundane the varietal would seem.  For once, my scores, with the exception of the Carnivore were pretty close to the group scores.   I guess maybe that’s because they were all pretty cheap and I’ve never met a cheap wine that I didn’t like.


For warm ups, Kathy served a couple of white wines from Michigan.   Again, only she knew what was being tasted and, again, she did not know the order.   She mostly wanted a group opinion as to which varietal was most likely to be “Michigan’s signature varietal”.   This is a hot topic among many of the state’s winemakers.   Why it matters is beyond me.   The criteria for what makes a “signature varietal” is just too varied and subjective.   What if “blends” is the best wines we make?   Then what?


Many believe Cabernet Franc is our signature red and Riesling the signature white.   However, there are a million reasons why just about every grape variety imaginable should be considered.   Even the “lowly” hybrids have been touted by wine lovers such as myself for the simple reason that they can be grown and made into good wines anywhere in the state and mass produced with good results.    After all, isn’t this a marketing gimmick and marketing gimmicks are all about making a cheap, mass produced product seem cool, desirable, unique, and worthy of a higher price than other cheap, mass produced products being offered by competitors?


So, not to belabor the point, we tasted a Pinot Gris (Grigio) and a Pinot Blanc.   They must not have made too much of an impression or maybe everyone was just in a hurry to dive into the reds, but, they evoked very little discussion.   I got no vibes either way which the group preferred, so, the notes below on the warm ups are mine alone.   They were both pretty generously flavored making me think more along the lines of Vouvray or Soave than Northern Michigan.




2015 Laurentide Leelanau Peninsula Pinot Gris (12% ABV) $17 MI  The nose is certainly forthcoming though not completely to my liking.   Somewhere in amongst the melon, baked apple, and stony minerals, a sulfurous eau de fermentation keeps peeking out.   It did eventually dissipate leaving a pleasant off dry complex ripe long finish.   I would rate it in the mid 80’s.

2016 Bonobo Old Mission Peninsula, Devil’s Dive Vineyard, Pinot Blanc (13% ABV) $22 MI  The nose is light with a mild honey dew melon scent.  The color is water white though it has good mouth feel with a fresh lively though not acidic finish.   My score would be in the mid to high 80’s.




2016 Carnivore Lodi Cabernet Sauvignon (13.8% ABV) $10 CA  Initially a simple plump soft generic sort of red fruit emerges, but, it continues to grow and grow with a finer denser black fruit entering the picture with dry wood spices and a long sweet/sour cherry impression.  My score 90 points, group score 83 points, 8th (last) place.

2016 14 Hands Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (13.5% ABV) $11 WA  I have seen this wine for less than $10 on sale and have always viewed it as a go-to choice with respect to “bang for the buck” value.   It is very soft and easy with fine sour cherry fruit purity and transparency; a good quaffer that won’t offend anyone.   My score 83 points, group score 85 points, 7th place.

2017 Gnarly Head California Cabernet Sauvignon (13.5% ABV) $9 CA   Although there is a cooked characteristic not unlike stewed rhubarb or cherries jubilee, it is certainly not tired or lacking vitality.   This is typical mass produced generic wine, though drinkable and without flaws.   My score 81 points, group score 86 points, 6th place.

2016 Dreaming Tree California Cabernet Sauvignon (13.9% ABV) $13 CA  Like all the wines in this flight, round, plump, soft balanced texture sets the framework with a decent fruit like core; certainly a decent red that no one would dislike, but, not much there to inspire either.   My score 86 points, group score 87 points, 5th place.




2016 Matchbook Dunnigan Hills Cabernet Sauvignon (13.9% ABV) $13 CA  Typical of the lot with simple easy going red fruit, correct balance with a nice little spicy zip to it.  My score 83 points, group score 89 points, 3rd place.

2017 Sledge Hammer California Cabernet Sauvignon (13.8% ABV) $10 CA  This one stood out to me because of its very distinct floral violet-like aroma not unlike a Rhone blend containing Mourvedre (Mataro).  There is also a classiness that most of these wines lacked yet, the somewhat bland smoothness certainly didn’t make me think of European wine.   My score 89 points, group score 88 points, 4th place.

2016 Concannon Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon (13.5% ABV) $14 CA  Like the Sledge Hammer, the Concannon shows very classy, deep fruit aromas but instead of trailing off, it builds a nice surprise of deeper riper fruit and a fine complex finish.  The wine has soul and spice.  My score 89 points, group score 90 points, 2nd place.

2017 William Hill North Coast Cabernet Sauvignon (14% ABV) $12 CA  When the winner was announced, I assumed that this finely balanced, black, dense wine was as richly flavored as it is because of its superior appellation (Napa).   But, surprise, it is the low cost North Coast bottling! Clearly this winery’s impeccable house style is apparent even at this price point.  My score 92 points, group score 92 points, 1st place.


I would have expected a greater correlation between the prestige of the appellation and the quality of the wine.  But, that can be misleading.   Often times, the grapes do all come from prestige appellations, but, because it is a blend of several quality regions, it is simply labeled “California”.   One tends to assume that a generic “California” appellation is simply a euphemism for “Central Valley” and/or “Non-Coastal”.    So, when a winemaker is blending regions, if done right, the whole can be greater than the sum of the parts just like when blending varietals.   By the way “North Coast” includes Napa, Sonoma, Monterey, Lake and Mendocino counties.   Individually, or blended, these grapes clearly make fine wine.


Enjoy in Good Health,

A Brian Cain, the Michigan Vintner