Mastering Differences Between California Cabernet Blend & Barolo


I live in Vail Valley, Colorado. It’s a very special gastronomic community filled with creative chefs and talented sommeliers. We are blessed to count Master Sommelier Sean Razee, Vail Resorts‘ Mountain Dining Beverage Director, among the oenological dwellers of our valley. That means whenever I am in need of oenological wisdom, Sean is my “go-to” professional. Needless to say, his tireless support of local charities in planning and executing their fundraising dinners is a delight to witness.

While writing a chapter in my book “A Labor of Love: Wine Women of Piemonte,” I got I stuck on a question regarding the differences between California Cabernet Blends and Barolo. My ability to explain the differences leads me, an attorney, to paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous line, “I know it when I see and taste it.” So who better to turn to than Sean for a more detailed explanation? No one in my universe is better at mastering differences between these two wines.

What I got was a 455 word education. And this is one education I definitely wanted to share. Sean graciously agreed to allow me to guest post his response to my question. I hope you enjoy the primer. I certainly did!


“How would you describe the difference between a California Cabernet Blend and Barolo?”

Sean Razee:

Immense differences exist between California Cabernet Blend and Barolo. These differences are apparent in the color, flavor profile and structure of the wines. Some differences are due to climate differences between California’s Napa Valley and the northwest Italian region of Piemonte (specifically the Langhe). Differences in vinification also make the wines distinct from one another.

California Cabernet Blend

I would describe a California Cabernet Blend (in youth) as a deep ruby color with black fruits (currant, plum, cherry).

There should be a whiff of green herbs (tobacco, mint) with dark chocolate and coffee. The oak on the wine is prominent, displaying new French oak barrels (smoke, toast, vanilla, baking spices). Earthiness is not prominent.

The structure of the wine is medium-plus to high tannin (silky) medium to medium-plus acidity, with medium-plus to high alcohol.

Cabernet is a thick-skinned grape of high color pigmentation. The vinification methods used in production extract large amounts of tannin from the skins. A fruity and a silky, smooth palate dominates the wine. The tannin in a California Cabernet Blend tends to be “fully ripe” which gives the wine’s tannin a silky feeling on the palate.


For Barolo (made from 100% Nebbiolo), the color is more garnet to light ruby with red fruits as opposed to black fruits (cherry, raspberry, pomegranate). The fruits are sometimes both ripe and dried (with some age). There can sometimes be notes of spice, anise, tar, leather, and balsamic. Notes of volatile acidity are common giving the wines a lifted, perfumey aroma. Some producers are using some new French barrels, adding the corresponding flavor profile of those barrels. However, the traditional production methods do not lend oak to the flavor profile.

Unlike a California Cabernet Blend, a Barolo might be bone dry, with high tannin, high acidity and medium-plus to high alcohol.

Nebbiolo is a thin-skinned grape with light color that contradicts the wine’s weight and aggressive tannin. It is highly aromatic and driven by non-fruit characters. Unlike the tannin in a California Cabernet Blend that possesses silkiness virtually upon release, the tannin in Barolo may need years to soften. This is historically why Barolo was required by law to age for many years before release. With today’s viticultural and vinification techniques though, this has changed a bit and Barolo is becoming much more approachable in its youth.

This last part of my Nebbiolo description (underlined) leads to why many people who like new world, California Cabernets do not like Barolo. For a person that wants a “smooth” wine, with high color, high extraction, high fruit content, high alcohol, silky tannins and some sweetness to the wine, Barolo is almost the antithesis of this model. Barolo is light colored, highly aromatic, is non-fruit driven, and has an aggressive tannin and acid profile.

– Sean Razee, Master Sommelier

Master Sommelier Sean Razee, Beverage Director, Vail Resorts Mountain Dining. Photo credit: Vail Resorts
Master Sommelier Sean Razee, Beverage Director, Vail Resorts Mountain Dining.
Photo credit: Vail Resorts

For more information on Sean Razee, please visit my profile of him, “Courting Sommelier Excellence.” 

Barolo from famed producer Chiara Boschis of E. Pira e Figli.
Barolo from famed producer Chiara Boschis of E. Pira e Figli. Photo Credit: Alisha Quinn Bosco
Schweiger Vineyards' "Dedication," an example of one of Napa Valley's distinctive California Cabernet Blends.
Schweiger Vineyards’ “Dedication,” an example of one of Napa Valley’s distinctive California Cabernet Blends. Photo credit: Schweiger Vineyards

Italian Wine Families’ Big Brother


Today, across wine regions of Europe, wine families are under the crushing weight of over-regulation. Big Brother is an unwanted participant in the wine industry, particularly in Italy.

Unlike large wineries that can afford the high cost of labor and hire dedicated administrative staff, small to medium size family-owned wineries struggle to tend to their vineyards, make wine and comply with the albatross of regulations from the European Union and Italy bureaucracy. Oh, did I mention trying also to raise a family and have a life?

A list of Italian wine industry regulatory bodies that can at a moment’s notice conduct snap inspections on the wineries include:

  • CCIAA Camera di Commercio (Chamber of commerce)
  • Provincia Ufficio Ispettorato Agrario (Provincial office of agricultural inspection)
  • Regione Assessorato Agricoltura (Regional department of agriculture)
  • Valoritalia – Ente Certificatore (DOC, DOCG, IGA, etc)
  • ASL (Unità Sanitaria Locale) (Local health department)
  • NAS (Nuclea anti-Sofisticazioni dei Carabinieri) (Anti-adulturation police)
  • ICQRF (Ufficio Repressione Frodi) (Fraud office)
  • Dognana (Customs)
  • Corpo Forestale dello Stato (State forestry department)
  • Guardia di Finanza (think IRS!)
  • Agenzia delle Entrate (Inland revenue – again, think IRS!)

It doesn’t matter if regulators arrive in the midst of time-critical work in the vineyards or cellars.  Nothing takes priority over the controllers. Although like Mother Nature the government requires immediate attention, the latter can be quite unreasonable if its needs are not met.

Labor is extremely expensive in Italy.  Family owned  wineries and restaurants have been forced to reduce staff. Volunteer labor – once part of the cultural beauty of the Italian harvest – is strictly forbidden. If you happen to be in Piemonte during the harvest and  see helicopters flying overhead, it’s not National Geographic taking photos, but the government’s labor controllers. They compare the work sheets of farmers with aerial photos. If the numbers in the latter are greater than the numbers reported, crushing fines are imposed on the farmers. The result? Wine family members must be able to attend to all demands of the winery both internally and externally. And I haven’t even mentioned the market demands they must tend to in order to sell their wines.

I have to wonder how an industry that has been around since before the Romans could survive without governmental regulations. But it did. With no sign of a halt to the expansion of European Union and Italian government regulations, let’s hope the industry – particularly the artisanal family wineries – can survive the suffocating weight of bureaucracy.

Note: For an interesting discussion on the history of wine regulation in Europe, read “On the History and Political Economy of Wine Regulations in Europe” by Giulia Meloni and Johan F.M. Swinnen

Courageous Women of Piemonte


I began my journey to write “A Labor of Love: Wine Family Women of Piemonte” when I discovered riveting stories about the courageous women of Piemonte. The first stories I heard were about Beatrice Rizzolio, grandmother of Giovanna Rizzolio of Cascina delle Rose. The courageous, brilliant woman is memorialized as a “savior” at Yad Vashem. Her designation as one of the Righteous Among the Nations came in 1975 in Rome for recognition of her courage in saving Jews during the Nazi occupation of Piemonte after the Italian armistice with the Allies on September 8, 1943.

Much is known about  the courageous acts of women who fought as women partisans against the Nazis and fascisti. But what of the simple farmers who risked their lives and possessions to give aid and succor to the partisans? Little is known about them except for the stories families tell to each other and, occasionally, to an outsider like me.

One story of a courageous couple – Leone and Cornelia (Elia) Cigliuti – came to me through their granddaughter Claudia Cigliuti. The winemaking Cigliuti family has lived for centuries on the Bricco di Neive.

The Cigliuti family's west-facing vineyards on the Bricco di Neive
The Cigliuti family’s west-facing vineyards on the Bricco di Neive

The bucolic vineyard-carpeted hill was once a hotspot of Autonomi partisan activity during the Nazi occupation between September 1943 and the end of the war in May 1945.

Sympathetic to the partisans, many farming families provided the partisans with shelter and food. This placed them in grave danger. Retribution for adding partisans was swift and brutal. But the courageous Piemontesi defied the occupiers and women like Elia Cigliuti were important civilian soldiers through their resistance.

One could say Elia owed her life to chickens. One day when Elia was outside her house, she saw a group of men walking up the road next to the family’s home. Knowing Fascist soldiers were nearby and thinking the men were partisans, she waved her arms and began to shout, “Go away! Go away!” Sadly, they were not partisans.

The Fascists ran to her, threatening her life as they demanded to know who she was trying to warn. With guns aimed at her and her life in the balance, the quick-thinking Elia pointed to the chickens in the vineyard. “I was shooing away the chickens so they wouldn’t eat the grapes!” she insisted. It wasn’t an easy sell.

Eventually, Elia convinced the gun-wielding soldiers the chickens were to blame for her shouting and nothing more. Truth is, chickens are just fine in vineyards and are considered valuable “vineyard workers” since they aerate the soil, eat insects and leave behind nitrogen rich “fertilizer.” Thanks, however, to the Cigliutis’ chickens that were in the right place at the right time, and to a lack of viticultural knowledge amongst the menacing fascists, Elia lived.

Not doubt stories like this abound. Unfortunately, they will fade from history unless shared. Hopefully, more wine families of the Langhe and Roero where partisan activity was fierce will commit to paper the stories of their ancestors’ aid for the cause of liberty.

The bucolic Serraboella vineyard was the scene of fierce battles between partisans and fascists between 1943 - 1945.
The bucolic Serraboella vineyard was the scene of fierce battles between partisans and fascists between 1943 – 1945.

Want to know more about Piemonte’s wine family women? Subscribe to my blog and stay up to date on the early summer 2016 release of my book “A Labor of Love: Wine Family Women of Piemonte” and follow me on Wine Families of the World on Facebook.

Piemonte is Piemonte


I was delighted to read Will Lyon’s article in the Wall Street Journal – “Why Piemonte is the new Burgundy.” I’m always thrilled to see Piemonte get such positive, enthusiastic ink, particularly in the Journal. I’m even more delighted to see Punset amongst the list of recommended wines since it’s long overdue for feisty organic pioneer Marina Marcarino and her wines to receive such accolades!

So my hat is off to Mr. Lyons for such a nice article; I must respectfully demur, however, and note that Piemonte is not the new Burgundy. Nor the old. Piemonte is Piemonte. And, as Barbaresco producer Giovanna Rizzolio pointed out, it is Italian.

Breathtaking autumnal view of the Langhe's vineyards with Monte Viso standing guard to the west.  Photo Credit: Pierangelo Vacchetto
Breathtaking autumnal view of the Langhe’s vineyards with Monte Viso standing guard to the west.
Photo Credit: Pierangelo Vacchetto

Piemonte has its own heart and soul that is reflected in its wines. And its heart and soul emanate from the cornerstone of the region – the wine families.

It’s a little sad – at least to me – that Piemonte’s wine families were not mentioned. Without their indomitable spirit and unyielding drive, the incredible oenological delights wine lovers are finally recognizing would not be possible.

The wine families of Piemonte are the source of the charisma and individualism of the region’s wines. Some prime examples include Chiara Boschis of E. Pira e Figli  whose noble red wines reflect her spirit and passion;

One of Barolo's first women winemaker's, Chiara Boschis, at home amongst her treasured nebbiolo vines
One of Barolo’s first women winemaker’s, Chiara Boschis, at home amongst her treasured nebbiolo vines

Ornella Correggia whose courage in the face of unfathomable grief made it possible for her children Giovanni and Brigitta to be one with their late father’s vision of Roero at the winery that bears his name – Azienda Agricola Matteo Correggia. 

Ornella Correggia (right) and her daughter, Brigitta
Ornella Correggia (right) and her daughter, Brigitta

Giovanna Rizzolio of Cascina delle Rose Barbaresco who fought a tsunami of opposition to be the first woman in Barbaresco to own and operate her own winery;

Giovanna, Italo with Davide (left) and Riccardo (center).
Giovanna, Italo with Davide (left) and Riccardo (center).

the Rocca sisters – Daniela, Paola and Monica – of Albino Rocca in Barbaresco whose own beautiful oenological signature was written on their 2013 Barbaresco, their first vintage to emerge on their own without their late father, Angelo Rocca.

The Rocca sisters - Daniela, Monica and Paola - with their late father and Barbaresco visionary Angelo Rocca.
The Rocca sisters – Daniela, Monica and Paola – with their late father and Barbaresco visionary Angelo Rocca.

and the Grasso family of Cà del Baio in Treiso in Barbaresco and Deltetto family of Canale in Roero;

photo 5
Joined through the marriage of Paola Grasso and Carlo Deltetto, Cà del Baio and Deltetto wineries will share the future through the next generation – Lidia and Anna Deltetto.

…..and so on (it will all be in my book “A Labor of Love – Wine Family Women of Piemonte.”)

Incidentally, I don’t believe Piemonte is the “new Burgundy.” Piemonte is AND ALWAYS WILL BE Piemonte. I kind of feel passionate about that if you haven’t noticed!

Please never forget that the soul of Piemonte’s wines are forever tied to the families who create them. Their’s truly is a labor of love!