Research Paper: The Rise of Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa Valley from 1961 to 1976

Like so many before me, I had no idea the ways in which Stage Three of the Master of Wine examination, otherwise known as the Research Paper (RP), would challenge me. It was, without a doubt, one of the greatest obstacles in the MW process.

I must have proposed over 20 topics, ranging from sensory science and aesthetics to climate change. Not one got through my wall of mentors. In short, they lacked a clear focus and failed to convince my mentors that they mattered. I was advised to use my strengths—my background in literature—and stop trying to be a botanist, marketing analyst, or chemist. I began to consider some historical topics closer to home that would pose fewer issues with access to information, language barriers, and travel limitations for research.

One day, a colleague wondered if there was something I could research about Cabernet Sauvignon specifically—perhaps how it came to be the “it” variety in Napa. That sounded like a been-there-done-that topic if I’d ever heard one. But as I began to explore, it appeared very little had been written on Cabernet prior to the 1976 Judgment of Paris, the event that arguably secured its prized place in Napa. I was intrigued.


In 1961, Napa had 387 bearing acres of Cabernet Sauvignon (4.1% overall). From after World War II through the 1950s, Cabernet was just another wine grape, more likely to appear in a blend than on its own. Americans were sipping on sweet jug wine and showing an increasing preference for white grapes. Still, by 1976, Cabernet plantings had increased 12-fold (roughly 1,000%) to about 4,500 acres (approximately 14-fold when considering non-bearing acreage, bringing the total to slightly under 6,000 acres) and claimed nearly a quarter of all Napa’s vines—doubling that of second-place Chardonnay.

So, what happened? Why Cabernet? Why then?

Though many allude to the 1976 Judgment of Paris as the turning point for Napa Cabernet, its most significant growth

  • Ah, this is wonderful! Thank you so much for your research and for sharing it.