Left: Cabernet Pfeffer on picking and processing day / Right: old vine Cabernet Pfeffer / Photos by Ryan Stirm
For many wine lovers, California is best known for Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Pinot Noir. Look a little deeper into the state’s past, though, and you’ll find some lesser-known grapes that have significantly contributed to California’s wine history. These include Mission, also known as País, Colombard and the especially elusive Cabernet Pfeffer, which have often been overlooked by students of California wine history.
However, some modern winemakers and vineyard owners are on a mission to change all that. Armed with historical plantings and passions, these producers are working with Cabernet Pfeffer to bring California’s past into the future.
Where did Cabernet Pfeffer Come From?
Despite their similar names, Cabernet Pfeffer doesn’t taste like Cabernet Sauvignon.
“Admittedly, I am far from an expert on this unusual and rare varietal,” says Tracey Brandt, winemaker at Donkey & Goat. “The little I knew was quite enticing, though. I generally strive to make wines with a tension and balance on attributes, and Cabernet Pfeffer does not disappoint in that regard.”
While its genealogy hasn’t yet been confirmed, some grape DNA enthusiasts believe Cabernet Pfeffer could be the United States’ name for the Mancin or Mourtaou grape, which hails from the Bordeaux region. Others have argued that its lineage comes from Gros Verdot or Moristel, a Spanish grape.
The jury is out on whether this grape was brought to the United States or bred in California. “Pfeffer” means “pepper” in German. But it’s also the last name of William Pfeffer, a Californian who brought the mysterious grape over to California in the 1870s. Pfeffer owned a plant nursery in the city of Saratoga in the Santa Cruz Mountains, just down the hill from where Mount Eden Vineyards and Peter Martin Ray Winery are located today. Pfeffer dealt in grape cuttings—an elusive business venture at the time, as California’s growing immigrant population found its footing in the new wine country.
A Little Acreage Goes a Long Way
California has the largest population of Cabernet Pfeffer plantings in the world—a whopping 10 acres. The grape had a short spout of popularity in the late 1800s, but today, just 10 acres exist in California, and they’re planted mostly to historical grape revivalists like Ken Volk of Enz Vineyard, whose vines date back to the year 1886, Ron Siletto of Siletto Family Vineyards and Pat Wirz of Wirz Vineyard.
“My father, Ron Siletto, planted an acre and a half of Cabernet Pfeffer in the ’90s, after they sold Almaden,” says John Siletto, owner of Siletto Family Vineyards in California’s San Benito County. “Now I have five acres, and I’m going to plant two and a half more. This variety has found a home in San Benito County.”
Today, Stirm, locally known as “Dr. Pfeffer,” makes the largest amount of Cabernet Pfeffer in the world at just over 600 cases per year. He hopes to bring the grape back to its former acreage, which sat at about 25 acres in its heyday in the 1850s.
“There were a lot of old plantings back in the Cienega Valley, dating back all the way to the 1850s, 1849, even, the year California became a state (1850),” says Stirm. “A lot of it was ripped out over time.”
Cabernet Pfeffer’s modern-day footprint is tiny in and beyond California, Stirm says, but the goal of growing the acreage is not out of reach.
“There’s five acres of it left at an old site that I started working with this year” says Strim. “ There is just under an acre at the other old vineyard down the road. There’s an acre of it at Pat Wirz’s vineyard, and then for the new plantings, there’s another four acres tops, I would say, and that’s all of it that I know of in the whole world.”
A New Era For Cabernet Pfeffer
Despite its lack of widespread name recognition or current acreage, some Californian winemakers predict a bright future for Cabernet Pfeffer. As consumer tastes change and winemakers explore different varieties to help them stand out from the crowd, historical grapes like Cabernet Pfeffer could make a comeback.
“I think it’s still a niche thing for sure, but there’s a huge demand for the grapes,” Siletto says. “I think there probably will be acreage increases of it, especially in San Benito County. I don’t know if it will make the jump to other regions, but I know there’s quite a few people in Sonoma interested in it.”