Looking for a really good - but fairly inexpensive cab. (preferably under $20). I love a toasty, oaky flavor - very smooth. For example - I love Rodney Strong, and J.Lohr cab. I also had one at a restaurant by Folie a Deux - not the popular "Menage a Trois" - but the cab. It is excellent. Any ideas?
As you've discovered, cabernet sauvignon tends to "run expensive"...
One strategy to find the best quality and value for the money is to seek out non-trophy bottles from great vintage years in great regions.
For example, since you're focusing on California, look for the best bottles you can afford from the phenomenal 2001 and 2002 vintages in Rutherford, Oakville, and Spring Mountain.
If you're willing to venture outside of the US, then you have some other tremendous opportunities...
1) the 2001, 2002, and perhaps especially the 2005 south aussie cabernets from coonawarra, barossa, and mclaren are tremendous.
2) From Chile look for cabs from the Puente Alto region of the Maipo Valley... in recent years 2001, 2003, and 2005 are superb vintages.
If you comb through your wine vendor(s) racks looking for the above, you'll find alot of great bottles in your price range.
re: Chicago Mike
I agree with the 2005 South Australia recommendation. A few nights ago, a friend brought with them for dinner a 2005 Wolf Blass Eaglehawk Cab Sauv, which I believe is from McLaren Valley. I don't generally find Wolf Blass wines to be particularly notable, but this one was nicely oaky and earthy at the same time, and quite smooth. It became more fruit forward as it aired. And in Ontario, the bottle sells at the LCBO for $13. I thought it was quite a good deal.
Louis M Martini Napa Valley Cabernet. I think it may normally run $22 or so, but I just got it on sale in my area for $18. I like it better than J. Lohr but have not tried Rodney Strong.