1990: It was a very good year for California wines

VINTAGE POINT

April 26, 1992|By MICHAEL DRESSER

The Golden Gate is the hole in the dike of California's coastal mountain range. Stand on the famous bridge that spans the mouth of San Francisco Bay and you can feel the cold air flooding over you -- even in July.

From there, the chilly air disperses. One of the biggest streams veers left, sweeping across the San Pablo Bay and pouring northward into the valleys that run through Napa and Sonoma counties.

During years when that cold air pours in at the right times and in the right proportions, these valleys -- which otherwise would be baking semi-desert scrubland -- produce wine grapes that are among the finest in the world.

Those years are called great vintages, and 1990 clearly was one of them.

After two inconsistent vintages in a row, California's prime wine-growing areas have returned to form in a spectacular way. Judging by the wines presented at Macarthur Beverages

Seventh Annual California Futures Barrel Tasting in Washington last month, the 1990 cabernet sauvignons, merlots and Bordeaux-style blends are the most exciting since the spectacular 1985 vintage.

The 1990 cabernets are exceptionally well-balanced wines that will repay aging. They have plenty of tannin, but it stays in the background and lets the fruit do the talking. Many of these will never have an awkward day from their release until they are 20 or more years old.

The Macarthur tasting, which annually brings together dozens of the finest red wine producers in California, also included about a dozen 1991s. The sample was too small to definitively judge the vintage, but the indications are that it is a good but relatively inconsistent crop of lean, stylish wines.

One of the joys of tasting California wines is that there are constant surprises -- new or reborn wineries that shoulder the competition aside and take a place in the front ranks of the industry before you've even learned how to spell their names.

The 1990 vintage was no different. Old stalwarts such as Dunn, )) Mount Eden and Spotteswoode produced their customary brilliant wines, but they were equaled by the staggering cabernets from Corison and Etude and Dalla Valle's incredible Maya Reserve.

The wines at the Macarthur tasting were part of the store's offering of futures of the wines, many of which are made in only tiny quantities. In many cases, the prices are high -- but they're also the lowest prices these wines will ever sell for.

For instance, a half-case of 1990 Dunn Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon works out to $45 a bottle, but when it is released in two years the cost will be about $75 a bottle, if you can find it. That's an unusually expensive bottle, but the ratio is typical.

For the non-tycoon, what's more exciting about the Macarthur tasting is the opportunity to discover California's rising stars before the prices follow them skyward.

In the 1990 vintage, the hands-down winner in the price-quality sweepstakes was Murphy-Goode in Sonoma County. Already well-known for its excellent sauvignon blancs, Murphy-Goode seems poised to become equally celebrated for its reds.

The 1990 Murphy-Goode merlot and cabernet sauvignon, each priced at $134 a case (barely over $11 a bottle) as futures, are both smashing wines -- loaded with fruit, intensely flavorful and complex enough to crash a party for $30 California wines.

Naturally I can't recommend to Marylanders that they illegally bring cases of wine into the state from the District of Columbia, but if they have wine-loving friends in Washington they might want to pass the word that Murphy-Goode wines are too grand a bargain to pass up. In Maryland, State Line Liquors in Elkton offers a limited selection of 1990 California futures, including Murphy-Goode.

Other fine values, more in the $15-a-bottle neighborhood, included 1990 Groth Cabernet Sauvignon; 1990 Ravenswood Merlot, Sangiacomo Vineyard; and Flora Springs' 1990 cabernet reserve, which showed better than the winery's more expensive Trilogy blend.

The most unusual wine in the tasting was the 1990 Philip Togni Cabernet Sauvignon. With its spicy, peppery flavors, it was a dead ringer for a fine Chateauneuf-du-Pape. That's a compliment, although Mr. Togni didn't seem thrilled when he heard it.

Three wineries' offerings were not tasted because time ran out. Apologies go to Diamond Creek, Domaine Michel and Pine Ridge.

*

Bruce Neyers, one of the finest gentlemen in the wine business, leaving Joseph Phelps Vineyards after more than a decade as Mr. Phelps' right-hand man. As chief spokesman for one of California's finest wineries, Mr. Neyers is well-known in the Maryland wine trade.

Mr. Neyers said he was unsure what he would do next, but that he would remain in the wine industry. He cited the heavy travel demands of his job as the main reason for leaving.

*

The top 1989 Bordeaux wines, which are beginning to arrive in Baltimore stores, are showing magnificently.

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