When torrential rain drenched the heart of California wine country just as the 1989 harvest was beginning, some writers jumped the gun and proclaimed the vintage a disaster -- the worst since the miserable 1972.
Since then, many winemakers have come to the defense of this troubled vintage, especially its cabernet sauvignons. These wines, they say, were picked several weeks later, after good weather had allowed them to recover instead of rot.
Some writers have seconded this motion. The eminent Hugh Johnson's 1993 Pocket Encyclopedia of Wine, says of the 1989 California cabernet crop: "First tastes very promising; dark, intense but not overripe wines."
Then, several months ago, Patrick Campbell from Sonoma County poured samples of his mountain-grown 1989 Laurel Glen and Counterpoint cabernets, both of which were superb. The 1989 Ridge Montebello, a mostly cabernet wine grown on a mountain south of San Francisco, was also excellent.
Such evidence was enough to shake my confidence in my early report, which came down on the disaster side of the question. Only tasting would tell, so I rounded up a dozen or so 1989 California cabernets from reputable producers, recommended by wine merchants.
I fully expected to find the vintage wasn't nearly as bad as it appeared and that I would have to eat some crow.
Forget it. The wines weren't fit to accompany such a noble bird.
While 1989 might not quite qualify as a disaster for North Coast California cabernet, it comes close. It isn't quite as bad as 1972, but it edges out 1977, 1983 and 1988 for the worst-since title. Its closest counterpart in Bordeaux is 1973, which produced superficially fruity wines of surpassing mediocrity.
These are the hollow wines, these 1989s. Most of the cabernets I tasted had nothing in the middle, no grip, no life. The description of the vintage as "intense" is a joke.
Certainly, any review of a vintage is a generalization. Some California producers made creditable wines in 1989, especially in Central Coast growing regions such as Paso Robles, which didn't get the drenching that hit the Napa and Sonoma valleys. And some mountain vineyards, such as Laurel Glen, produced noteworthy wines -- presumably because their steep slopes shed the rainfall better.
The state's premier cabernet-growing regions were another story. By and large, the Napa, Sonoma and Alexander valleys all produced diluted wines of modest character.
It's funny what happened in those North Coast areas during thatvintage: Virtually every winemaker I've talked with said his grapes were fine, but the guy down the road had real problems with rot.
Cabernet has a thick skin and loose clusters that resist rot a lot better than, say, chardonnay or zinfandel. But those were some fierce storms hitting a crop that was already weakened by rampant overproduction. It looks as if there were a lot more "guys down the road" than folks let on.
Judging only by taste, I would venture that this Class of 1989 is the most thoroughly filtered, stripped-down vintage in a long time. That's saying a lot for a growing region where the filter pad is an object of veneration.
In this case, for once, the winemakers were almost certainly right to filter aggressively. By resolutely straining out any suggestion of rot, most producers were able to produce pleasantly fruity, inoffensive wines that won't be sent back by restaurant diners.
The trouble is, that's all they are, for the most part. If the cost is $6 or $7, they're competitive with a good Corbieres from the south of France. If they cost more, and most do, they're a bad deal.
Many savvy wine consumers are already on to this. There's been a lot of resistance in the market to the 1989s, and many producers have had to lower their prices. In some cases, wholesalers have dumped 1989s at about half the normal price.
Consumers should make them keep dumping. Most 1989s are still not at the point where they are a good deal. And merchants had better cut prices quickly because these wines are not sturdy enough to spend a long time on the shelf.
It's a shame it should have to be this way, because 1989 was a vintage in which California winemakers had to use all their skills to produce even decent wines. But admiration doesn't mean recommendation.
Geyser Peak ($9), Chateau Souverain ($10), Seghesio ($9), Field Stone ($15), Hess Collection ($20) and Benziger ($12) really don't need separate reviews. Benziger was the best, Seghesio the least, but all these 1989 North Coast cabernets were fruity, medium-weight, soft and utterly without grip, length or complexity.
These wines are at least partly redeemed by their reasonable price. That isn't the case with two others.
The 1989 Monticello "Corley Reserve" cabernet ($22) is a good wine for the vintage, but the oak and tannin outshine the fruit. The oak flavor is sweet enough to carry it for a while, but after about a half-hour it overwhelms the fruit.