California cabernet reclaims its glory with 1990 vintage

VINTAGE POINT

October 24, 1993|By MICHAEL DRESSER

Hallelujah! With the arrival of the 1990 vintage in the marketplace, it's safe to drink California cabernet sauvignon again.

It's been a depressing couple of years for cabernet partisans. The 1988 and 1989 vintages were woefully inconsistent, and the wines have been flying off the shelf about as briskly as Beta VCRs. Some past vintages, notably 1984 and 1986, haven't been aging all that gracefully. And all the really cool winemakers were getting into zinfandel or syrah or sangiovese.

The 1990s will change all that. Make no mistake, this is an exceptional vintage that will remind wine enthusiasts that when it comes to California red wine, cabernet sauvignon is still the boss.

We're talking character, folks. This is a crop of cabernets with rich, full flavors, ample but not obnoxious tannin, appropriately low acidity and excellent aging potential. For once, the bottled wines are living up to the promise of the barrel samples.

Cabernet fans who attended the American Heart Association's annual wine auction in Baltimore this month got an exceptional opportunity to taste for themselves how strong a vintage 1990 was.

The auction was preceded by a tasting of 13 California cabernet sauvignons, merlots and related Bordeaux-style blends. The tasting was led by Robert M. Parker Jr., publisher of the Wine Advocate, who chose the wines.

What was especially encouraging was the emergence of some new cabernet stars, such as Conn Valley and Vine Cliff. Just when it appears that California cabernet is ready to settle into a rut, along comes some new player with a dream of greatness and the dollars to make it happen. Let's hope these aren't one-vintage wonders.

The 1990s in Mr. Parker's lineup were all good to excellent, as were a trio of 1989s he chose to illustrate that not everybody stumbled in that rain-drenched vintage. But it wasn't just Mr. Parker's wine-picking prowess at work; several 1990s acquired in local stores showed equally impressive character.

Comparisons of Bordeaux and California cabernet sauvignon are odious, as many authorities have pointed out. One of the main reasons is that seldom do the two regions have equivalent vintages.

With the 1990s, consumers can be forgiven if they give in to the temptation to match the best of each side by side. For the first time since 1970, both Bordeaux and the Napa Valley enjoyed great years. (Yes, 1985 came close, but Bordeaux was more very good than great.)

Amid the celebration of the quality of these 1990s, it would also be just to salute three wineries that overcame the challenges of the rainy 1989 harvest to make excellent cabernets.

Beringer's 1989 Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, the 1989 Silver Oak Alexander's Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and the 1989 Dominus -- all served at the Parker tasting -- demonstrated that an excellent California winery can overcome almost anything PTC nature throws at it.

It'll be fun to taste what they produced in 1990.

*

Calera, Ravenswood and Matanzas Creek are among the top-flight wineries that will participate as Baltimore's public radio station WJHU holds its sixth annual California Wine Festival Sunday, Nov. 7, from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m..

The gathering at the Glass Pavillion at Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus will bring together more than 50 wines from 18 California wineries. Representative of the wineries will attend to discuss their wines and offer suggestions.

The event is being catered by the Brass Elephant. Tickets cost $45; for information, call (410) 516-9548.

*

From the electronic mailbag:

Q: What do you think of the "new" Wine Spectator? I think they should change the name to "Wine Expectorator."

-- Buzz Away, Eugene, Ore.

A: This has been a hot topic in wine circles, but I can't see what all the fuss is about. Most of the changes seem to be mere repackaging. Think of all the traditional Wine Spectator features that remain unchanged:

* Inflated scores on a scoring system it once ridiculed.

* Tasting notes by committee.

* Hyping of its own staffers' books and its publisher's dumb cigar magazine.

* Sycophancy toward Ernest Gallo.

* An obsession with celebrities whose involvement with wine is marginal.

* The constant celebration of collectors who prize ego gratification over wine itself.

Yup, all still there. Suffice it to say, the redesign has not significantly lowered my respect for the Wine Spectator.

Critic's choice

1991 Aspen Grove Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, Sonoma County ($10).

This medium-to full-bodied cabernet comes straight at you with ripe, chewy fruit flavors and hints of earth and chocolate. It's surprisingly complex for such an inexpensive cabernet, and it can be drunk now or kept three or four years.

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