Fireworks explode at tasting for '94 Joseph Phelps Insignia Good sipping: Annual sampling shows that California will bask in one of its best years.

Vintage Point

April 17, 1996|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Back in the 1950s, the owner of the Chicago White Sox installed an exploding scoreboard in Comiskey Park. Whenever a Sox player hit a home run, it would go off.

To many baseball purists, it was just one more of Bill Veeck's looney assaults upon the character of the game. But to a kid, it was a thing of wonder -- screaming alarms, flashing lights, skyrockets, the smell of gunpowder.

Every once in a while -- not nearly often enough -- I come across a wine that goes off like that scoreboard. Such a wine is the 1994 Joseph Phelps Insignia.

The Insignia was just one of many great wines at MacArthur Liquors' 11th California Futures Tasting in Washington last month.

This year, the 1994 vintage of California Cabernet Sauvignons, along with other red Bordeaux varietals and blends thereof, took center stage.

Judging by the 41 wines I tasted, the 1994 vintage is the finest so far in the string of exceptional years California has experienced in the 1990s.

It has the potential to rival such legendary vintages as 1985, 1978 and 1970.

But even amid the abundance of excellent wines on show at the MacArthur tasting, the Insignia stood out. The concentrated cassis, the depth and multiple layers of flavor, the sheer intensity and length were beyond excellence.

In more than a decade of attending MacArthur barrel tastings, this was the finest wine I had ever encountered.

MacArthur's price, $500 a case now for delivery in 1998 or 1999, is steep but eminently reasonable for a legend in the making.

(Look for some of the best Maryland shops to offer it at or slightly above that price.)

It is especially gratifying to recommend this wine so highly because Joe Phelps is one of the truly fine gentlemen in the California wine industry and Insignia is a wine of tremendous historical significance.

Insignia, which made its debut in 1974, was the first top-rank California red wine to go by a proprietary name without a varietal designation such as Cabernet Sauvignon.

Later would come the better-known Opus One, Dominus and the hordes of wines that adopted the name "meritage," but Insignia pioneered the concept.

There was a dip in the quality of Insignia during the late 1980s, but it has come roaring back since 1990 to reclaim its place

among California's finest reds.

It is to some extent risky to go out so far on a limb with a recommendation based on a barrel sample, but the raw material in the 1994 is the finest I have encountered since tasting the

1989 Chateau Haut-Brion out of the barrel.

Well-heeled veteran collectors will want to lay in a case. Beginners should stretch their budgets to procure a few bottles.

While you're at it, you might as well invest in a few other 1994s, some of which might eventually give the Phelps a run for its money. The long 1994 growing season, which avoided both excessive heat and excessive rain, was good to many wine growers throughout the state, but especially in the Napa Valley.

Among the potential 1994 Cabernet Sauvignon superstars are Dunn Howell Mountain ($549/case), La Jota's 12 Anniversary ($429), Ridge Montebello ($499), Shafer Hillside Select ($480), Simi Reserve ($329) and Spottswoode ($429).

A mention should go to the 1994 Steltzner Cabernet Sauvignon, with its gorgeous raspberry aromas so reminiscent of a Cote Rotie. It holds its own in this company at $179 a case.

Meanwhile, Matanzas Creek ($360) has produced a 1994 Merlot that is a strong contender as the finest ever produced in California from this varietal.

The list of merely excellent performers in 1995 runs on a bit. There's Carmenet's Moon Mountain Estate Red ($199), Clos Pegase Hommage ($169), Dunn Napa Valley Cabernet ($479), Elyse Morisoli Vineyard Cabernet ($229), Fisher Coach Insignia Cabernet ($199); Peter Michael Les Pavots Cabernet ($299), Pine Ridge Howell Mountain Cabernet ($299), Ravenswood Pickberry Red ($300), Vine Cliff Cabernet ($299) and ZD Cabernet ($199).

Add to that list two excellent Merlots: the Pine Ridge Carneros and Ravenswood Sangiacomo ($179).

This list represents a strict selection from a distinguished group.

At barrel tastings, I use a simplified 1-through-5-point scale. What you see listed here are only the 5s -- a tribute to the strength of the vintage.

1% On my sheet, the Phelps was a 5!!

Two favorites disappoint

Let this not be read as a condemnation of two fine wineries, but two of my longtime favorite Sauvignon Blancs turned in disappointing performances in their most recent releases.

The 1994 Dry Creek Fume Blanc and 1995 Murphy-Goode Fume Blanc (Fume and Sauvignon are identical blancs) were not poor wines, but in recent tastings they showed little of the style and flavor intensity the wines were known for.

It seemed almost as if quality was being compromised for the sake of a bit more quantity.

These wines have both been highly recommended in this space before.

It would be gratifying if the wineries were to take steps to ensure that can happen again.

Mumm review appealed

Vintage Point normally does not accept free samples, a policy that has delighted the Baltimore-area charities to whom we donate for auction any free wine that is sent to us, but we do allow an exception for wineries that wish to appeal a negative review.

Mumm Napa Valley was disappointed by a review late last year of its premium 1991 DVX sparkling wine.

The wine that was reviewed was corked, a flaw that is beyond the control of the winery but that precluded the possibility of a positive review.

A recent retasting of DVX showed that it is indeed a high-quality sparkling wine with considerable character.

Its yeasty, toasty, subtle flavors are complex and quite Champagne-like, though it stops a little short of the pinnacles of California bubbly production.

Basically, that means it justifies the $20-$25 you would shell out to buy it, but doesn't stand out as a fabulous bargain.

The quality is sufficient for Mumm to take justifiable pride in the wine.

Pub Date: 4/17/96

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