If you are willing to spend $10 to $15 on a cabernet sauvignon, you are entitled to a mighty fine bottle of wine.
You shouldn't expect a magnificent, profound, complex, swear-you've-gone-to-heaven kind of a cabernet. Most of those left this moderate price bracket more than a decade ago.
But $10-$15 is a fair-sized investment for something you can enjoy only once. For that price, you have every reason to demand wines with generous fruit, at least medium body, firm structure and a finish that doesn't speed by like a jack rabbit on steroids. And you're not paying for stray tastes of weeds, overcooked vegetables or cardboard.
Judging by recent tastings of California and Washington state cabernets in this price bracket, a lot of wines aren't keeping up their end of the bargain.
The sins of the makers of these wines include excessive grape crops, which yield flavor-deficient wines, and aggressive filtration, which can strip out the flavors nature so graciously provided.
Vintages are not the problem, particularly in California. There hasn't been a reasonable excuse for making mediocre wine since 1989. Most of the moderately priced cabernets on the market now are 1993s, not a great vintage in California, but respectable enough.
Fortunately, consumers can find many cabernets that do deliver the goods for under $15. Any of the following, which ranked about equally on my score sheet, would do credit to the host who served it:
1993 Trefethen Eshcol Cabernet Sauvignon ($11.79). Here's a cabernet for merlot drinkers. It's uncharacteristically soft in texture, but it offers generous concentration and unabashed black cherry flavor. Drink it young.
1993 Liberty School "Coastal Oaks" Cabernet Sauvignon, Paso Robles ($11). Once again this second label of Caymus Vineyards provides excellent value. It combines flavors of black currant, black cherry, red meat and herbs in a way that reflects credit on its parent.
1993 Marietta Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma County ($13). There's a bit more tannic structure here than in most of the other wines in its class. Already it offers delicious nuances of blueberry, blackberry and herbs. Give it two or three years, and it might show more. (Limited availability.)
1993 J. Lohr Estates Cabernet Sauvignon, Paso Robles ($12). It's not full-bodied, but the Lohr more than makes up for it in the intensity and persistence of its black-cherry-dominated flavors.
1993 Hess Select Cabernet Sauvignon ($12). Like the Marietta, this ripe, rich, well-made cabernet has the potential to improve. Hess combines flavors of black cherry, black currant and herbs in a medium-bodied wine with more than a little complexity.
One small step down was the most expensive wine in the group, the 1993 Fetzer Barrel Select North Coast Cabernet Sauvignon ($15). It's a very Bordeaux-like cabernet, both in its flavor profile and its slightly hard tannin.
There were a few mild disappointments from excellent wineries. Washington State's Chateau Ste. Michelle produced a good 1993 cabernet from the Columbia Valley ($13), but it lacked the grip and finish one would expect. The 1994 Terra Rosa Cabernet Sauvignon ($12) from Laurel Glen Vineyards fell short of the excellent price-value relationship of past vintages.
I've never been impressed by the Bandiera winery, and its 1993 Reserve 5 Cabernet Sauvignon ($12) didn't change my mind. The best you can say about this agreeable wine of no distinction is that others did worse.
There is no value to be found in the 1993 cabernets from Expressions of Glen Ellen (Napa Valley, $14), Beaulieu Vineyards (Rutherford, $12), Innisfree (Napa Valley, $12) and Clos du Bois (Sonoma County, $12). Nor was the 1992 Gallo Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon ($10) any bargain. All were to some degree stripped-down and short on the palate.
Perhaps most puzzling is the continuing mediocrity of Innisfree, a secondary brand of the Joseph Phelps Vineyards, a winery I have long admired. One has to wonder: If Caymus can create a moderately priced line as dependable as Liberty School, why can't Phelps?
Pub Date: 10/13/96