Let's just come right out and say it: The 1994 California cabernet sauvignons are spectacular.
Not just excellent. California cabernet achieves that standard about five times a decade. I mean better than such legendary vintages as 1990, 1985, 1978 and 1970. That would make 1994 the best year for cabernet in the modern era of California wine.
The vintage's combination of impeccable quality and lower-than-normal quantity has led to a serious escalation in the price of the top-of-the-line boutique cabernets (and cabernet-dominated proprietary blends).
If you can find them at all, such gems as Caymus Special Selection, Dominus and Stag's Leap Cask 23 will probably cost you at least $100. The typical boutique cabernet from Napa Valley, which produced a wondrous vintage indeed, can set you back $30-$50.
But what's great about 1994 is that the quality is strong even among the less expensive cabernets. The bad news is that "less expensive" in today's market is anything under $25.
The 1994s are not new on the market, and newer wines are beginning to pour in. But the vintage as a whole is still in good supply at the retail level.
Based on a recent retasting of a vintage I haven't tasted systematically since it was in barrel, here are some of the best buys:
* 1994 Joseph Phelps Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($25). This long, complex, well-structured wine tastes wonderful now but has eight to 10 years to go before it reaches its peak. The intense black-currant and black-cherry flavors promise great things in the future. The wine nearly equals Phelps' 1991 "regular" bottling, the best since 1975.
* 1994 Honig Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($20). Honig is one of the little-known stars of the Napa Valley, and its estate-bottled Napa Valley cabernet is one of the few of that breed that still costs about $20. The 1994 offers lush, ripe black-cherry fruit and strikes a comfortable midpoint between opulence and elegance. Behind the generous fruit -- and a dab of chocolate -- there is excellent structure. I see no reason this wine couldn't evolve over 20 years, but it's delicious now.
* 1994 Simi Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley ($23). This mouth-filling, massive cabernet is a far cry from some of the stripped-down Simis of the past. The flavors of black raspberry, smoked meat, blueberry and herbs combine to yield a complex wine with terrific potential. It needs five to 10 years to really come together.
* 1994 DeLoach Cabernet Sauvignon, Russian River Valley ($19). This chocolatey, chunky cabernet from Sonoma County offers supple texture and bright blackberry and herb flavors that argue for early consumption. But the strong undergirding of tannin says leave it alone, it'll get even better.
* 1994 Sterling Vineyards Napa Vallet Cabernet Sauvignon ($20). Sterling has never impressed me greatly with its cabernets before. They've always seemed a bit over-processed. But either the 1994 vintage is so fine that even Sterling can't filter it to death, or there's real improvement in the winemaking. It's still a bit in the "sculpted," elegant style, but there's real Bordeaux-like flavor here: black currant and cedar. It's drinking well now but can last five to 10 years.
* 1994 Robert Mondavi Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($22). This unfiltered red wine is one to tuck away and forget about for a decade. It has the classic black-currant, cedar and mineral flavors characteristic of the Rutherford area, and its length foretells a great future. But it's not for today. Give it a decade to shed its tannins.
* 1994 Kunde Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma Valley ($17). This soft, lush wine with generous black-cherry fruit isn't complex, but it's a very appealing mouthful of fruit. Made for early consumption.
After this column, I will cease sitting down in front of the computer every other week to pour out my thoughts on mankind's most thought-provoking beverage.
Instead, I will write one wine article each month for A La Carte, The Sun's food section. Look for my first column there May 6. I will continue to recommend a Wine of the Week for what I hope will be your tasting pleasure. That feature is also moving to A La Carte. Its debut is April 22.
See you on Wednesdays. Cheers.
Pub Date: 4/12/98