California cabernets challenge state giants

VINTAGE POINT

Wine: Bottlers scramble to be as impressive as the established elite.

January 05, 2000|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun Wine Critic

When you're talking prestige in California wine, you're talking cabernet sauvignon.

A winemaker can fashion a celestial chardonnay or a magnificent merlot, but the true vin d'ego is cabernet. It's the wine world's boss grape and the one on which reputations are built or destroyed.

Is it any wonder then that California wineries are scrambling to make their mark in the luxury cabernet market? More and more, it seems that every social-climbing winery has to have a $30-plus reserve or single-vineyard cabernet to challenge the state's longtime elite.

A recent tasting in which some of the newer claimants to cabernet greatness were pitted against the established giants did little to bolster the upstarts' claims.

The bottom line: If you have $30 to $75 to fritter away on a cabernet, go with an established name such as Caymus, Laurel Glen or Chateau Montelena. Don't be influenced by fancy bottles and boxes. Don't believe the hype over new releases. There's a lot of mediocre wine out there hiding behind outrageous price tags.

The cold, hard fact is that with a few exceptions, most of the truly great California cabernet sauvignon comes from Napa Valley. And they're not making much new land there.

Sonoma County, while it tops Napa in growing chardonnay and zinfandel, offers few truly memorable cabernets. South of San Francisco, you have Ridge Montebello, then what?

A case in point is the new Dry Creek Vineyards luxury cabernet called Epoch. Now, Dry Creek is a wonderful Sonoma County winery. Its sauvignon blancs and chenin blancs are perennial top values. Its merlots are classy, and its zinfandels are powerful.

But Dry Creek has never had much of a reputation for cabernet. And it wants one. So here comes the 1997 Epoch Millennium Cuvee in the skull-breaking bottle and the fancy-schmancy wooden box, claiming to be worth about $60.

It's not. The wine is concentrated but harsh, with tannin that overwhelms the one-dimensional fruit. Tasted alongside a heavenly 1996 Chateau Montelena Estate from the Napa Valley ($60), it seemed clunky and crude. What can you do? The Dry Creek Valley just isn't Napa.

Another elite cabernet hopeful is Gallo Sonoma, the upscale arm of the giant E. & J. Gallo winery of Thunderbird fame.

Gallo's Sonoma County operations have actually been turning out some impressive chardonnays and zinfandels and burnishing the family name. But now it's staking claim to elite status with two $30-plus single vineyard cabernets, the 1996 Barrelli Creek from the Alexander Valley and the 1995 from the Frei Ranch Vineyard in the Dry Creek Valley.

Again, it doesn't fly. The Barrelli Ranch has decent fruit but seems blunted and sanitized -- kind of like kissing through plastic wrap. The Frei Ranch exhibits Gallo's longtime fatal flaw in making red wine -- astringency from excessive time in barrels.

The Sebastiani family's entry into the elite ranks comes under the Cecchetti-Sebastiani label. But its 1994 Napa Valley cabernet, retailing for more than $30, is lean, tannic and over-oaked.

Kendall-Jackson, known best for its sugary but popular chardonnay, has released a $74 Grand Reserve cabernet. It's a pleasant enough wine, but it's worth maybe $15.

Or let's say you want a cabernet with a really cool label. They don't get much cooler than the 1996 Thunder Mountain from the Bates Ranch in the Santa Cruz Mountains. For $47, you get a cabernet with a picture of the Norse god Thor fooling around with lightning bolts. You also could get an unstable red wine that has turned halfway to vinegar in the bottle -- as mine did.

Let's get real, folks. For an investment of $46, one can buy a 1996 Laurel Glen Sonoma Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon and discover what a great red wine is all about: lush flavors, silky texture, fruit up front and the backbone in the back, where it belongs.

If you want classic Napa Valley elegance, with Bordeaux-like black currant fruit flavor and cigar-box aromas, $70 will buy you the 1996 Caymus Napa Valley cabernet. It's expensive, but the quality is real.

Some other names to look for in the California cabernet elite: Joseph Phelps Insignia, Robert Mondavi Reserve, Shafer Hillside Select, Beringer Reserve, Dunn, Silver Oak, Newton, Etude, Stag's Leap Wine Cellars. These are well-distributed wines that you can count on.

Yes, there are rising stars that are making a solid claim to enter the distinguished ranks. Murphy-Goode, which has honed its reputation on fine sauvignon blanc and zinfandel, has released a pair of 1997 reserve cabernets from the Alexander Valley that show exceptional promise at $39. The lush, cassis-flavored bottling from the Brenda Block narrowly edged the more exotic Sarah Block on my score sheet, but one could enjoy taking either of these ladies home.

Even though Kendall-Jackson's Grand Reserve wasn't so grand, its 1996 Buckeye Vineyard cabernet from the Alexander Valley showed a lot of Bordeaux-like class. It's an intensely flavorful but elegant red, a bit overpriced at $65, but with terrific aging potential.

These are encouraging additions to California's lineup of top-quality cabernets, but overall there's good reason for consumers to be skeptical about wines with high prices, modest pedigrees and self-inflated reputations.

The burden of proof should be on California winemakers to show why consumers shouldn't go with an honest cabernet bargain from Chile.

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