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California's Great Reds

In Search of the Perfect California Cabernet
James Laube
Posted: June 1, 1993

(continued from page 2)

I don't have any of these older wines in my collection. Occasionally I get a chance to drink them, which usually brings back fond memories. If I were starting out today, looking to snag the best of the new California Cabernets, I'd use the list of wineries from above as a starting point. They're all still making fine wines. But I'd also zero in on the following short list of wineries in vintages like 1987 or 1990, which is coming to market this year. These are wineries which gained their reputations in the 1980s.


1. KENWOOD ARTIST SERIES. We turn now to Sonoma Valley, where Kenwood bottles its best Cabernet under the Artist Series collection. Each year winemaker Mike Lee selects Kenwood's finest lots of Cabernet from its Sonoma Valley vineyards, and they are typically dark, hearty, robust wines aged in toasty oak barrels. When the wine is ready for release, his brother, Marty, an art collector, selects a painting to grace the label.

Connoisseurs of Cabernet and art find it an intriguing blend. The current vintage is the 1989 and features a Picasso painting. It sells in the $40 range.

2. BERINGER PRIVATE RESERVE. Beringer got serious about Cabernet with its 1977 vintage, and since then the progress has not only been steady, it has been spectacular. The grapes for this consistently bold and richly flavored wine come from a variety of superb vineyards in Napa, and they receive the royal treatment in buttery French oak by winemaker Ed Sbragia. He has become a master at combining deep, penetrating fruit with elegance and finesse. Of late, the 1985, 1986, 1987 and 1988 show the explosive character of ripe Cabernet.

3. SILVER OAK ALEXANDER VALLEY. Owner Justin Meyer uses Alexander Valley grapes to make a rich, supple and seductive Cabernet that year-in and year-out is distinctive for its smooth texture, wide range of flavors and sheer pleasure. Meyer ages his 100 percent Cabernet in spicy American oak barrels and holds it for five years after vintage. That extra barrel age makes it easy to drink the moment you buy it, yet it has the stuffing and depth to gain for a decade or more. The current release is the 1988, which sells for $30.

4. CHATEAU MONTELENA. Dense, chewy and complex are three words that quickly come to mind when drinking Montelena Cabernets. The winery in Calistoga has been routinely making wonderful, age-worthy Cabernets since 1973. Surely the 1974, 1977 and 1978 Napa Valley bottlings stand out from that decade, but it seems that the wines only got better in the 1980s, particularly the vintages of 1985 and 1987. Winemaker Beau Barrett is the son of one of the owners, and he uses the winery's estate vineyard to produce these deeply flavored wines.

5. ROBERT MONDAVI RESERVE. Robert Mondavi is synonymous with great Napa Valley Cabernet. The winery's Reserve can be a rich yet supple and elegant wine that is delicious to drink early, and it can gain through 15 years. The source of the grapes is largely the winery's own To Kalon Vineyard (pronounced TOW CALON), which is south of the winery in Oakville. Winemaker Tim Mondavi is a stickler for detail, and the wines are remarkably consistent from year to year. The current release is the 1989, which sells in the $35 range.

6. NIEBAUM-COPPOLA'S RUBICON. The Niebaum property is an old Napa Valley vineyard first planted in the late 1880s by Finnish fur trader Gustave Niebaum, founder of Inglenook. The property is famous for yielding dense, chewy, long-lived Cabernets under the Inglenook name. Today most of the old vineyard belongs to filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, who's been making his proprietary wine, Rubicon, since 1977. Mostly Cabernet, with Merlot and Cabernet Franc, Rubicon is a throwback to the older style Cabernets of the 1960s but is a real masterpiece worth tasting. The 1986 retails for $28.

7. SPOTTSWOODE. From a small vineyard in St. Helena, the Spottswoode Cabernet of the 1980s established itself as a bright new star in Napa Valley. The fruit from this vineyard yields dark, rich and focused currant flavors which are pure and silky. The winery has a fine first decade behind it, but all signs point to it getting better in the 1990s. The 1989 is the current release at $38.

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