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Yes, There Are Affordable California Cabernets

March 07, 2001|CHARLES E. OLKEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When people start complaining about California wine prices, the variety they point to first is Cabernet Sauvignon. Well-known, trustworthy bottlings such as Caymus, Chateau Montelena, Beaulieu "Private Reserve" and even Sebastiani "Cherryblock" have more than doubled in price in the last five years. And cult wines are through the roof-Screaming Eagle lists for $125 a bottle at the winery, and it sells for as much as $1,000 as soon as it hits the auction market.

In the face of this, more than a few wine lovers have thrown up their hands and walked away, swearing henceforth to buy only lesser Rhone and Spanish reds.

As a collector whose purchases of Cabernet have necessarily been curtailed by the limits of pocketbook and rationality, I certainly share their concern-there are lot of Cabs I no longer feel I can afford. What I do not share is their solution. With a little flexibility and ingenuity, we don't have to give up on California Cabernets.

The most obvious solution is not to buy wines like Caymus and Chateau Montelena, though they might have been staples in our wine collections when they were at $35. Instead, try new labels; look for those folks who are still trying to break into the top ranks and are making good wines that are still affordable. Those wines do exist. And they are coming from established producers like Beaulieu as well as from newcomers.

Now, given that this is a review of Cabernet Sauvignons, there are going to be some wines listed below that are not significant bargains. Cabernet Sauvignon has always been expensive, and buying and collecting it has always challenged its fans to be selective, lest they get their pockets picked clean. I hope a few of the selections below will restore a semblance of order to all of our thoughts about the grape.

$* 1997 Buttonwood Farm, Santa Ynez Valley, $16. Here is an open, ripe, slightly juicy, eminently easy-to-taste Cabernet. It has aromas and flavors of ripe cherries and mild but evident toasted herbs, with a dollop of sweet oak for richness. It's rounded and slightly fleshy in texture, and its temperate tannins lend a bit of "grip" and structure without compromising its current enjoyability.

$* 1998 Buena Vista Winery, Carneros, $16. I've been able to find this wine for closer to $11, so shop around a bit. At that price, you will be hard pressed to find a better bargain in Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine is reasonably full and rich, with an inviting mix of ripe cherries and hints of dried berries for a bit of concentrated flavor at its heart. Its tannins are firm but not overbearing, and if it is not as soft and supple as the Buttonwood Cabernet above, it will go with sturdier foods because it's a bit more muscular in construction.

* * 1997 Beaulieu Vineyard, Napa Valley, $36. This wine is proof that you don't need to overspend to get a great Cabernet. True, I did rate BV's 1997 "George de Latour Private Reserve" Cabernet at three stars, as against two for this wine, but it's also true that the Private Reserve costs almost three times as much. If you, like me, are not always blessed with a spare C-note, turn instead to this delightfully luscious blend of Bordeaux varietals. Its complex character includes sweet berries, pencil lead, cedar and a hint of sweet spice to go along with its caramelized vanilla bean notes. The firm streak of tannins in its finish is offset by the wine's deep, rich flavors. This is one you can easily lay away for a half dozen years.

* 1997 Dehlinger Winery, Russian River Valley, $35. This superb winery is gaining new fans every day. Its world-class Pinot Noirs have brought it great fame, but the other wines are also worth trying. This Cabernet is ripe and fairly concentrated with plenty of berry-like fruit and a thick, fleshy feel on the palate. No shrinking violet, this one will need to be partnered with savory dishes to come into its own.

$* * 1997 Franus Wine Company, Napa Valley, $28. Peter Franus' winery deserves more acclaim than it has been getting. For the moment, that means consumers are getting very good wines at prices more typical of Cabernets several years ago. This wine starts with intriguing aromas of raspberry, vanilla, orange rind and currants. Its ample, well-filled flavors are every bit as long and deep on fruit and oaky spice as the nose promises. There is a pretty good slug of tannin that will need some five or more years of cellaring, but if you're willing to lay it away, you will be joining me in buying one of the bargains of the season.

$* 1998 Ravenswood, Sonoma County, $16. A bit brusque and oriented to ripeness and tough tannin, this surprisingly rich wine offers a stylistic diversion from Ravenswood's typically muscular direction. Its ripe black cherry character plays a bit of a second fiddle to chocolaty and oaky themes, but the mix of pieces works for those who insist on mass and brawn in their red wines.

* 1997 Wente Vineyards "Charles Wetmore Reserve," Livermore Valley, $22. For those of us who will find the Ravenswood Cabernet a bit too chewy, this soft, easy, accessible Cabernet with its attractive cherry and cream flavors and its silky smooth texture will be just the ticket

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Definition of Symbols

* * * A world-class wine, superb by any measure, the top 1% to 2% of all wines tasted.

* * An exceptional wine, well worth the effort to find, 10% to 12% of wines tasted.

* An admirable wine, tasty, focused, attractive, about 25% of wines tasted.

No Rating: The best are quite pleasant and can be good buys when moderately priced.

$ Good value for the money.

x Below average quality, to be avoided.

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