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97 Isn't Quite Heaven

97calfutures.jpg (9398 bytes)

(March 13, 1999) Are the 19997 California Cabs overhyped? No, in fact, the barrel samples taste great. So why the sourpuss headline? In a word...


     Please understand, I was enchanted with what I tasted at MacArthur Beverage's 1997 California Futures Tasting in Washington, D.C.

     I'm not ready to call this the vintage of the century, but it certainly appears to be  a step above 1996 -- and the top wines from Napa Valley and Sonoma generally compare well to their 1991 and 1994 counterparts. The producers did fabulous work in a year where the weather didn't seem nearly as cooperative as in the two home-run vintages.

     But when I got home, pulled out my notes and tried to figure out what a smart guy might actually buy...well. Hmm. Yikes!

    If you think prices for current releases are high, just wait. Many of these futures -- wines you pay for now and wait up to two years to take delivery on -- are the same price or even more expensive than their current-release counterparts.

     Call me naive, but a few of us optimists have been hoping that prices might stabilize with the coming of the plentiful 1997 vintage. Not to be. At least, not if us wine geeks continue our current feeding frenzy.

     So. Am I staying out entirely? No. There are still some appropriate buys in 97 futures and I'll get into those below. But I'm not excited about the value of this vintage and unless you have bags of money to blow, I do not recommend rushing out right now and buying everything that tastes good. The 1997 crop was huge and the world will not run out of great-tasting California wine. Decide for yourself whether the wines are worth a second mortgage -- but, with exceptions noted below, you may as well wait until release.

     Okay? Here's what I tasted and loved...

The Four Aces

***+1997 Joseph Phelps Insignia.  Judging from comments I heard at the tasting, this was the crowd favorite. I can't disagree. On my card, it ranks as the most powerful wine of the tasting. With big tannins, even more monstrous fruit and a spicy, tobacco-tinged finish, it's very much of a piece with the killer '94, '95 and '96 Insignias. I can't be sure if it's actually better -- but it may be. The only thing tempering my enthusiasm is the $74.92 futures price-tag. If you can find any '95 on the market right now, you may want to go that route instead or wait for the 1996 to be released.

***1997 Peter Michael Les Pavots. A year back, I was very impressed by the 1994 release, ranking it on a level with the likes of Araujo and Colgin. The 1997 is even better. I came back to it three different times to make sure -- and I'm sure.
     It's ripe, it's rich, it's packed with stuffing and supple as a panther's backbone. Has all the plush fruit you could hope for in a Cab, plus hints of herb and roasted meat that bring to mind great Bordeaux. All this, plus a wonderful, mouth-filling texture. What a great wine! 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc and 10% Merlot.
     At a futures price of  $52.42 per bottle, this isn't cheap. But it's still the most affordable of the stars -- by a long chalk -- and your best BUY among the very best 1997 Cabernets. Don't take chances. If you want it, lock some up now.
     P.S. Winemaker Mark Aubert also was pouring the ***1996 Les Pavots from bottle. Very similar. If the price is right for you, snap it up too.

***1997 Shafer Hillside Select. These guys can seemingly do no wrong in the '90s. (See my article, The Rise of Hillside.) This is their flagship wine and, in my opinion, the best Hillside since the heavenly 1994. The same fantastic black-cherry fruit. the same lingering, chocolate-cherry finish. The same wide drinking drinking window, occasioned by the famously user-friendly tannins that make me treasure Stags Leap District wines. That's the good news.
     Now, are you ready for the price? It's $85 a bottle, up 38% from the price of the 1996 Hillside futures. Ouch.
     And double-ouch, because I bet it will still be achingly hard to find. If you must have it, buy now or simply forget it. (But oh, it's so hard to forget!)

***1997 von Strasser Diamond Mountain Reserve. A true rarity, taken mostly from a small block of intensely flavorful Petit Verdot on the von Strasser Estate. In Bordeaux, a small amount of this grape is sometimes mixed in to give the wine character. But here it reaches a character that has to be tasted to be believed! Intense blueberry and cassis flooding over substantial tannins.
     Prepare to cellar it for years, but I'd say it's well worth the wait. Made in tiny quantities, so you'll probably never see any unless you buy a future or have a high spot on the winery's mailing list. The price is quite high -- $75 a bottle -- but it's so rare and distinctive, you just may want to buy a few. It will certainly be scarcer than any of the other wines above.

     See what I mean about prices? But wait. A few islands of hope remain for those among us who also have to pay for food, clothing and shelter. I did find seven outstanding wines that, while not exactly inexpensive, manage to hit what you might call "the sweet spot"...

The Sweet Seven

**1997 Etude is another trophy for Tony Soter's crammed shelf. Very comparable to Etude's superb '91-'96 releases, it's stuffed to the rim with sweet fruit and structured to age a long, long time. Yet it's not a loudmouth, but an impeccably balanced Cab that should please just about anyone who likes the grape. Price is way up from the '96 futures, but still a good deal compared with wines of comparable quality. For example, the 1997 Spottswoode, being poured at the same table, was selling for $49.83 a bottle. Nice wine, but I far preferred the Etude.

You could say a lot of the same things about *+1997 von Strasser Diamond Mountain. Rudy von Strasser also hasn't missed a beat in the 1990s and, at $37.50 a bottle, this vintage seems to me still a good deal. It's a beautifully made, ageworthy Cab that delivers its own special flavors without any trickery. You can taste the Diamond  Mountain site loud and clear -- red cherry, raspberry, lead pencil, yum. I've got a feeling this wine will be beautifully drinkable on release, but you could also cellar it for 20 years.

*+1997 Andrew Will "Sorella." The lone entry from Washington State and a big winner for me in terms of both quality and price. Pierre Rovani singled out this winery for praise a few months ago in his review of Washington releases. Spot-on, Pierre, and thanks for the tip. The 1997 Sorella is clearly unCalifornian with its bright, blueberry-tinged flavors and elegant style -- and I love it for exactly that reason. Vive la difference! (I also enjoyed chatting with winemaker Chris Camarda, who quite happily urged me to try the Phelps Insignia!) The futures price is $33.25 a bottle, and since you're unlikely to see it otherwise, it seems an obvious buy.

**1997 Dunn Napa. Fabulous nose of blackcurrant and violets. I was expecting a big hit on tannin when I took a sip -- but was stunned not to find it. Will it close down soon? Probably, given the Dunn reputation, but I have to call it as I tasted it today. At $42 a bottle, this wine seems to me like a darned good deal for those willing to wait out the tannins -- if and when they emerge.

*+ 1997 Judd's Hill. Might be their best Cab since 1992 (and they've never put out a dog). Pure Cab flavors with a little more oomph than usual. And realistically priced at $33.25 a bottle.

**1997 Ravenswood Pickberry. Seemed to me even nicer than Matanzas Creeks' worthy 1997 effort. Merlot often comes across as wimpy when you taste it after a lineup of powerhouse Cabs, but this wine delivered in spades on Joel Peterson's oft-quoted promise. My one reservation is the tannin level, but I tasted it twice and the fruit seemed to win big. At $33.16, you may want to sock away a few.

Matanzas Creek was pouring both their 1995 Merlot (from bottle) -- and barrel samples of their *+1997 Matanzas Creek Merlot. I'm sure I'm not the only one who thinks the latter atypically light, but Matanzas is clearly ba-ack with the latter. Has the usual mocha flavors, plus plenty of cherries and a reassuringly rich texture. At $36.58 per bottle, there's still good value here in the scheme of things.

     I also have to give an honorable mention to 1997 Ravenswood Sangiacomo Merlot, the most affordable wine of the tasting at just $16.58 a bottle. It won't make you forget Matanzas Creek or Pickberry, but it's good, ripe stuff and you can drink it twice as often.

    And what a tragedy that the 1997 Laurel Glen didn't make it to the tasting! The futures price is $35 a bottle, which would make it excellent value if the wine approaches the quality of Laurel Glen's last few releases.

     Finally, a few lines about...

The Best of the Rest

**+1998 Ridge Montebello was the lone 1998 Cab at the tasting and a terrific wine -- maybe even better than the 1996 or 1997.  Coffee scented, irresistibly fruity and already showing a lot of texture even in its infancy. At $66.50 per bottle, the futures aren't insanely priced, but I have to think twice. Think I'll probably wait for release.

**1997 Philip Togni Cabernet Sauvignon is another gem from Togni and I must salute the Togni family for keeping prices stable at $60. I'm a big fan of Togni wines and will probably buy some eventually, waiting until release.

**1997 Fisher Wedding Vineyard is on Spring Mountain, like Togni -- only on the Sonoma side. This may be their best since 1992, a brawny mountain wine that emphasizes earthy flavors.  But at $55 a bottle, I can't get interested enough to plunge.

*1997 Dalle Valle Cabernet Sauvignon is a worthy effort with intense flavors that rival Napa Valley's best, but the wine lacked the rich texture of my top four. At  $66.50 a bottle, I can't afford it.

**1997 Dalle Valley Maya. Yes, it's even better than the estate Cab, but it's also $125 a bottle and there were at least 4 better wines at the tasting for a lot less. I heard a number of people agree with this assessment-- yet they said they planned to buy a few bottles anyway. Knock, knock! Anybody home?

*1997 Cain 5 should  perhaps be called Cain 4 because there's no Merlot at all in this year's blend. It's a big, tasty wine -- the best I've tasted in years from Cain -- but the futures price is nearly $50 a bottle. So I'm not tempted.

*+1997 Diamond Creek Gravely Meadow and *+1997 Diamond Creek Volcanic Hill are a big improvement from 1996, in my opinion. And, of course, Diamond Creek has a fabulous aging record. But at $599 for a 6-pack assortment, my appetite suddenly vanishes.

*1997 Corison may be even better than Cathy Corison's 1994. A big win -- with a big price hike at $45. Made from purchased grapes grown on prime Rutherford and St. Helena benchland, it's a graciously balanced, elegant wine, but I do wish the price were more beautiful.

*1997 Simi Reserve is similarly the best Simi in years. I can't remember a better one since the fabulous 1991. I don't know the price yet, however, so judgement on value is reserved.

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