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Extreme Cab: The 1997 California Vintage

(October 29, 2000) They're extremely good. They're extremely expensive. Should you buy? Should you boycott? Search me. But this I can tell you -- put 'em in front of me and I'll be happy to lap 'em up.

     Today we tasted ten of the top '97 California Cabs. One stomps the field, one's a joke, and just one is not only good but semi-affordable. The last, I think, I would buy. As to the others, how rich do you feel? Anyhow, here are my notes.

THE WALKAWAY. It's not even close. ***+1997 Joseph Phelps Banca Dorada Cabernet Sauvignon is so much richer, so much thicker, so much longer than any thing else on the table that we just sit there with stupid grins on our faces, shaking our heads. Huge blueberry flavors, plus spice, chocolate and lots of complex Bordeaux-type flavors. It's like Insignia times two. Unfortunately so is the price (and then some). I seem to recall it fetches something skyward of $200 a bottle. Fortunately, you don't even have to do the math, because just 15 cases were made.

THE VALUE VOTE. Maybe you've never heard of **+1997 Oakville Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon and that suits me down to the ground, because it's probably helping to keep the price sane. At least it's saner than most. At $49 a bottle, this is the most affordable wine we tasted today and one of the best. Full of classic blackcurrant fruit. Nicely textured with some supple tannin on the finish, it's structured for aging, but drinkable now.

THE JOKE. At $15.99, Caymus Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon would offer appropriate value. At $57.99, I'm breathless in admiration of their chutzpah. I'm trying to think of something nice to say. Here we go -- it has pleasant red cherry fruit. But in context with the others today, the juice is glaringly thin and over-oaked. It's not a bad wine but it just doesn't belong here.

AND NOW THE OTHERS, listed in rough order of preference (the first three are so closely bunched, I'll call it a dead heat):

Sorry for the cliché, but ***1997 Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon really is another classic expression of Napa Valley Cabernet, of the kind Mondavi has produced pretty consistently throughout the past decade. As far as I'm concerned, their 1987 is the wine you give to someone who wants to know what California Cab is all about -- and the 1990, 1991, 1994 and now the 1997 aren't far behind. You taste currants, a hint of chile pepper, then a volley of other berries and fruits, before coming onto the long but somewhat gritty finish. The wine is made in a more forceful, show-your-stuff style than its Mondavi-Mouton sibling Opus One, and as usual, I prefer it ( see my note on Opus below). The 1997 Mondavi Reserve should be even more wonderful in another ten years. Too bad it's $120 a bottle.

I've long been a fan of Napanook fruit and ***1997 Dominus is a fastball right down the middle. Not quite the monster that they gave us in 1991 and 1994, but yeah, it'll do. Stands out from the crowd with its slightly gamey aromas and Bordelaise tobacco notes. Yum. Compared to Mondavi, this is a bargain at $95. (Hey, I'm kidding. If you don't keep laughing at these prices, you'll cry.)

With its deep black color, deep black fruit flavors and thunderous finish, ***1997 Montelena doesn't play it coy. Here I am. Drink me or hit the road. I incline to the former. I can't tell you today if it's as powerful as the outrageous '91, but it ain't far from the mark.

Year in, year out, I've said that Opus One doesn't deserve to command a higher price than Mondavi Reserve. This vintage doesn't -- locally, at least, they're fetching about the same. If you want a gracious, silky, well-mannered Cab that still packs a lot of oomph, **+1997 Opus One is your sweetheart. Basically it has the same flavor profile as 1997 Mondavi Reserve. See my note above and choose your style. If you don't mind the price tag, you can't go wrong.

The flavors of **+1997 Fisher Lamb don't quite thrill me as much as those of the other contenders above, but this wine certainly holds its own in concentration, finish and finesse. There's a note of Asian spice -- not quite curry, more like Hunan sauce -- mixed in with the very sweet blackcurrant flavors.

Diamond Creek wines can be forbiddingly tannic until they've aged for a decade or more. That said, the **1997 Diamond Creek Volcanic Hill is surprisingly supple. Okay, it's more rough on the tongue than the others, but you could cozy up to this with a steak tonight, if you don't mind infanticide. Usual cocoa-currant flavors. Should age just fine.

And **-1997 Staglin is just as powerful as the Diamond Creek, definitely has tamer tannins, but lacks the fascinating complexity of the above.

     And now we get to the question I've been jockeying furiously to avoid. Are they worth the money? I guess it depends on your pocketbook and your passion. If an evening with a bottle of topnotch California Cab is worth more to you than a week's worth of groceries -- or if two such evenings outrank a new VCR -- by all means, go for it. Personally, I can't pay a $120 dollars per bottle too often before feeling like a rube and a penniless one at that. My memories of paying $35 for the fabulous Cabs of 1991 are too fresh.

     But yes, I am squirreling away a few. Maybe I have to get used to being a penniless rube. Maybe six years from now, 2003 California Cabs will be fetching $480 a bottle, and we'll look back on this as the golden age. 

    Or maybe we'll come to our senses and go back to beer.

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