Tasting the 1990 cabernets

The following 1990 California cabernets (or related wines), tasted at the American Heart Association event or bought on the open market, are listed in order of preference:

* 1990 Opus One, Napa Valley proprietary red wine. Finally it can be said that the dream of Robert Mondavi and the late Baron Phillipe de Rothschild of Chateau Mouton-Rothschild has been realized. Their famous joint venture, launched amid great ballyhoo in 1979, has succeeded in creating a near-perfect blend of New World and Old World styles in this exceptional 1990. Its intense black currant and "lead pencil" flavors and elegant structure are a little closer to those of Lafite-Rothschild than the baron's Mouton, but I don't think he would have complained. This is the equivalent of First Growth Bordeaux in the finest vintage, so it would be inappropriate to quibble that the $65 price tag is similar, too.


* 1990 Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. If the Opus One is proof that California cabernet can emulate the best of Bordeaux, the Mondavi is proof that it doesn't need to. This is an unabashedly Californian style, bursting with ripe, rounded fruit flavors. The concentration is tremendous, and its early herbaceousness has receded. Don't let the chunky lushness fool you, there's a strong lashing of tannin that should sustain this wine through 15 to 25 years of development. One of the best Mondavi reserves ever.

* 1990 Vine Cliff Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($35). This intensely flavored wine is the soul of elegance. It's a powerful wine, not through concentration but through the penetrating quality of its flavors. The black cherry flavors, seasoned with a hint of mint, ring as clear as a bell on a cold night. Gorgeous now, this wine should age beautifully.


* 1990 Newton Merlot, Napa Valley ($25). The one merlot in the Heart Association tasting, this wine is worth making an exception for. It has layers upon layers of herbal, chocolate and ,, blackberry flavors. Tiny quantities might still be available at the retail level.

* 1990 Dalla Valle Cabernet Sauvignon ($35). Here's an old-fashioned California blockbuster cabernet, a flavor bomb ready to blow your mind with its sheer concentration. The earthquake of black currant fruit is followed by an aftershock of tannin: Let this wine take 10 years or so to mellow, if it ever will.

* 1990 Duckhorn Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($32). I can't recall a better cabernet from this renowned merlot producer. It has exceptional concentration, but also a refinement that gives it a definite intellectual appeal. The black cherry and herb flavors are extraordinary, and the wine is drinking surprisingly well now, considering that there's no lack of tannin.

* 1990 Laurel Glen Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma County ($32). My suspicion is that this will emerge as one of the best wines of the vintage, but for right now its immense concentration of black cherry fruit is obscuring some of its nuances. Give it 10 years and look out.

* 1990 Marietta Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma Valley ($12). You can blame Mr. Parker for the fact this wine is all but impossible to buy. He reviewed it when it was $9, hailed it as one of the greatest values he had ever encountered, and sent it shooting to $12 and then out of the stores. It's a beautifully structured wine with the unrestrained cassis, herb, chocolate and even blueberry flavors that come only from elderly vines.

* 1990 Conn Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($35). Here's a cabernet that resembles a fine Rhone. The flavor is one-dimensional -- pure Chambord liqueur. But it sounds that note with such compelling clarity that it is an excellent wine nevertheless.

* 1990 Groth Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($17). A minty wine with firm structure, it slowly unwinds on the palate to show real compexity and ample fruit.

* 1990 Rodney Strong Alexander's Crown Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley ($12). This delicate, medium-bodied cabernet isn't in the class of the wines above, but it has good length, plenty of sweet oak and ample charm. While this wine will probably not peak until 1995-1998, it's a good choice for restaurant wine lists now.


* 1990 B. R. Cohn Cabernet Sauvignon, Olive Hill Vineyard, Sonoma Valley ($30). This wine comes on with lovely blackberry, black cherry, herb, coffee and chocolate flavors, then slides off the palate with unseemly haste. It's still a good wine, but I suspect some heavy-handed winery treatment blunted it.

* 1990 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon ($20). There's plenty of black cherry fruit, but for now this wine is rather mute and undeveloped. There's potential, but for now it's a bit simple and ponderous.

* 1990 Murrietta's Well Proprietary Red Wine, Livermore Valley ($20). There are some attractive berry flavors here that are overshadowed by an excessively herbal bell pepper flavor. If that fades, as it often does, this could be a very good cabernet. But it's chancy.