MANY consider 1974 the finest year in the last decade for high-quality California cabernet sauvignons, which have thus become some of the most expensive and sought-after wines from California. And, as with any great vintage, they are recurrently the subject of tastings meant to evaluate whether all the hoopla and early promise of excellence are justified. I recently participated in a blind tasting of many of the top 1974 California cabernets, which provided a chance to see how these highly prized wines are faring as they approach their eighth birthday.

There were 15 different wines, all very highly regarded by the majority of America's wine critics. All the wines were opened and decanted immediately prior to the tasting. While the group knew the tasting consisted of the best 1974 cabernets, we were not told the identity of any of the wines until all wines had been discussed, scored and given a group ranking. Of the 15 wines, seven were close to maturity, three were many years away from maturity and five seemed to need more aging, but could be enjoyed at present. The wines were consistently very good to excellent in quality, with quite intense fruit, full body and great depth and richness, always a sign of excellent quality.

Two of the wines generated a lot of controversy. The Sonoma Vineyards "Alexander's Crown," a wine which had tasted marvelous when I last had it three years ago, showed a stalky, rather herbaceous bouquet, and the fruit seemed to be drying out. Perhaps this bottle was slightly off, but most tasters rated it last, although in terms of quality it was still an above-average to good bottle of wine.

The other controversial wine was the Heitz "Martha's Vineyard" cabernet. Joseph Heitz is quite famous, considered by many cabernet fanciers to be the best producer of California cabernet. "Martha's Vineyard" cabernet, his top wine, is individualistic, with an intense minty, eucalyptus aroma which tends to set it apart from most other cabernets. I find this overwhelming minty component to be a flaw, yet some other tasters found it quite appealing. Consequently, the Heitz's "Martha's Vineyard" cabernet tended to be ranked either very high or very low depending on one's reaction to minty bouquet.

In addition to the Sonoma "Alexander's Crown," most tasters agreed that there were six other cabernets that were within one to three years of maturity, and should be drunk within the next four or five years. All of these wines are excellent cabernets with rich fruit and wonderful texture and depth on the palate.

The surprise of the tasting was the showing of its least-expensive wine, the Souverain "Vintage Selection." This cabernet was rated high by all the tasters and -- considering its retail price of $5.99 a bottle several years ago -- a remarkable value. It was quite developed, with a lot of oaky, black currant fruitiness and deep supple flavors.

Two wines that were surprisingly close to maturity were the Ridge "Monte Bello" and Beaulieu "Private Reserve." Both are collectors' favorites, and both were indeed excellent. The Ridge cabernet is stylistically very much like a French bordeaux, with a subtle, earthy, austere quality, restained power and surprising elegance. The Beaulieu cabernet was beautifully rendered with ripe, spicy, oaky, fruity flavors and full body, and was aggressive and powerful on the palate. Both wines are fairly capable of lasting another five to six years, but are quite impressive at present.

Two more wines that were considered close to maturity included Robert Mondavi's "Regular" cabernet and the highly acclaimed Stag's Leap Wine Cellars "Cask 23" cabernet. The Mondavi cabernet was soft and rich with a gentle roundness and well-balanced feel to it. Stag's Leap Cask 23, something of a legendary wine in California, was quite good and fully mature, but few tasters felt it deserved all the publicity it had received over the last few years. It was very supple, with a French pomerol-like generosity and softness.

Another wine judged ready to drink by most tasters was the 1974 Joseph Phelps "Insignia" cabernet. This wine had remarkable concentration and a delicious fatness and richness to it. It was highly regarded by all tasters, with many of the group commenting on its pure, clean, lush, ripe fruity flavors.

Of the remaining seven cabernets, all were considered too young to drink and in need of various degrees of cellaring. Interestingly, the 1974 Clos Du Val, which I had tasted several weeks prior to this tasting and found to be fully mature and quite delicious, was tannic and in need of more cellaring at this tasting.

The Mayacamas and Burgess "Vintage Selection" cabernets were the two most tannic wines of the entire tasting, but both wines exhibited rich, ripe, briary fruit, excellent depth of flavors and fine balance. Both wines seem to need at least another ten years to develop, but both were considered to have great potential if allowed to develop.

Finally, the four wines that the majority of the group ranked the highest at this tasting included the Robert Mondavi "Reserve," Sterling "Reserve," Villa Mount Eden and Conn Creek "Eisele." Performance of these four wines was remarkable given the exceptionally high quality of the competition. The Villa Mount Eden was a deep, richly endowed wine with a lovely perfumed bouquet of spicy oak, violets and black currants. Full-bodied and still quite tannic, this wine should continue to develop for at least another decade. The Sterling "Reserve" had the generous rich fruit characteristic of 1974 cabernets, plenty of tannin and a big, powerful, viscous feel in the mouth. It is a wine that resembles a great pomerol from France and needs considerable cellaring. The Conn Creek "Eisele" was more developed than either the Villa Mount Eden or Sterling "Reserve," with a beautiful bouquet of subtle oaky scents, cassis and floral aromas. Exceptionally well balanced with authoritative but restrained richness, moderate tannin and truly great depth of length and flavor, this wine was ranked 1, 2 or 3 by all in the tasting group.

The Robert Mondavi "Reserve" cabernet was the top-ranked wine, according to the group's score. I ranked it second behind Conn Creek, but at this level of quality, ranking seemed a trifle absurd.From the first time I tasted this wine, have been impressed with its majestic, multi-dimensional personality and deep flavorful character. Mostasters felt it should be superb in four or five years.

Final thoughts... The 1974 cabernets are very great wines which possess the exceptional richness and ripeness that characterizes great vintages. Certainly no other vintage in California since 1974 has come close to producing such an array of extraordinary wines.