One of the constant debates among wine enthusiasts is whether the pinot noir or cabernet sauvignon grape produces the better wine. When the two grapes are compared, the following observations about them can generally be agreed upon:

(1) Cabernet sauvignon can be successfully grown in more areas of the world than pinot noir; (2) cabernet sauvignon produces a greater volume of wine per vine than pinot noir; (3) cabernet sauvignon produces a richer, more powerful, deeper colored, more astringent wine than pinot noir, (4) cabernet sauvignon usually requires aging in the bottle to reach its full potential, (5) cabernet sauvignon is usually much more fairly priced than pinot noir, (6) cabernet sauvignon is much more popular among consumers and the wine trade than pinot noir and (7) cabernet sauvignon is generally considered a much easier wine to understand than pinot noir.

Since these generally agreed-upon observations about these two great red wine grapes seem overwhelmingly to favor cabernet sauvignon, one wonders why our own California wine producers have worked so hard trying to produce a wine that seems so stubbornly difficult to make -- and to sell. Well, as anyone who has experienced the majesty of a velvety, graceful, highly aromatic pinot noir can attest, this grape, when properly cultivated, grown and vinified, can produce sensational wine that is worth a special search of the marketplace to find.

California vintners, long castigated for one mediocre pinot noir after another, are beginning to turn out extremely impressive wines that may, in several years, prove more interesting and popular than their famous cabernet sauvignons. Most of the top pinot noirs are now coming from the cooler, microclimates, where the grape is less prone to excessive heat.

Consequently, the southern Napa Valley region called Carneros, just north of San Francisco Bay, has proven to be one of the most promising regions for pinot noir. Pinot noir also has been successfully grown in the cool Santa Cruz mountain region south of San Francisco, as well as in Monterey County.

The following are some of the most impressive California pinot noirs I have tasted. With the exception of a Pedroncelli pinot noir, these wines are not bargains, in large part because they are only available in very limited quantities. However, they all are available locally, and are in some cases, stunning examples of just how far California producers have come. Acacia

The Acacia Winery in the southern Carneros region has built a quick reputation for its excellent chardonnays and promising pinot noirs. The newly released 1982 pinot noirs (of which there are five) are unquestionably the best this small winery has produced to date. Two of the pinot noirs are destined to be consumed young; and one drunk in one to three years. The two remaining wines should be cellared for three to four years.

The Acacia "Lee" ($15.95) and Acacia "Iund" ($15.95) are the two pinot noirs that merit immediate attention. The Lee is medium ruby, with a fragrant, well-developed, delicate, yet expansive berry, spicy aroma, medium body, and soft, lingering, fruity flavors. The Iund has a penetrating fragrance of smoky, fruity, pinot-noir fruit, an intriguing, yet subtle, herbaceous, peppery component, and full-bodied, deep flavors. It is a very distinctive wine, with an excellent perfumed character.

The Acacia "Winery Lake" ($15.95) is more closed, quite light, with plenty of finesse, and seems to develop a silky Cote de Beaune character in the glass. The fourth pinot noir, the Acacia "Madonna" ($17.95) is much darker in color, quite rich, very tannic, with plenty of concentration. It clearly needs several years to develop to its potential. Lastly, the Acacia "St. Clair" ($15.95) is quite big indeed, with the largest framework of all these pinot noirs, the most backward personality, yet has the most power and potential. I wouldn't want to touch it before 1987. Chalone

This winery, tucked away in an isolated hillside below the Pinnacle's National Monument in Monterey County, has consistently made one of California's most exciting pinot noirs. Its tiny production has now increased to the point where the wine is distributed in most major metropolitan markets. The Chalone 1981 Pinot Noir ($19.95) may not be as profound or as complex as the remarkable 1980, but it still is a very interesting, smoky, rich, concentrated wine, with oodles of pinot noir fruit. It can be drunk now, or aged for 3 to 4 years. Robert Mondavi

Robert Mondavi makes so many fine wines, and deservedly receives a tremendous amount of publicity for his cabernet sauvignons, chardonnays and fume blancs. But, how much have you heard about his pinot noirs? Each year his pinot noirs seem to get better and his 1980 Reserve ($16.95) and 1981 Reserve ($16.95) are two excellent examples of just how far he has come from some of the bland pinot noirs he produced in the mid-'70s. The 1980 Reserve exhibits good strawberry-scented fruit, in a very light Cote de Beaune style, whereas the 1981 Reserve shows more concentration, and a complex, smoky, ripe-cherry fruit, with a vivid, spicy character, not unlike a fine Beaune from a top house like Joseph Drouhin. Pedroncelli

Sonoma Valley's Pedroncelli winery can consistently be counted on to give top value. Its wines are always among the most reasonably priced on the market. Not surprisingly, the 1980 pinot noir ($5.95) is not only a supple interesting wine, but also a superb value in pinot noir. It can not compare to the other pinot noirs recommended herein, but then again it is significantly less expensive. Saintsbury

This is another one of the new California wineries located in the cool Carneros region. The winery specializes in only two wines, chardonnay and pinot noir. The pinot noir comes in two versions. There is a very light, fragrant, almost rose-colored pinot noir called Garnet, which is a wine that is meant to be drunk upon release. There is also a second pinot noir that has more color and stuffing, and a very smoky, fragrant pinot noir character. The 1983 Garnet ($8) is extremely light, but very delicate, and very burgundian in character. If you want a little bit more fruit, and smoky, savory pinot noir character, then consider the 1983 pinot noir with the Carneros designation. It costs $10 and is an extremely elegant pinor noir. Sea Ridge

Sea Ridge is another winery dedicated to producing pinot noir. The winery has 17 acres of pinot noir planted in limestone soil, high in the Sonoma foothills, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. I was extremely impressed with the lush, delicate, silky flavors that Sea Ridge's 1981 "Summa" ($10.50), and 1981 "Bohan" ($12.50) pinot noirs exhibited when I tasted them recently. The Summa exhibits a trifle more concentration and depth, but both are extremely promising, noteworthy efforts from this new winery in Sonoma County.