Late spring is a slow time in the vineyards, so vintners from prominent California and Oregon wineries seized a golden opportunity to unleash a barrage of exciting new releases on curious Washington palates at several major introductory tastings recently.
First was Inglenook Napa Valley Estate, eager to shed the good-for-hamburgers image of its corporate cousin, Inglenook Navalle, introducing its long-awaited 1983 Reunion Cabernet ($25; fall release) at the attractive new Samplings restaurant. Reunion is a blend (the first in 20 years) of select grapes from the three original Inglenook vineyards, Napanook, Niebaum-Coppola and Home Ranch. Before the first two vineyards were sold off in an ill-fated corporate reorganization in the late 1960s, they, along with the Home Ranch, supplied the masterful Inglenook Cask cabernets of the pre-1970 Gustave Niebaum/John Daniels era.
A key element of early Cask cabernets was the use of large (1,000-1,500 gallon) oak cooperage, which imparted far less oak flavor to the wines than aging in small oak barrels, a now common practice adopted to emulate the supposedly more sophisticated Bordeaux style. Reunion clearly harkens back to the earlier Cask style, and the result is perhaps the least oaky premium California cabernet on the market, one that emphasizes the natural fruit of the cabernet sauvignon unmasked by layers of oak and wood tannins. Firm, dense, yet immensely fruity, Reunion represents a dramatic and, I predict, trend-setting return to a distinctive, native American style of premiun cabernet.
The following week, the spotlight was on the 1984 Trilogy ($30-$35) from the Flora Springs Winery, located on the northern edge of the Rutherford Bench. A roughly equal blend of the three major bordeaux red grape varieties -- cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot, whence the name -- Trilogy was presented by Flora Springs owner John Komes at two introductory dinners on succeeding evenings at Le Pavillon.
Despite the French cepage and the French cuisine, however, there was no mistaking Trilogy for anything other than a domestic cabernet made in a robust, rich, high-tannin, high-extract California style. The unusual cepage, however, did provide a layered complexity rare for a Golden State product. To widen distribution of the limited production wine (700 full cases), Trilogy will be sold only in six-bottle half cases, thus creating the world's first $180 six-pack.
At the Ritz-Carlton Saturday, nearly 400 of the long-time and newly converted California faithful arrived for afternoon and evening sessions of the second-annual California Futures Barrel tasting. The event offered a sneak preview of pre-release barrel samples of highly touted 1985 Napa, Sonoma and other California cabernets offered for sale as futures by the event's sponsor, MacArthur Liquors.
Is this in fact the best cabernet vintage since 1978, and perhaps 1974, as the rave press notices have suggested? I believe it is. But the more important point may simply be how nationally significant this event has become in the space of just two years: 32 of the Golden State's premier cabernet producers made it their business to attend, and the event attracted tasters from 34 states, some as far away as Idaho and California.
Not all the glory was California's, however. Oregon's march to become the American Co~te d'Or took an impressive step at the Park Terrace's Chardonnay restaurant with a showing of six of the state's best pinot noirs from the outstanding 1985 vintage.
The wines' style was described insightfully by Dick Ponzi, the owner of Ponzi Vineyards, who said that he tastes many of the same components in Oregon pinot noir that he tastes in the state's superb fruits and berries. The wines did indeed display deep, berry-like flavors that were perhaps less subtle in effect than good burgundy, but disarmingly attractive. I might have wished for more distinctiveness among the wines. Six Vosne-Romane'es would surely not have tasted so alike. Nor, in fairness, would they likely have been so uniformly good.
Look for the fabulous Co~te de Beaune-style Ponzi 1985 Reserve, the rich Knudsen Erath Vintage Select, the oaky, smoky Adams, and the stylish Adelsheim, in that order. Oak Knoll and Amity also showed promise, but are still in barrel and need time to settle down. All will sell in the $13-$16 range at MacArthur Liquors, the event's host, and will arrive over the next few months.