Technically speaking, there can't be any truth to the old saying "Some people have all the luck." But practically speaking, some people have way more than their share. Californians seem irritatingly overrepresented in this category (at least to those of us who live elsewhere and don't have to deal with the occasional mudslide or earthquake), and makers of Cabernet Sauvignon must rank near the very top. To put it simply, I'd trade my good luck for what they consider bad.
I've just completed a very extensive survey of California Cabernets from 1996, which was supposed to be a "difficult" year that produced "problematic" wines. Well, it ain't so. The wines are overwhelmingly delicious, making one wonder whether Californians aren't so short on problems that they've lost their grip on the term.
This is the seventh straight vintage that must be considered very good to outstanding. The streak began in 1990, with Cabernets from that vintage appearing on the market in late 1992. The very existence of the streak is evidence of great fortune but, if you think about it, its timing is downright uncanny. It has coincided perfectly with two other phenomena: the longest period of sustained economic growth in U.S. history and an explosion of American desire for red table wine. Just when we've had an unquenchable thirst for great Cabernet and inexhaustible funds to buy it, Californians have been packing one killer vintage after another into their end of the pipeline.
And 1996 is surely no exception, though there were some viticultural bumps on the road. Fine spring weather led to an early bud break, but flowering and berry set were disrupted by repeated rain storms in May and early June. Summer was very warm, with several heat spikes threatening premature or uneven ripeness. However, a cooling period in September slowed down and smoothed out the ripening process, which ended in a fortuitous burst of heat in early October. Producers had to be a bit selective when picking grape clusters in the vineyards, but such difficulties pale almost laughably by comparison with the horrors of a tough year in Bordeaux.
From the bottle, 1996 Cabernets don't display quite the opulence of the 1994s or the muscularity of the 1995s, but they show deep, pure fruit flavors with supple tannins that permit extended aging or immediate enjoyment with food. On balance, they seem slightly superior to the good 1990, 1992 and 1993 Cabernets, and since the crop was relatively small, consumers who seek particular bottlings in strong years should not delay. Wines are listed in order of preference, with D.C. wholesalers and approximate prices indicated in parentheses:
Pride Mountain Vineyards Napa Valley ($32): Very dark and concentrated, with terrific depth and intensity but also charming softness. (Bacchus)
Swanson Vineyards Napa Valley ($30): Alluring chocolate aromas, rich fruit, rounded texture and a long finish. (Bacchus)
Silverado Vineyards Napa Valley ($30): Extremely suave and elegant, with soft blackberry fruit structured by silky tannins. (Wine Source)
Stonestreet Alexander Valley ($33): Ripe black cherry fruit with nice touches of mocha and toasty oak. Soft but still well delineated and balanced. (Kronheim)
Michel-Schlumberger Dry Creek Valley ($22): Impressively fresh, pure fruit with lots of flavor in an elegant package that is usefully moderate in both richness and structure. (Wine Source)
Whitehall Lane Winery Napa Valley ($24): Full and rich, with tasty black currant fruit, faint earthy subtleties and a judicious touch of smoky oak. (Bacchus)
Kenwood Vineyards Sonoma Valley ($18): Rich and concentrated but exceptionally pure, with little discernible oak and lovely ripe tannins. (Forman)
Alexander Valley Vineyards Alexander Valley ($17): Appealingly earthy and rustic, with delicious dark fruit, soft structure and interesting aromatic complexities. (Wines, Ltd.)
Dry Creek Winery Dry Creek Valley ($20): Vividly aromatic black raspberry fruit, with elegant body, fine balance and fine-grained tannins. (DOPS)
Buena Vista Winery Carneros ($15): Blackberry fruit with a light herbal edge and subtle oak. (Kronheim)
Meridian Vineyards California ($11): One of four exceptional values still on the market, this shows pure blackberry fruit with just the right touch of wood. (Washington Wholesale)
Robert Mondavi North Coast "Coastal" ($11): Rich cherry fruit with good depth and very soft tannins. (Forman)
Parducci Wine Cellars North Coast ($11): Oaky and smoky but juicy enough to attain balance. (Forman)