Two years ago I tasted an 1892 Inglenook cabernet. The wine was a lovely reddish brown color. Right after the crusty bottle was opened, the wine gave off a faint but unmistakable cabernet aroma. The fruit lived on the palate for an instant only, before taste and smell vanished. It was the oldest California wine (and the oldest wine) I potential of Inglenook and the wines in its neighborhood.

Inglenook Vineyards, near Rutherford in the Napa Valley, is one of the oldest wineries in America. It was founded in 1879 by Finnish sea captain Gustave Nybom, who had made a fortune in the Alaska fur trade. At 37, Nybom (later changed to Niebaum) set about making varietal wines, using root cuttings from the best European viticultural areas. His high standards and the elaborate winery and estate he built at Rutherford were early indications of the great wines and baronial ambiance of which Napa was capable.

Niebaum went on making good wines, including good cabernets, until his death in 1908. The winery was closed during Prohibition, then rejuvenated by Niebaum's widow and his grandnephew, John Daniel, who employed the talents of another famous Napa winemaker, Carl Bundschu. Daniel maintained Inglenook's quality until 1964, when he shocked local growers by selling out to United Vintners Cooperative, which was bought out by the conglomerate Heublein. Heublein also bought nearby Beaulieu Vineyards at about the same time. Beaulieu managed to retain more of its original character, whereas Inglenook became best known to Americans as the maker of an undistinguished jug wine made far from Napa, and a mockery of the original Niebaum vision.

Inglenook has for the past three years been working to recover its lost position on the vinous charts, stressing that estate-bottled Inglenook Napa Valley has no relation to Inglenook Navalle in jugs, other than being made by a common conglomerate (now A.J. Reynolds), and is again producing quality wines from old established vineyards. A recent tasting here showed that Inglenook estate cabernets, with the old diamond-shaped trademark, are indeed making a comeback; it also illustrated the strengths of some older California cabs.

The recently bottle '83 had incredibly deep color and a big fruity nose for such a young wine, with a berryish quality expected in that varietal. It was unfined and unfiltered, and will be kept another year before release. The '81 was lighter and brighter, with a full, oaky nose, a more elegant wine with a good future. It contains some merlot, as does the '80, and was my favorite among the recent vintages. The '80 was lighter in color than the '81, without its complexity.

The '78, a good vintage in California, had a berryish, toasty nose, relatively little tannin and a nice finish, despite the high degree of alcohol. The '74 Cask A-10, the so-called great California vintage, was a disappointment. It had what is known as bottle bouquet (leathery nose), a sharpness on the palate and an alcoholic, slightly sweet finish. I tasted a '74 Inglenook Cask A-9 last fall and thought maybe it was a defective bottle, but this '74 had the same characteristics.

The '70 Cask F-31 came from vines damaged the previous year by frost, and was quite concentrated in color and flavor, one of the best tasted. The '67, another contender for first place among the older wines, had good color and brownish tinges of age, with a cedary nose and good but lean fruit -- a slightly more elegant version of the '70.