THERE ARE CALIFORNIA CABERNETS, and then there are California cabernets. The latter are referred to as "reserve" wines, often made in addition to a winery's ordinary cabernet, and they are destined to be drunk only by those with ample expense accounts.
Reserve cabernets cost between $25 and $50 a bottle. You rarely see them on wine shop shelves because expensive restaurants provide a better stage for such varietal theatrics, and because you live, dear reader, on the Wrong Coast. That is the view of some Californians, anyway. Says Harvey Posert, public relations director for the Robert Mondavi Winery, "Reserve wines sell better in Los Angeles, like everything else." Then comes San Francisco, naturally. Texas has also been a good market for the costly reserve cabs, although that may change with the plunge in oil prices. Minneapolis-St. Paul is a regional "oasis" for reserve drinking, but after that the market falls off rapidly.
Washington and New York are considered by many on the West Coast to be halfway houses between perfection and Europe. The makers of Napa reserve wines do allow us a few bottles for our self-improvement, however. They say expensive reserve cabs are selling better than wine in general. This they attribute to an increased awareness of quality among American wine drinkers, and to the current trend among those who can afford it to seek out the best in food and wine.
Beaulieu Vineyard's George de Latour Private Reserve cabernets probably started it all, developed under the tutelage of Andre' Tchelistcheff half a century ago. Other early, extraordinary cabs were made by Charles Krug Winery and Inglenook Vineyards, proving beyond a doubt that classic bordeaux-style wines could be made in California. Today many of the reserve cabernets come from grapes grown on or near the fabled "Rutherford bench" in Napa, near the town of Rutherford -- gravelly, well-drained soils that produce concentrated, highly individual fruit.
Francis Ford Coppola, the film director, 11 years ago bought the mansion of Gustav Niebaum, founder of Inglenook, and 83 acres of prime cabernet vineyards there. He had a sound studio built on the estate for making motion pictures but he also produces a cabernet in the old reserve tradition, called Rubicon, that includes 18 percent cabernet franc. Joseph Phelps Vineyard's Insignia, in the same tradition, is a rich, deeply colored blend of 60 percent cabernet sauvignon, 28 percent merlot and 12 percent cabernet franc.
Another good reserve cabernet from Rutherford is that of Cakebread Cellars, which has increased reserve production from 250 cases in 1980 to about 1,500 today. The Cakebread version is 10 percent cabernet franc and no merlot. "I wanted a wine that would age well," says Jack Cakebread, the owner. He leaves the skins on the grapes for about a week, extracting good color and flavor, and fines the wine with egg whites. It is aged in Limousin oak barrels and held for an extra year in bottle before release -- all proven traditions in Bordeaux that produce exceptional American wine.