The second annual California cabernet futures sale, held here recently, reflected a growing thirst for California cabernet. It also indicated how eager the public is to invest in wine futures -- in which wines are sold before they have actually been bottled -- provided the price and vintage seem to be right.

Last year, at the first sale of California cabernet futures, doubters predicted that the event would be a flop. In fact it was a great success. This year, many futures were sold even before the sale was officially under way.

The event, organized by Jim Arseneault of MacArthur Liquors, brought together two dozen California producers with barrel samples of their '85 cabernets. Potential customers swirled and sipped as they interrogated the winemakers on oak aging, filtration and the best restaurants in Napa.

In futures sales, presumably the customer pays less for wine than when it is formally released about a year and a half later. Buying futures also assures the customer of getting enough of the wine he wants, since the good ones are sometimes in short supply once they come on the market. But buying futures is still speculative. The sale of bordeaux futures has become commonplace, for instance, but recently the price of some '83 bordeaux futures was actually higher than the price of the wine when it was released.

At last year's cabernet sale, there were only 15 California wineries offering the '84 futures; this year there were 28 offering the '85s, and many cases had already been sold. News of the good vintage had been out for months, and those who couldn't wait placed orders before tasting the barrel samples.

The vintage has lived up to its reputation -- 1985 was an almost perfect year for cabernet in California, the best since '78. The crop was copious, producing wines that are dark, concentrated, well balanced, tannic and flavorful -- and will last for years.

There was not a bad or even a mediocre cabernet among the wines. There were several impressive new additions this year, among them Flora Springs Trilogy, a blend of cabernet, merlot and cabernet franc ($270 per standard 12-bottle case), and Carmanet ($189), a smooth, voluptuous wine with a long finish.

Many of those that stood out last year were still in the vanguard, among them Caymus Vineyards Estate ($179); Laurel Glen ($169); Phelps Eisele ($299); Ridge Montebello ($269); and Girard Reserve ($189). The best deal was the William Hill Reserve ($149), a big wine with a nice brambly quality and great balance.

One of the most spectacular wines again on display was the Dunn Vineyards Howell Mountain cabernet ($299). It is made by Randy Dunn, formerly the winemaker at Caymus and now the owner of a small, quality vineyard high above the Napa Valley.

The cooler climate, the soils on Howell Mountain and Dunn's rigorous wine- making regimen produce an intense and layered cabernet. Dunn also makes a less intense but very flavorful Napa Valley cabernet from purchased grapes ($179), but it's the wine from his own vineyards that people with sufficient capital are laying down, with a fond eye on the future. ::