A few days ago, the wine department here convened (a three-person convention) to taste through 20 Napa Valley Cabernets from the 2004 vintage. That year saw generally warm summer weather that ended with a number of hot spells, which brought grapes in a number of weeks early in most cases. Based on this limited sampling I'd rate it just a notch shy of the 2001 and 2002 vintages, and somewhat better than 2003 (though those wines, which seemed in many cases thin and austere when first released, have come more into balance, I find).

Of the 20 wines we tasted, the best of the tasting for me were the following:

2004 Quintessa ($100) Though this biodynamically produced wine had a distinct earthy funk when it was first opened, that aroma blew off after a while, leaving scents of tobacco and black currants. Dense and complex, its rich cassis flavors sank in and lingered.

2004 Marston Family Vineyard ($90) Aromas of eucalyptus and currants lead into a big, powerful, tannic Cabernet, full of spicy, even peppery blueberry and blackcurrant flavors. This is a seriously muscular wine, and is so tannic that drinking it right now is more an exercise in endurance than delight. Still, it's got so much substance behind the tannins that in a year or two it should settle down, then age beautifully after that.

2004 Vineyard 7 Cabernet Sauvignon
($90) Luc Morlet recently took over as winemaker here from Christian LeSommer, keeping this newish Spring Mountain's French bonafides firmly in place. The most elegant and gracefully aromatic of my top wines, this was more red currants and wild berries in the aroma with a light scent of minty oak; flavors suggested cocoa, cherry and blueberry, all wrapped in soft but distinct tannins.

2004 O'Shaughnessy Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon ($75) The most ebulliently fruity of these wines, but by no means a juicebomb, this Howell Mountain Cabernet was ripe and dense and purely delicious (and even more inviting when I tasted it again the next day). Think blackberry, spicy tannins, superb texture, streamlined tannins.

I'll report on a few more 2004s over the next couple of weeks-several bottles didn't arrive in time for the tasting, and there was one corked wine that deserves a retaste. Dishearteningly, there was nothing among the mix that I'd really consider a super value; some wonderful wines, but some mighty steep prices, too.