Trends in wine come and go, changing with the pressures of the market and the whims (and needs) of winemakers. One of the more controversial trends to endure in recent years is the proliferation of so-called 'cult wines.' Mainly Cabernet Sauvignons from the Napa Valley, cult wines are scarce and expensive and, say some critics, over-blown examples of the depth and finesse of real Napa Valley Cabernet.
In the late 1980s, when the Napa Valley was getting its second wind, proving to the wine world that California was capable of making first-rate red wines, a handful of winemakers were crafting the first cult wines. George Rubissow and Tony Sargent, biophysicists at the University of California at Berkeley, made the leap from home winemaking in 1988 by releasing the first Rubissow-Sargent Cabernet Sauvignon. The grapes came from a small vineyard on Mt. Veeder developed by Rubissow, and the wine came from a small garage winery owned by Sargent in Berkeley. The output was tiny in those days, just over 2,000 cases, but the quality of that first wine quickly drew favorable attention. Reflecting back on the early days, George Rubissow described the symbiosis between grapevines and wine: 'Wine is the quintessential appreciation of the viticultural art.'
By the harvest of 2003, Tony Sargent had made his last wine for Rubissow-Sargent and the partnership dissolved, with Rubissow's son Peter and daughter Ariel buying the brand, re-naming it Rubissow and moving the entire operation to the Napa Valley. 'Production had risen to a high of 5,000 cases, but we cut that in half and raised the prices and hired Timothy Milos as winemaker to reinterpret the wines, while retaining the original philosophy of making a Bordeaux-style wine in California at a reasonable price,' says Peter Rubissow. Today, Rubissow wines are available mainly in western states and cities, with heavy placements in restaurants. The exception, says Rubissow, is New York City, a market that was cultivated by his father, George and Tony Sargent.
Reasonable being a relative term today, especially when applied to Napa Valley red wines, the Rubissow's priced their line--Merlot ($50), Trompettes ($65), Cabernet Sauvignon ($75), Rubissow-Sargent Reserve ($125)--to fit into the mid- to upper-price range of Napa Valley red wines. Trompettes, a blend of Cabernet Franc and Merlot, reflects the founder's love of St. Emilion wines and is a popular wine in the Rubissow line. The new Trompettes (previously called 'Les Trompettes') label, shifting in color from a cream background to a Cabernet-red and gold, retains the stylized image of a muse playing two 'trumpets of excellence,' with gently flexed legs symbolizing the two peaks of Mt. Veeder.
During Sargent's tenure as winemaker, he disdained what would later be called 'fruit bombs,' preferring instead a leaner Bordeaux-style of Cabernet Sauvignon. 'My goal with Rubissow wines is an expression of place,' says Milos. 'Mt. Veeder fruit tends towards higher tannins and acidity. Ripeness is characteristic of our place, but we're not shooting for port-like flavors. Fundamentally, it's all about flavor and tannin and about getting physically ripe fruit. I would say that the biggest difference between Tony's and my wines is the ripeness of the fruit at harvest.' Milos does not fine or filter his wines, believing the techniques should only be used to improve the quality of the wine and only as a last resort. He adds that the only Rubissow-Sargent wine that went into the bottle unfined and unfiltered was the 2000 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.
Milos spends a lot of time in the vineyards tasting the grapes, and doesn't rely on sugar readings. 'I don't even own a refractometer…I'm pretty well calibrated,' he says with a smile. He is also on the road a lot between the Mt. Veeder estate and Bin to Bottles, a custom crushing facility in the southern part of the valley. 'It would be great to have a winery on Mt. Veeder, but there's not enough water and the estate is too remote,' says Milos.
The 18.5 acre Rubissow vineyard is part of a 45-acre estate on the south slopes of Mt. Veeder. Peter Rubissow describes the estate as 'vineyard islands,' or plots of grapes surrounded by forests. Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and a little Petit Verdot and Malbec are rooted at elevations ranging from 600 to 800 feet above the valley. 'Merlot expresses our vineyard honestly, while our Cabernet Sauvignon is straight down the line,' says Rubissow. Clay and sandstone are the main soil components in the main vineyard, while a few hundred feet higher, wrapping around the side of a hill, with a clear view of Napa Carneros, the soils are more volcanic.
The narrow dirt road leading to the Rubissow estate climbs through heavy forests, emerging at the edge of the Lola Merlot vineyard and Francesca Cabernet Sauvignons Vineyard, named for family members. Beyond Lola and Francesca is an old farm house that now serves as an office and temporary quarters; Peter lives in San Francisco and his father George divides his time between the Bay Area and Paris. From the porch, clearly visible through the trees is a lovely view of the Christian Brothers Mount LaSalle. Looking east through a narrow gap, the sweeping view includes Oakville and Trefethen Vineyards.
Structure, acidity and mountain-grown concentration form the foundation of Rubissow wines. They aren't all that different from other Napa mountain wines, but there is an aromatic element to Rubissow red wines that it is difficult to put your finger on, perhaps best described as a delicate blend of sweet herbs and dark berries. For my reviews of the current Rubissow wines, go to the Wine Reviews page.
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