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Rutherford Dust
By Gerald D. Boyd
Sep 9, 2008
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All major wine regions have at least one distinguishing characteristic that sets its wines apart from all of the others.  The defining characteristic, usually attributed to terroir, a nebulous French geo-viticulture term, is touted and sometimes drawn to a fine point  by producers, but is often elusive to the wine consumer.

For those wineries and growers within the Rutherford AVA (American Viticultural Area) in California's Napa Valley, the component that makes Rutherford wines (especially the red ones) distinctive is "Rutherford Dust," a term that is associated today more with an abstract connection to the Rutherford soils than to a dusty or earthy sensory nuance found in the local wines.

Formed in 1991, the Rutherford AVA is a narrow band of alluvial soil that stretches from St. Helena to Yountville, along the west side of the Napa Valley floor.  Rutherford, along with neighboring Oakville, is widely considered the premier source of Napa Valley red wines based on Cabernet Sauvignon.  Growers in other Napa AVAs, such as Stags Leap, would be quick to question the primacy of Rutherford, but there's no question that it is among the elite spots for growing Cabernet in Napa--and therefore the world.

Telling the Rutherford Dust story is an on-going task since there is a new tale to tell with each vintage released.  Promotional groups like the Rutherford Dust Society (RDS), a balanced organization of 42 wineries and 43 growers gets its story told by mounting an annual tasting of Rutherford red wines.

This year, the multi-flight tasting, billed as "A Day in the Dust" was held at Rubicon Estate, the winery complex owned by Francis Coppola.  Rubicon is a fitting venue since the property was formerly the Inglenook estate, a historic brand that in its glory years was one of the benchmark wineries not only of the Rutherford region but of the United States as a whole.  Rutherford grower Andy Beckstoffer noted that Rutherford is part of the old world of wine, not the new world and that 'Rubicon is part of that history.'  Larry Stone, general manager of Rubicon added: 'This place is the birthplace of Napa winemaking.'

A total of 27 Rutherford wineries poured their 2005 Cabernet Sauvignons, ranging in price from $30 to $175 and in production from 88 to 31,000 cases.  According to RDS promotional material, Rutherford soils are gravelly, sandy and loamy, based mainly on sedimentary materials with some volcanic deposits.  These are precisely the kind of well-drained, gravelly soils that are well suited to growing  Cabernet Sauvignon, the variety that makes up 70% of Rutherford's 3,200 planted acres.  Supplementing the dominant Cabernet are small amounts of Merlot and Cabernet Franc, as well as even smaller plantings of Petit Verdot and Malbec.

Another aspect that gives Rutherford wines an edge over other Napa Valley reds (according to the RDS, at any rate) is sun exposure.  "One of the more unusual aspects about Rutherford is that it has a higher radiant value than other parts of Napa Valley."  The reason for this is that Rutherford is at the widest point in the valley and thus 'it spends more time in the sun.'  Christie Dufault, sommelier at Quince restaurant in San Francisco says, 'Elegance, restraint and a textural element of Rutherford wines is not found elsewhere in Napa.'
 
In general, the 2005 growing season was a mild year with plentiful rainfall, allowing maximum 'hang time' to develop ripe flavors, good body and structure.  Commenting about the 2005 vintage for Rutherford red wines, Beaulieu Vineyard winemaker Joel Aiken noted that the wines are not aggressive and show great promise.  'The restraint noticed in many of the wines is partly due to what winemakers are doing in the winery,' says Aiken.  'Some herbaceous character was noted early on then it was fleshed out in winemaking, The 2005s show good potential for aging.'  Sommelier Tim Gaiser agrees, adding, 'The quality of the 2005 Cabernets is consistent and high across the board.' 

My impression of the 2005 Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignons tasted at 'A Day in the Dust,' is that most of the wines are loaded with fruit, balanced but a little tight, needing a few more years in bottle to develop and come together.  And I noticed a textural thread woven through most of the wines that, while difficult to describe, leaves a pleasantly full sensation in the mouth.

About half of the wines are 100% Cabernet Sauvignon.  The others are blends, including  a surprisingly high number of Cabernet Sauvignon/Petit Verdot blends, which is surprising in contrast to the generally more standard Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot combination.  The majority of the wines were finished at just over 14% alcohol; two were satisfyingly at 13.8%, and three topped a very warm 15% alcohol. 

For more comments on a select group of Rutherford 2005 Cabernet Sauvignons and my tasting notes, go to the Wine Reviews section and note that not all of the 2005 Rutherford Cabernets are now in the market, so a release date is provided for those wines not yet released.


Questions?  Comments?  Write to me at gboyd@winereviewonline.com