• Two Thumbs Way Up
• Complex, inviting aromas of violets, plum, cassis, eucalyptus and ripe black cherry. The scents carry through to the taste, plus notes of black licorice and dark chocolate with a smoky, leathery quality.
• Golden Thumb Award
• Intense aromas of violets, dark berries and interesting notes of smoke, espresso, clove and anise. Rich flavors of dark chocolate, black cherry, blueberry, mocha, cola and distinct ripe plum with a backdrop of earthy, barnyard notes.
As I tell Elise and Erika, my two dutiful daughters, you are who you hang out with. That maxim holds true for wineries, too.
Recently, I tried an exemplary cross-section of cabernet sauvignon-based wines from Rutherford, Calif., the wine-stained town in the heart of Napa Valley. Among the many features this glamorous farming community can boast about is its Rutherford Bench. No, the Rutherford Bench is not public seating in front of the Rutherford Grill; it is a geologic feature of the Mayacamas Mountain Range, located on Rutherford’s west side.
This subtle, rocky rise above Highway 29, which runs north-south through the center of Rutherford, creates magic in grapevines. At least that’s what the folks will tell you from the Rutherford Dust Society, the association of Rutherford grape growers and winemakers. You see, the expensive wines from the Rutherford viticultural area are sprinkled (figuratively, of course) with Rutherford Dust, which is supposed to lend a certain flavor of fresh-picked black cherries, among other positive attributes, gleaned from the Rutherford bench.
In fact, it was the late, truly great winemaker André Tchelistcheff who coined the phrase. The winemaker for Rutherford-based Beaulieu Vineyards is famous for saying: “It takes Rutherford dust to grow great cabernet.”
All marketing catch phrases aside, Rutherford, and Napa Valley in general, is a special place to make world-class wines. However, this great big world holds many nooks, crannies and valleys that have the potential to produce first-rate wine grapes. Ever had wines from Cienega Valley, located in western San Benito County, Calif.? They’re wonderful. I’d like to point to Pietra Santa wines as an example of what unique locations can have on grape growing and winemaking.
Never heard of Cienega or Pietra Santa? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Somehow I don’t think Hollister ever will attain Rutherford’s glamour-wine status.
But I’m not here to bury Rutherford; I’m here to praise it.
What Rutherford has, along with other rock-star wine regions, is high-achieving neighbors, lots of them. Members of the Rutherford Dust Society read like a who’s who of high-end Napa wineries, Peju, Caymus, Rubicon Estate, Quintessa, Heitz, Frank Family and the list goes on. There is just something about being among successful people that eggs you on to achieve your personal best. If Rutherford Dust exists, it doesn’t come from the dirt so much as it comes from attention to minute details and unmatched commitment to produce peerless wines.
No doubt, some wineries hide behind the notoriety of Napa and Rutherford and produce some pretty average, way overpriced wine. From the perspective of my recent tasting, and other Rutherford cabs I’ve had lately, I am impressed by the intense, mostly balanced wines from this 6,650-acre strip of land. Francis Ford Coppola’s Rubicon, Beaulieu Vineyard’s George de Latour, St. Clement’s Star Vineyard and Sullivan Vineyard’s Reserve Cab stood out in my controlled sampling of 12 Rutherford cabernets and cabernet blends.
The frustrating thing about wine regions like Rutherford is access. The average price for the above-mentioned wines is $124 per bottle. If that wasn’t limiting enough for most family wine budgets, not much is available. Merely 200 cases of the Sullivan Cab were produced. That’s 2,400 bottles, not enough to even supply an important market such as Atlanta.
So for those who have the means and tenacity, Rutherford holds the pixie dust that mesmerizes so many cabernet lovers. For the rest of us, we’ll always have Cienega Valley.
Gil Kulers is a certified wine educator and a wine consultant for Tower Beer, Wine & Spirits. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: Wines are rated on a scale ranging up from Thumbs Down, One Thumb Mostly Up, One Thumb Up, Two Thumbs Up, Two Thumbs Way Up and Golden Thumb Award. Prices are suggested retail prices as provided by the winery, one of its agents, a local distributor or retailer.