Wine in the Time of Cholera

Kenneth Friedenreich, Wine Editor
Rutherford historic photo.

Readers may notice that I have pilfered the title of a fine novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Pandemics seem to bring out if not the best in my fellow humans, at least their ingenuity and resourcefulness.

With bubbly thanks to Sara Soergel, executive director, and Steve Tonella, president of the Rutherford Dust Society, a Napa Valley-based trade association for growers, winemakers, farmers and local community. We conducted a wonderful experiment in social distancing. Ten of us gathered in the west hills’ backyard of oeno-fans Dick Stinson and Judy Erdman to share an anthology tasting from the Rutherford American Viticultural area (AVA). The west hills loom above Portland, Ore., so the palate tends toward Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley rather than the go-to Cabernets of California’s best-known wine area.

Rutherford, Calif., founded in 1879, has over 6,600 acres planted of many interesting individual varietals but is known for Cabernet Sauvignon – bold, inky, tannic, fruitful wines that are housed or produced in the AVA, perhaps 50 wineries in all.

By California standards, anything more than two months old is considered historical. The Rutherford pedigree reaches back to the efforts of George de Latour, proprietor of Beaulieu Vineyards, surely one of the landmarks in the California wine industry, as well as Captain Niebaum’s Inglenook Winery, each structure reminiscent of what William Randolph Hearst called his little getaway at San Simeon – "Japo Swisso,” whatever he meant, these structures have the respectability of chalets that most will not mistake for the Madonna Inn.

What the Rutherford AVA offers most is an elusive characteristic known as “Rutherford Dust.” Its essence seems to be cocoa powder. More Nestle’s Quik than Godiva, but even this simile owes more to mystery than to a strict definition. Much of the planted acreage here spans the central floor of that valley and is therefore blessed with more sunshine and warmth than other comparable sub-AVAs in this valley of 45,000 planted acres. Its soil composition is a mix of gravel, loam and sand set over a deep water table that causes roots to drill down and drain well.

If one visits the Carneros sub-AVA, or Coombsville sub-AVA, or indeed the Stags Leap District, one gets an impression that growers and winemakers seek to extract the essence of their respective places as if removing the layers of a palimpsest. In Rutherford, the challenge seems reversed; that is, the place provides a canvas that its producers can readily fathom, but this makes the challenge of possibilities that much more difficult.

In order to assess some of the wines from the Rutherford “bench,” another elusive term, we poured ten wines dating from the last four vintages, taking two passes at tasting the wines at twilight. The response was uniformly encouraging, although some wines improved with an overnight stay. All of them expressed some of the obvious characteristics of terroir for Rutherford, as one would expect.

But the fun was enjoying their differences of emphasis and approach to meeting the challenge this beautiful bit of land offers. It’s hard to pass through this part of the valley and not be impressed by its history, its hospitality, its lore and of course its wine.

What follows are the wines we tasted, in the order we tasted them. This will give readers some suggestions to acquire these wines. Please note that roughly 45% of all the acreage in the Rutherford AVA is Cabernet Sauvignon. The other principal varietals include, not surprisingly, other components of Bordeaux wines – Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petite Verdot, etc. Among the other varietals in this AVA is a good representation of Sauvignon Blanc, such as the one produced by Steve Tonella.

Elyse Winery, Morisoli Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, $95 and Tietjen Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, $125 are single-source Cabernet Sauvignon wines from independent family-run vineyards. Since 2018, the Elyse wine is made by Russell Bevan.

Neal Family Vineyards, “Rutherford Dust” Cabernet Sauvignon, $90 is 100% certified organically farmed. A multi-generational effort, the Neals were grape growers first and now produce wine of their own.

Tres Sabores, Rutherford Perspectives Cabernet Sauvignon, $124 and Rutherford Zinfandel, $50 represents a model for organic, biodiverse farming on the western Rutherford bench, led by owner-operator Julie Johnson.

S. R. Tonella Cellars, 2017 Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon, $125 and S. R. Tonella Cellars, 2016 Cabernet Blend Reserve, $125 is culmination of over 100 continuous years in the wine business in Rutherford, Napa Valley – and the packaging says it all. A large 750 format all black, bold and elegant.

Freemark Abbey, Bosché Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, $150, a stalwart Napa Valley producer, and the most akin to Bordeaux. Winemaker emeritus Ted Edwards celebrates his 40th harvest with Freemark Abbey this year and welcomes Kristy Melton as winemaker.

Beaulieu Vineyard, Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, $145 for this writer, the Beaulieu Vineyard Cabernet is perhaps the most expressive of its kind in this AVA, and certainly the wine with the longest pedigree.

Sullivan Rutherford, Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, $110 also comes from hallowed grounds, as the 26-acre Sullivan estate was first planted by Andre Tchelistcheff, a friend of the original founder, James (“Jim”) O’Neill Sullivan.

Honig, Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon, $125 is an expressively Californian wine, produced by family owner-operators in the heart of Rutherford since 1980.

Our running joke during the tasting concerned what my Oregon constituents imagined as “California Dollars,” suggesting the difference between a high-end wine in the Beaver State, compared to a middling high California wine.

In sum, these tenproducers offer a good illustration of the Rutherford Dust.

Living well, as the old scholars say, is the best revenge. These, our pandemic-strewn times, recall this good advice.


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