It was a beautiful summer’s day, when we all gathered to taste the 2011 Rutherford Cabernets, at Francis Ford Coppola’s Inglenook Winery.
I need to immediately segue into the late 1990s.
I was sitting on a panel for the American Wine Society in Cleveland, Ohio, I believe it was. I was invited to talk about Cabernet Franc as a variety. An Australian winemaker, who now lives and works in Sonoma County, was also on the panel.
I was asked, “What was a good year for California Cabernet Franc?” I hadn’t even been living in the state of California for 10 years, and every single one of those years for growing grapes had been stellar, in my estimation. I certainly knew that if I had been living in Maine, the seasons would have each been distinctly unique. But in California? Some nights the fog rolls in for about three days, then it heats up; and when it gets so hot it’s hard to take, the fog rolls back in and things cool down. That was the climate, as I was experiencing and learning about it for about eight years at the time.
So, without batting an eyelash I said, “Every year is a good year out there,” and I meant it from what my world had been in Maine, to what it had become in California.
The audience laughed; but before anyone in the audience could really savor my answer, the above winemaker went and got all technical on it, because he had lived each vintage’s days; worrying when it got too hot, and troubled if the fog didn’t lift in time. And, there I was in shambles with my perfect weather theory (but not in my eyes), as the best laid plans of a marketer – who knew REAL weather (from Maine) – thought… “Okay, here they go, still worrying about each vintage, as if California is France.”
I’ve told you this story above, because things have now changed in California; so when we’re now talking about weather, it’s like what happens when B.F. Hutton talks, people listen.
And so it began, as the group of wine writers at the The Rutherford Dust Society‘s 15th Annual tasting had gathered. We were now having the weather explained to us for that 2011 vintage, and we were listening intently. It was a tough year, weather-wise, and they came out swingingly apologetically for Mother Nature. We hadn’t even tasted the wines yet, and we were being built up so that we’d cut them some slack… Obviously enough writers had already written about that vintage to make everyone on the Rutherford panel very tentative… and the weather was to blame. The weather is changing around here. I can honestly no longer say, “every vintage is an easy one.” It’s now up for grabs.
Back to the beginning arrival, because this also will double back…
Jose and I arrived on this perfect weather day. As we approached Inglenook, Randy Caparoso [above] was just behind us. I saw him, turned and said hello. I introduced Jose to Randy and vice versa, and we began to walk and talk. Randy told us that he had started his career in the 1980s as a sommelier in Hawaii… Randy said that he had tasted the last 10 years or so of these Rutherford Cabs, and he was really looking forward to these 2011 Rutherford Cabernets. We were all really looking forward to that day’s tasting, so we entered the building as others were also gathering.
It was great to see the mix of people at this event, organized by Paul Wagner (proprietor of Balzac Communications), Tara Thomas (also from Balzac) and The Rutherford Dust Society. This event is really polished and puts their best foot forward for what’s considered California’s equivalent in stature to Bordeaux wines. They’re definitely separate, but close in stature on the shelves of the world stage. (Remember the Judgment of Paris, everyone?)
As we tasted the wines, I was expecting them to be big and brooding, having that chalkiness with big, black fruit, from my tastings of the past… so rich that you can’t see the bottom of your glass, and regretting that you’ve forgotten your toothbrush. You know what I mean…
What I found, however, blew me away, and I’m going to give you an overall perspective, and then a few personal favorites:
- APPEARANCE: Colors ranged from dark cranberry to an indigo/purple. The density of color: each wine was either medium in color to slightly dark, or hedging on darkness; but, none were opaque.
- Could this be true of a Napa Valley Cabernet, I thought?
- NOSE: Blueberry to blackberry, raspberry, to mildly nutty (almond), some cocoa, and a bit of tobacco and cigar was present.
- PALATE: In varying degrees, all of the above: Blueberry to blackberry, raspberry, to mildly nutty (almond), some cocoa, and a bit of tobacco and cigar was present.
- FINISH: Only one was too acidic for me, one had a bit of vegetal characteristics, a few had tight tannins (but I knew from tasting those wines what they could do in the future). The rest had soft and silky finishes; and the lingering was very, very pleasant.
The 2011 Rutherford Cabernets that I tasted pretty much knocked my socks off. Cabernets are complex wines, being a cross between Sauvignon Blanc (hence the dryness, in my humble opinion), and the dark fruit flavor profile from the Cabernet Franc… A wine I’ve always loved.
The reason I mentioned Randy Caparoso above is because after the tasting he told us, “These are the Rutherford Cabernets that I remember, when I first started tasting them.”
This begs the questions… Did winemakers craft their wines, in between his first tastings until now, to become picked later in the season, pushing up the brix, allowing alcohol levels to rise, and satisfying wine critics’ palates; or, is the season really dictating what a wine will taste like? And with hotter summers slipping away, are we retuning to wines with less heat in the vineyard, hence cooler flavors on the palate?
Now, I’m left to wonder, but will always carry the banner for 2011 Rutherford Cabernets as being spectacular and highly recommended. What we tasted were an excellent representation.
Three highly recommended 2011 Rutherford Cabernets
- Frank Family Vineyards, 2011 Winston Hill Vineyard, Rutherford
- Medium to dark wine. Nose: Rich berries with a touch of chalk dustiness. Palate: After several wines, this was the first Rutherford Cabernet that had me segue from writing about the usual berries, tobacco, and spice to simply write, “That’s what I’m talking about!” Finish: supple, long, and lingering.
- Provenance Vineyards, 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford
- A darker Cabernet in appearance, but not too dark… beautiful violet around the rim of the glass. Nose: really mature, dark fruit on the nose. Palate: I also segued away from the traditional writings to simply write, “Sweet Jesus.” Finish: smooth and elegant… as elegant as it could possibly be.
- Pestoni Family Rutherford Grove Winery, Rutherford
- Appearance: medium to dark. Nose: a full gamut of berries to raspberries, blue and blackberries. Palate: Crushed red raspberries and toasted almonds. Finish: Lovely and smooth, with softer tannins.
Lunch… So what to pair with these Rutherford Cabs? Chef Alex Lovick’s menu was totally delicious with something for everyone… In case you can’t read this menu, I’ll tell you what I really enjoyed:
- Slow roasted Beef Ribeye with foraged Chanterelles, Estate Squash, and Salas Verde.
- Butter and Red Oak Leaf Lettuce, Estate cucumbers, toasted pistachios, aged goat cheese, and shiso.
- Baked estate stone fruit, housemade poppyseed gelato, and granola.
It was a beautiful day spent playing in the dust, for sure…