Last week I was very fortunate to attended the annual Rutherford Dust Society tasting at Francis Ford Coppola’s Rubicon Estate.

Napa Valley has many sub American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) within “Napa Valley” itself. Each has a unique terroir, which is why Napa Valley can continue to be subdivided into more AVAs. While at Robert Mondavi Winery, I worked in the Oakville District. Our neighbor to the north was (still is) the Rutherford AVA. There are 6,650 acres within this unique viticulture region, located in the heart of Napa Valley.

According to their Website:

The Rutherford Dust Society was founded in 1994 by growers and vintners in tribute to the legacy of our grape growing and winemaking forebears.

Since the late 19th century, the growers and vintners of Rutherford have played a significant role in the development of Napa Valley as a world-class winegrowing region.

The late, revered winemaker André Tchelistcheff said: “It takes Rutherford dust to grow great Cabernet.” What we now fondly refer to as “Rutherford dust” has come to reflect an enduring commitment to quality, a spirit of achievement and a deep connection to Rutherford’s soil – as opposed to any sensory component in the appellation’s wines.

Since 1994, there’s been a vintage tasting. This year I was invited to participate. It was a very humbling experience, to be part of this prestigious group of wine professionals…. And there I was taking it all in.

It was also lovely to see old friends and colleagues, like Steve Heimoff, Larry Stone, Paul Gallyot, Amy Cleary, Don Neel, and Paul Wagner… And it was great to finally meet Randy Caparoso and Gerald Asher. I’ve admired both of them for a very long time, and we’ve had many communications going back and forth. Going from the tasting to lunch, where we all were able to sit together and enjoy each others’ company was very special.

Gerald Asher told me that he’s a great admirer of mine, unwittingly stealing the words right out of my mouth for what I wanted to tell him. He said that he’s really impressed with what I’ve done with Petite Sirah, along with my other clients. Meanwhile, I’m delighted to have read so many of his amazing wine stories, following him over the years in Gourmet magazine, most especially. It was a very sad day for all of us when Gourmet magazine decided to stop publishing. Gerald is still writing; you can catch his stories in Decanter Magazine. It was also great to meet Joel Aiken (BV’s winemaker for 30 years, now a consultant on his own) and the famed Andy Beckstoffer.

When I arrived, Master Sommelier Peter Granoff was speaking. He admitted that there’s a real controversy about hang time, sugar levels converting into alcohol, etc., in order to have the right level of balance and finesse coming full circle. He believes (and rightfully so) that the 2007 vintage for Rutherford Cabernets is stellar.

This vintage enjoyed a cool growing season, with very few heat spikes. This kind of weather produces a beautiful harvest, as the grapes slowly and steadily matured. Larry Stone, now working for Francis Ford Coppola at Rubicon, said that it was one of the most perfect summers he had ever seen.

According to Steve Heimoff on his blog:

Peter Granoff spoke of the “shift back toward elegance, balance, and finesse we’re seeing with this [2007] vintage.” I, myself, wrote that 2007 was the “Pinot Noir vintage of the century.” It was, across California, a very great year for just about everything, including Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.*

Andy Beckstoffer told us how the berries were really small, giving them great skin to juice content; it was a cool season, starting with a lot of shatter. When judging this year, one has to look toward the diurnal cycles. This season didn’t get the usual heat spikes, but it did get hot in August, and everything came together at the same time.

This year we tasted the 2007 vintage. Honestly, even with (nearly) four years having passed since that harvest, these wines were still huge… and very dusty.

All of these wines are still very young, and can be laid down for the next 20 years without any problems, so I’m not going to write about the big tannic structure of each one… Just understand, the structure is totally there.

Viewing this video slide show will allow you to glimpse into A Day in the Dust 2010.

What we (media) tasted at this event, Flight #1:

  1. Flora Springs Winery & Vineyard ~ On the nose:  Green olives and black fruit. Palate:  very nice overall Cab with flavors and balance.
  2. Frog’s Leap ~ Black fruit on the nose, with lovely soft fruit and well structure, round, soft finish.
  3. Honig Vineyard & Winery ~ Big and beautiful black fruit. Rich, ripe fruit bomb, yet soft in all ways.
  4. Lieff Wines ~ Boysenberries, black olives, and black cherries…with a hint of coffee and a touch of leather… and lace. Very nice Cab.
  5. Martin Estate ~ Black, rich and ripe. It reminded me of how typical all of these Cabs are, and that I need more education on Cabernets, because I haven’t been bowing to the alter of this variety. This was a great place for me to begin to appreciate Cabernet Sauvignon’s greatness.
  6. Monticello Vineyards ~ On the nose, dry chalkiness and black olives. Palate:  very rich fruit, soft mid palate, beautiful finish.
  7. Peju ~ I immediately got the “dust” with this one, a bit of chalk, and blueberries.
  8. Piña Napa Valley ~ Lush grape juice. It was a favorite. The fruit was lovely and soft, with a huge tannic structure on the back end, perhaps the best aging potential for my palate.
  9. Quintessa ~ Black fruit. Another favorite. A wonderfully soft entry, with great mid palate, and a fabulous finish. I not only tasted this one, I actually swallowed without even thinking.
  10. Round Pond Estate ~ Blackberries, cherries, elegant fruit with a beautiful finish.
  11. Sullivan Vineyards ~ Mashed cherries, wonderful structure and a great finish.
  12. William Harrison Winery~ Black, dusty rose. I enjoyed a soft delicate mint on the front end. I would love this one with food, now, and not have to wait for it to age any longer.

What we (media) tasted at this event, Flight #2:

  1. Beaulieu Vineyard ~ Bramble berries and blackberries with rich flavors. Beaulieu has always been known for consistency, and I was told by one of my other tasters, this wine is the same delicious rendition every year; although, because of the 2007 being a stellar year, this one is superlative.
  2. Hewitt Vineyard ~ Black and blue:  boysenberries and blueberries, black olives, softer tannins, elegant finish.
  3. Long Meadow Ranch ~ Chalky dust, blueberries, a great food friendly wine right now.
  4. Meander ~ Complex wine from aromas to palate to finish. The tannic structure is till very tight. This one has great aging potential
  5. Provenance Vineyards ~ Boysenberries, August rose, a very rich presence. Beautiful Cab.
  6. Rubicon Estate ~ A big, inky bruiser. Aromas and very rich fruit delivered a powerhouse Cabernet Sauvignon.
  7. Rutherford Grove Winery ~ Well, how could I not like a PS I Love You member’s wine, but I tried to stay completely objective.  It turned out to be the Pretty Boy of the group. Very easy to enjoy right now, so I did. Silky finish… Go for it now.
  8. Sawyer Cellars ~ Dark raspberries and blackberries. The fruit was lighter than others, but just as lovely. This one I’d begin to enjoy right now, not waiting for another five to 10 years. I wrote… Lamb… yum!
  9. Slaughterhouse Cellars ~ This one was the most complex for me (the second on in this flight, even though I’ve alphabetized them for easy finding). Silky on the palate, the loveliest of tannins.
  10. Staglin Family Vineyard ~ I wrote, WOW, yum, while taking my notes. It was a bring it on moment. As it happened, this was the very last wine of the tasting, so to have that “bring it on moment” told me that I was on my way to understanding the intense interest in Cabernet by so many.
  11. Tres Sabores ~ Another PS I Love You member, and the only Rutherford Cab I ever remember tasting in the past. I love Julie Johnson’s work, and she created a  beautiful Cab. An organic farm practitioner, her Cabernet had big aromas on the nose, great flavors on the palate, and an elegant finish.

Attending this annual tasting, with the likeness of so many greats around me, gave me more than a moment to pause on where I’ve come in the last 17 years. It’s been quite the ride, and I wish the same for so many of you out there, moving forward on your own wine journeys.

*In the quote from Steve Heimoff, in my writing process, I forgot to make this paragraph a direct quote from Steve Heimoff. I’ve never had the joy of writing about the 2007 vintage of Pinot Noir. That was strictly Steve’s story. Forgive me for not catching that earlier.

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