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Rutherford Dust: Cabernet-Sauvignon’s Mythical Ingredient

Tasting and Discussing the History of Some of Napa’s Finest

Rutherford Vineyards

The Rutherford District of Napa Valley is perhaps the single best-known Cabernet Sauvignon growing area in California. But before wine grapes, wheat that was grown in its now famous fertile soils, and “Rutherford dust” was an idea yet to evolve.

The Rutherford District is an American Viticultural Area (AVA) — these are grape-growing areas formally recognized by the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau — that was only established in 1993. Surprised? Most people are, assuming the 6,000-plus acres have been a special and unique grape-growing area for ages. Such is the myth that has grown around Rutherford.

But what is “Rutherford dust?” There are several iconic vineyards in Rutherford, including Beckstoffer Vineyard’s Georges III facility that is planted to Cabernet Sauvignon. Purchased by Beaulieu Vineyard (BV) founder Georges de Latour in 1928, the 300-acre parcel was the first recognized winery in Rutherford. Historical records show that a portion of the vineyard was actually planted in 1895 by Mrs. Thomas Rutherford herself.

In 1938, Latour went to France to find someone to be his winemaker; he found André Tchelistcheff, who eventually became known as the “dean of American winemakers.” His wines achieved acclaim, establishing BV’s preeminence in making Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, specifically from Rutherford.

Andre Tchelistcheff
Andre Tchelistcheff (Photo Credit: BV Winery)

Purchased by Andy Beckstoffer in 1988, the vineyard has since been replanted using new Cabernet Sauvignon clones, with tighter spacing and advanced trellising systems. Then the best-known grower in Napa, Beckstoffer recalled Tchelistcheff’s advice to him years earlier about introducing diversity into the wines through various clones of Cabernet, and not by planting a spate of other varieties.

Rutherford is an appellation within the appellation, which has a diversity of soils, exposure, and orientation that is as complex as Napa Valley.

“Location!” is the one word that sums up the Rutherford area, according to Beckstoffer. “The alluvial soil fans that deliver into Rutherford from the east and west, combined with the mid-Napa Valley warmth and elevation above sea level make Rutherford the perfect place to grow Cabernet Sauvignon.”

“Rutherford is an appellation within the appellation, which has a diversity of soils, exposure, and orientation that is as complex as Napa Valley,” explains Alpha Omega winemaker Jean Hoefliger, who makes two Single Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignons from the area. “Rutherford ranges from the wonderful western hillside that gives amazing round, deep, complex wines to the great elegance and balance of sites like Georges the III. What most people don’t understand about Rutherford dust is that it represents a later ripening site in the heart of the valley, which slows the ripening down to add finesse and complexity to the wines.”

Andre Tchelistcheff in the Mid-50s (Photo Credit: BV Winery)
Andre Tchelistcheff in the Mid-50s (Photo Credit: BV Winery)

It was Tchelistcheff, a chain-smoking Russian-born immigrant, who coined the term Rutherford dust, though it’s not one of the best-known phrases about Napa and Cabernet outside the region.

“The term Rutherford dust has been interpreted by many people in many different ways,” says BV’s winemaker Jeffery Stambor, who knew and worked with Tchelistcheff. “The root of it was André who said that it takes Rutherford dust to make great Cabernet. It was his attempt to define a sense of place. However, there is a quality with the tannins from Rutherford that have been identified as having a cocoa powder character.”

Metaphoric physical attributes aside, the Rutherford Dust Society promotes the District along with its 48-member wineries such as Caymus, Staglin, Cakebread, and Peju, and BV. At its 2017 Auction Napa Valley, 40 magnums of Cabernet Sauvignon from the Rutherford Dust Society sold for $90,000.

“The competition from outside and within the Napa Valley has intensified over the last 10 years, with each new year bringing more labels and escalated prices,” according to Caymus founder Charles “Chuck” Wagner. “This competition has brought general improvements to Napa wines. Rutherford has been able to carve its own powerful expression of Cabernet Sauvignon, a dark, redolent, texturous, amiable wine.”

Rutherford dust can be explained and marketed, but can it be tasted?

That was the question when BV offered Old Liquors Magazine a unique opportunity to sample some of their iconic wines. We met with Stambor in a private residence in Pacific Palisades to talk Rutherford history.

We tasted their 2013 Rarity — sold only in magnum, with this vintage being only the fifth time in BV’s 117-year history that they have released this wine — as well as their classics Georges de Latour 1975 and 2013, and their unique vintages of clonal selections of 2012 Cabernets, Clone 4, and Clone 6 (only 400 cases of each Clone wine were produced).

Georges de Latour 1975 and 2013

As Old Liquors Magazine sat down with Stambor, we first tasted the Georges de Latour 1975 and 2013 iterations. There are only about 20 cases left of the vintage from the 1970s, while the 2013 Latour offers 6,500 cases.

Stambor calls the 2013 — their 77th consecutive Latour — an “extraordinary vintage.” At 15.5 percent alcohol, it is nonetheless balanced with darker berry fruit, notes of resin, sage, wild herbs, tight tannins, and refined oak.

“But the 1975 shows the real character of the AVA,” Stambor says. “This was a basic winemaking back then.”

The nose was still vibrant with rose petal, almond, and smoke, moderate tannins, and acidity. On the palate, there is deep blueberry and blackberry plum, cranberry, green apple, rhubarb compote, still lively and fresh with an underpinning of acidity that barely makes itself known but is the structure that holds this together. In the background, there is candied prune and sweet vanilla, a medium to long finish, with the fruits nonetheless vibrant and focused.

At a mere 13 percent alcohol, and made mainly from grapes from Clone 7 planted on AXR rootstock — AXR was widely used in the 1960s and 70s, but failed in the 1980s when phylloxera took hold in Napa — the 1975 oxygenates rather quickly. This is not surprising for a 43-year-old wine, and after being opened for 10 hours, the more evident bright fruit has dissipated and the stronger notes of plum, prune, raisin, cranberry, and rhubarb are more evident, all becoming more pronounced and tangy.

2013 Rarity

We next moved to the 2013 Rarity. Each of the 1,500 magnums are numbered and presented in a commemorative black box, at a cost of $1,000. A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot Rarity, it is a tribute to the Cabernet produced by Tchelistcheff.

“This is a deeper, darker, more concise and concentrated wine,” Stambor says. “This is a wine that presents itself; you don’t go looking for it.”

It is indeed a suppler, softer iteration of the Latour. Tchelistcheff made the 1968 version, and Stambor the 2013. But they are different animals.

But there is a difference between wine style evolution and wine style revolution, says Stambor.

“Previous iterations of Rarity were a call out to spectacular vintages. The 2013 is the first vintage its been Cabernet-based that’s a game changer and arguably I’d say the ‘13 is really the first one of its kind since previous versions of Rarity were more field blends,” Stambor notes. Referring to the ’68, he says: “Back then we didn’t have barrel selection nor diverse fermenter sizes, nor the understanding of distinct differences in various plots of the vineyard, like we’re used to today.”

This is dark and balanced with a sleek acidity, incredibly smooth and velvety, a harmonious blend of all its varied components with pronounced notes of blackberry, black cherry, thyme, and a wisp of sage, bing cherry, light sweet vanilla, with subtle licorice and cinnamon.

But Rarity, as with all Rutherford Cabernets, are not meant to stand on the shoulders of the past, even if those mighty, broad shoulders belonged to Tchelistcheff.

“I’m not interested in repeating the heritage of what was done before. We were so proud of doing things the way we’ve always done them, and when André Tchelistcheff returned to BV (in 1991 as a consultant) he was utterly disappointed,” Stambor recalls. He wanted to return to the old way of doing things.

And it is that understanding — that wines and winemaking need to keep evolving in a cluttered field of high-end, exclusive wines — that requires being forward-thinking. In looking back at his time at BV, Stambor understand this.

“I have a tremendous amount of pride and respect that I’m part of the Rutherford story,” he says.

And ultimately, Rutherford itself is the story: how this parcel of land makes some of the most sought-after Cabernets in the world.

Photo Credit: Beaulieu Vineyards

Beaulieu Vineyards

Written by Michael Cervin

Michael Cervin is a wine and spirits writer and author of multiple books including “California Wine Country,” and “Our World of Water,” and the author of four blogs including Boozehoundz. He contributes to Forbes, The Hollywood Reporter, Decanter (London), Fine Wine & Liquor (China), Wine Enthusiast, Draft, The Tasting Panel, Palate Press, and FoxNewsHealth, among others. Draft, IntoWine.com, Vivino, etc.

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