Tuesday, July 26, 2011

"A Day in the Dust" -- Incredible Cabs and Real Values

By Mac McCarthy

At "A Day in the Dust" tasting of Rutherford, CA Cabernets, hosted by the Rutherford Dust Society, I found some incredible-tasting Cabs -- no surprise, though these were even more spectacular than I anticipated -- but I also found some incredible value prices, which I certainly didn't  expect -- especially from such elite wineries.  

The Rutherford Dust Society is the odd-sounding name of a group promoting wines (especially but not exclusively Cabernet Sauvignons) made from grapes grown in the area around Rutherford, a small town in the middle of the Napa Valley. Society  members are the most famous name brands in Napa wine: Beaulieu, Inglenook, Heitz, Honig, Neal, Peju, Raymond, St Clement, Staglin, and others.

Andy Beckstoffer and Andre Tchelistcheff, 1989
The Society gets its name from a famous remark, "It takes Rutherford dust to grow great Cabernet," made by the most influential Napa winemaker of the 20th century, AndrĂ© Tchelistcheff. You may not know that name if you aren't involved in the Napa wine business -- but you will have heard of some of his works. A Russian making wines for top French winemakers, he was lured to the United States by Georges De Latour in 1938 to become the winemaker for Georges' Beaulieu Vineyards. Tchelistcheff had a huge influence on the winemaking techniques now used in the Valley -- especially for Cabernets, his specialty. He created one of the signature wine labels of the area: Georges De Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from Beaulieu Vineyards.

The Rutherford Dust Society, established in 1994, works to promote and encourage the highest standards in winemaking, to maintain the reputation of the historic Rutherford district AVA. (The history of the Rutherford area in winemaking makes fascinating reading .) The Society is also working on restoration of the Napa River and its watershed.

Rutherford, Napa Valley

There were 36 winemakers at this year's event, titled "A Day in the Dust: A Tasting of 2008 Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Blends," at Francis Ford Coppola's Rubicon Estate Winery in Rutherford. This is a tasting for the trade and the press, who turned out in force, and it was a delight to have the winemakers and winery owners themselves pouring.

The common taste element of the wines this day is black cherry: The nose on most of these wines was aromatic black cherry, dusted with chocolate powder. And the taste followed through on this theme: Rich, mouth-filling, intense, with nice finishes, a balance of acid, and in most cases with enough tannin to make it clear that these delicious wines will be even more spectacular in a few years when the tannins calm and reveal the fruit in all its glory. When you think of a big red wine, these are the wines you're thinking of, and are the reason that you love this style of wine.

Each winery showed one or two Cabs, plus in most cases one or two Sauvignon Blancs (and one had a Sauv Blanc dessert wine that I regret not getting to) as well as some Merlots, and a few Pinots under the table.

I found dozens of the most wonderful, delicious, flavorful, rich and delightful red wines you would ever want to drink -- the cream of the Napa crop -- and the list prices ranged from just over $100 down to a not-quite-believable low of $24, with most bottles in the $50 to $75 range. In a day of over-priced wines, it's remarkable to find values from small, elite wineries. Every wine I tasted that day was worth every nickel of its list price, and more.

Which is as it should be -- and too often isn't. Wine prices should be a rough guide to how good you can expect a wine to be. Yet how often do you decide to buy a special wine for that party or that gift, pay that $50 or $75 for a "fine wine" and get -- a big disappointment. That $50 Cabernet Sauvignon is too tight, to tough, to difficult to enjoy. That $100 bottle of French Bordeaux is so "austere" -- read, "completely lacking in  fruit" -- that you just can't enjoy it. How often does the wine industry send our everyday winedrinkers, defeated, back to their sub-$10 wines from Trader Joe's, convinced there's some kind of game going on and they don't know the rules.

Well, if they had a chance to taste these top-notch Rutherford wines, they would find the wines they are looking for -- and at fair prices. Too bad they probably won't be able to find them. As always at these grand tastings, the majority of these finest of wines are made in small lots of a few hundred cases -- the cream of the winery's crop made in quantities too small to show up in your local Liquor Barn or supermarket, or even in your fine-wine shop if you live outside Northern California. And that's heartbreaking. These wines are ringing endorsements of what California wine can be, of what the Napa Valley is famous for, and of the wonders of "Rutherford Dust."

This tiny supply, of such wonderful wines, at such honest prices, gives wine lovers a powerful incentive to join a few of the winery wine clubs so you can get in on the limited allotments. (If you can even squeeze into their clubs!)

Here are a few of the highlights, with retail price and production level where I remembered to get that info. (Many of these wines are not even listed on the vendor Web sites.)

Heitz Cellar 2005 Trailside Cabernet Sauvignon - $70 - Big and tannic, round and mouthfilling.

Heitz Cellar 1995 Trailside Cabernet Sauvignon - Wonderfully subdued compared to 2005. Nice nose. I liked the 2005 more.

Honig Vineyard and Winery 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon - Campbell Vineyard - $75.

Hunnicutt 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford, $75, 125 cases, to be released next spring - wonderful aroma, delicious.

John Robert Eppler Wines JRE 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford - wonderful aroma, very rich and round.

John Robert Eppler Wines JRE 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford - Nice black cherry all around, very drinkable.

John Robert Eppler Wines JRE 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford Reserve - The black-cherry sensation a little more intense in this one.

MCG Cellars - McGah Family Wineries 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford - $42 - 275 cases - That incredible nose and flavor of dark cherries dusted with chocolate powder! Rich, smooth, unctuous -- sensational.

Meander 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon - $65 - 400 cases - Incredible aroma - with that French liquorice-chemical-tire note. Rich.

Meander 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon Morisoli Vineyard, Rutherford - $124 - 40 cases - Wonderful aroma, rich, corner-filling, with fine tannins. A standout.

Neal Family Vineyards 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford, $75 - The only one I tasted here that didn't thrill me, due to a slightly odd note in the nose that carried through in the taste - don't know what it was, but it disappointed me.

Pedemonte Cellars 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford - $26 - 360 cases - A wonderful taste with a loooong finish -- a wonderful wine in every respect, plus the price is hard to believe. This is not half as good as the other wines, but is exactly on their level and maybe even a bit above (that long finish is wonderful).

Peju 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford Reserve -$100  - Yes; yes, that is very much a delicious Cabernet. Miss Lisa Peju, the icon in its ads, was there pouring, along with her mother.

Quintessa 2008 "Quintessa" blend 87% Cab, plus Merlot, Petite Verdot, Cab Franc, and 1% Carmenere. $150 - 8,000 cases. Good. Not the best here, but good. I was surprised that it was the most expensive Cab being shown; I wouldn't have guessed it. I was also taken aback that they said they made 8,000 cases -- eight thousand cases? Yes. Of a $150 wine? Yes. Wow. Nice work if you can get it. Why? How? I got a blank look, as if there is no marvel in superior wines produced in tiny lots for half the price.

Raymond Vineyards 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford - $60 - 60 cases - Nice and round, but it's still early for this one, the tannins are still too high.

Raymond Vineyards 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford - 65 cases - Yes, that extra year helps. Good wines, but not I wasn't as impressed as I expected to be.

Rubicon Estates 2008 Rubicon - $250 - Mostly Cab. Creamy, velvety - a quiet, thoughtful wine - I had to pay attention to appreciate it.

Rubicon Estates 2008 CASK Cabernet Sauvignon - $75 - A nice cherry nose, good taste.

Sojourn Cellars 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon, Beckstoffer Vineyards Georges III -- $95 - 140 cases - Wow. Rich, sweet -- Zowie! That's a lot of wine for under $100!

Sojourn Cellars 2008 Cuvee -- Great! Rich and delicious.

St. Clement Vineyards 2008 Star Vineyard Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon - $80 -  Not much nose (unusual in this crowd), but lots of fruit flavor, with a tannic tang that suggests this should lay down for a bit.

Sullivan Vineyards 2008 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford - $55 - A good middle, with a nice tannic backbone.

Sullivan Vineyards 2008 Coeur de Vigne, Rutherford - $90 - 49% Cab, 40% Merlot, the rest Petit Verdot and Cab Franc - A nicely balanced wine.

Sullivan Vineyards 2008 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford - $100, club  only. Good, again with the tannic bite. All these Sullivan wines need to lie down for a few years and think about it.

Tres Sabores 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford Perspective - $85 - Silky! (No, I don't know what "Rutherford Perspective" means. Is it like "Seaview" where there's no sea?)

Tres Sabores 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford - $80 - Same vineyard - no nose, but black raspberry on the palate.

The Rutherford district produces quite a few other red wines besides Cabernet Sauvignon -- Merlot and Pinot Noir as well as Cab Franc and four or five others. Here are standouts from this tasting.

Sojourn Cellars Pinot Noir - 2009 Rodgers Creek Vineyard, Sonoma -- an under-the-table wine that's not produced from Rutherford grapes. - $48, 575 cases.  This is exactly what I like in a Pinot: Light, flavorful, with a long finish.

Sullivan Vineyards 2008 Merlot Rutherford - Very, very nice: The fruit shows up in the middle and the finish.

Sullivan Vineyards  2008 Reserve Merlot Rutherford - $100, 100 cases, for wine-club members only (you tease!). Round, with a tannic bite.

Tres Sabores 2008 Zinfandel Rutherford Estate - $35 - This is a Wow! with more finish than a typical Zin -- in fact, it's not typical of a Zin but boy is it good!

You'd think it a waste of the most valuable Cab-growing dirt in the country to raise Sauvignon Blanc grapes instead, but the Rutherford growers obviously don't agree. Most of the top-of-the-line wineries showing at this event had Sauv Blancs from grapes grown in Rutherford on offer.

The 2010 Sauv Blancs, newly bottled, were for the most part very similar to one another. Each had that Sauv Blanc nose and the citrusy flavor typical of this wine when it's made well. They were not as stony as the New Zealand style (which is good because I'm getting tired of that style), but were tasty, with a nice light tang that will go well with food, or on the deck on a hot summer day. Here are some I tasted, all 2010 Rutherford  Sauvignon Blancs except where noted.

94574 Brand - $18 - Nice citrusy flavor.

Alpha Omega - $36 - Slightly different from its rivals, a bit more complex, a good finish - 275 cases.

Alpha Omega "1155 Rutherford" - $52 - Also complex, a bit "French," which is a good thing.

Fleury Estate - $50, 150 cases - Nice acid, a light tasty tang.

Frog's Leap - $18 - Nice acid tang, palate clearing - bring out your Chinese food!

Honig Vineyards - 2009 - $25, 1300 cases - A little malolactic gives this and interestingly different taste - a bit of pineapple?

John Robert Eppler (JRE) Wines - 2010 Fume Blanc - French style, nice fruit nose, a bit less citrusy, but with a light tang -- mild, easy to drink. Didn't get a price - and their Web site doesn't even mention this white. Hmm.

Long Meadow Ranch - $18 - classic SB nose, flavor - good.

Conspire- $28; mild, tasty, and pleasant. (Amy Aikin puts her reds are under the brand name 'Meander'.)

Round Pond Estate - $24 - Pleasant, a good drink.

Rutherford Grove - 2009 Rutherford Bench - didn't get the price - Seemed a bit richer than the others, somehow.

What do you think? Which are your favorite Cabs? Pass this article along, and subscribe above for our occasional wine reviews and opinions.  --Mac 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the write up on A Day in the Dust. Sorry I missed it, but I'll try to recreate by collecting a few of your suggestions. Cheers!