Wednesday, July 13, 2011

As The Dust Settles, Fine Wine Emerges

Quintessa was a personal favorite at the tasting
Last night, to prepare for today's tasting of 2008 cabernet sauvignons from the sub-appellation Rutherford in Napa Valley, I skimmed writings of several masters more familiar with the region than I am. I was looking for aesthetic threads they have found in Rutherford wines over the years. Producers within the appellation include such highly regarded labels as Staglin Family Vineyard, Beaulieu Vineyard, Rubicon Estate and Quintessa. I also was looking for what is meant by "Rutherford dust," a characteristic often attributed to the area's wines, though ill-defined.

The cabernet sauvignons of Rutherford, the consensus seemed to be, are forceful and firm, their substantial fruit often shot through with suggestions of eucalyptus, herbalness and mint, characteristics I especially like in the varietal. Thus, I looked forward to the tasting.

I wasn't disappointed, though I was surprised, in large part because hints of eucalyptus and mint were more elusive than obvious. Rather, the wines - 22 of them, all from the 2008 vintage, tasted blind in two even flights - had more cherry fruit than I anticipated. Their structures were firm without being hard. Their acidity often was refreshingly tangy. Tannins were downright reserved, by and large, despite the youth of the wines. As a group, the wines were supple models of equilibrium. Rutherford dust? For me, the tasting didn't shed any light on what that means.

During a break between flights, I asked Charles Thomas, the winemaker at Quintessa, what had happened to the herbaceousness that at one time seemed to be a distinctive Rutherford trait. He explained that viticulturists and winemakers within Rutherford over the past 25 years have been attempting to master a complicated dance. Their aim is to get more fresh fruit flavors out of their berries while avoiding strong herbaceous characteristics that cross into the no-no land of vegetativeness. They've been paying a lot of attention to canopy management, striving to strike an ideal balance between sunshine and shadow on the grapes. Ideally, that would give them in the resulting wine expressions of both fruit and mint, but not too much of the latter. Too much shadow equals too much herbaceousness; too much sunlight equals too many shriveled grapes with too little juiciness and too much tannin. Over the past five to 10 years, he noted, the trend in the vineyard has been back toward more shading, so eventually notes of eucalyptus and the like might become more pronounced.

As to "Rutherford dust," he speculated that the term arose form a "certain spice character" found in many Rutherford cabernet sauvignons, but conceded that the term long has been difficult to pin down. "Some things in wine are best if they remain a mystery," he remarked.

During lunch, longtime Napa Valley grape grower Andrew Beckstoffer offered another explanation for what is meant by "Rutherford dust." The expression, he suggested, is purely metaphoric. He attributed it to Andre Tchelistcheff, the Russian-born, Paris-trained chemist instrumental in reviving the state's wine trade following the repeal of Prohibition, in large part as the progressive and influential winemaker at Beaulieu Vineyard. Tchelistcheff, said Beckstoffer, felt that to make outstanding wine a winemaker had to own or otherwise control what went on in the vineyard. "To make great cabernet you have to have Rutherford dust," he quoted Tchelistcheff as saying, and by "Rutherford dust" he meant vineyard. Whatever is distinctive about the soils of Rutherford, added Beckstoffer, continues to be a matter of research.

Francis Ford Coppola at today's luncheon
Today's tasting was at Rubicon Estate, the current name of a winery built as Inglenook in the 1880s by the Finnish sea captain and fur tradder Gustave Niebaum. In 1975, writer and film director Francis Ford Coppola and his wife Eleanor began to acquire property in the area, eventually buying the Inglenook winery in 1994. In the meantime, however, the Inglenook name had passed to a number of corporate wineries. Thus, the Coppolas named their own winery on the grounds Niebaum-Coppola, with Rubicon the name of their flagship wine. Subsequently, the Coppolas bought the old Souverain Winery at Geyserville in Sonoma County and christened it Francis Ford Coppola Winery. Recently, the Coppolas acquired rights to the name "Inglenook," which they will use for the estate they now call Rubicon, thus restoring its historic designation. (You can tell by this much drama and these many twists that Coppola is still writing and directing.)

Which raises the question: Does that mean that the Coppolas will remake the large and striking stained-glass window they installed at the top of the grand stairway at the Rutherford spread? It now says "Niebaum-Coppola," never having been made over to "Rubicon." Francis Ford Coppola, who quietly took a seat at the end of the table for the lunch that followed today's tasting, said he would like to change the window but hasn't yet committed to the project. For one, it's huge. And more than a simple name change could be involved. The original Inglenook logo involves a horizontal diamond. When he founded his own initial winery he made the diamond vertical. In short, a whole new window could be in order. Cost will be a crucial factor in determining whether to restyle the window, he said.

To become Inglenook?
As to the wines at the tasting, these turned out to be my favorites:

- Monticello Cellars 2008 Napa Valley Tietjen Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($65, to be released Oct. 1): Suggestive of Bordeaux in its build (lean) and California in its flavor (sunny fruit), the Monticello is simply one gorgeous wine. The fruit runs to fresh cherries and plums, the oak hangs respectfully in the background, and the tannins aren't at all intrusive.

- Flora Springs Winery & Vineyards 2008 Rutherford Hillside Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($100, to be released Oct. 1): Ripe but not over-ripe fruit flavors, mostly suggestive of small Bing cherries, with a tanginess so pronounced in the finish it leaves the mouth watering for one more sip, then another.

- Round Pond Estate 2008 Napa Valley Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon ($50, already in release): Now this one had Rutherford dust, if by dust we can agree that it means a light coating of something minerally on a dense patch of blackberries. Overall, a wine of terrific lushness.

- Frog's Leap Winery 2008 Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon ($75, to be released Oct. 1): The spine is steely, the dark fruit not only refreshing but punctuated with notes of the herbalness I'd been expecting to find in Rutherford cabernets.

- Quintessa 2008 Napa Valley Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon ($145, to be released Sept. 1): Perhaps the most complex and broadest wine in the tasting. The aroma is inviting, the fruit juicy. A seam of intriguing herbaceousness runs through the wine and accounts for at least some of its complexity. Also, one of the more lively wines in the lineup.

- Beaulieu Vineyard 2008 Napa Valley Georges De Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($115, to be released Aug. 1): Big and forceful, but exquisitely balanced. Its dark and lush fruit flavor carries a thread of eucalyptus. While its tannins are somewhat rigid, the finish is long and smooth.

- Staglin Family Vineyards 2008 Napa Valley Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon ($185, to be released this fall): In the past, I haven't been a big fan of Staglin cabernets, finding them too hard. This one, however, is all charm, from its deep and alluring color through its black-cherry and green-olive flavors to its luxuriant finish. A textbook cabernet for its structure and spirit.

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