Rutherford and Beaulieu Vineyards: “Beautiful Place”

Andre Tchelistcheff

André Tchelistcheff

Shortly after joining Beaulieu Vineyard in 1938, Russian-born/French-trained head winemaker André Tchelistcheff was heard to say that no wine from this prime slice of Napa Valley could be considered great unless it had a touch of “Rutherford dust.” Tchelistcheff went on to make wine at BV for 35 years, trained and influenced multiple generations of Napa winemakers, and earned the titles “Dean of American Wine” and “Maestro” from his disciples and peers. But few things he did or said have provoked as much discussion or confusion as Rutherford dust.

Start with the basics. Brothers Georges and Fernande de Latour arrived in Napa Valley in 1903 in search of a vineyard. When they reached the prune and apple orchards around the tiny village of Rutherford, Fernande exclaimed “beau lieu!” – beautiful place. They purchased a small ranch, adopted Beaulieu as the name for their new vineyard, and set about assembling what would reach 500 acres of land on and around what came to be called the Rutherford bench.

Rutherford lies in the middle of the Valley as it runs south to north, far enough south to benefit from cool maritime air at night but far enough north to get plenty of heat and sunshine. It’s at the widest part of the Valley, so it gets more hours of sun each day than vineyards more shaded by the mountains to east and west.

Rutherford BenchAnd, importantly, its vineyards are planted on free-draining, alluvial soils – a deep blend of gravel, sand, silt and clay that rests on the rocky base of the old Napa River. Some argue that the best of these soils run on a slight rise from Oakville to St. Helena and call them the Rutherford Bench. Others say that the only Rutherford Bench is the one you can sit on in front of the Oakville General Store. In any event, these dry, loose, often wind-blown (and, thus, dusty) soils are a fantastic place to grow Cabernet Sauvignon

What Is Rutherford Dust? Ask most Napa winemakers to describe “Rutherford dust,” and many talk about things like minerality (a kind of stony/chalky note), or a ground spice character that many liken to just-grated allspice. And, even more will call out how Rutherford Cabernet – especially lower alcohol wines from times before the current emphasis on super-ripeness – leave behind tannins so firm and fine that they remind you of cocoa powder – or the finest of wind blown dust.

As it happens, you’ll find those cocoa powder tannins – fine, dusty, and so ripe they melt away easily – in both of today’s Beaulieu wines along with a dash of minerality and even a little grated allspice (in the Georges de Latour, anyway). But, dusty tannins weren’t actually what Tchelistcheff meant.

Having trained in France and drunk the greatest wines of Bordeaux, Burgundy and beyond, Tchelistcheff believed that the first duty of every great wine was to represent the place where it was grown. And, for Rutherford wines, that meant showing the tantalizing balance between warm, even hot, days and cool, foggy, nights. It meant showing fine ripeness of fruit and a touch of fresh herb, but neither the stewy, roasted flavors of hotter vineyards up-Valley or the colder regions to the south. And, because Tchelistcheff believed Rutherford was a great Cabernet vineyard, it meant that any wine wanting to claim “Rutherford” on the label had to be great, too.

In trying to say all of that, he drew on the most distinctive element of 1930s Rutherford: the fine, reddish, dust that blew up off the vineyards and got onto and into everything (hopefully not including the wine!).

Beaulieu VineyardBeaulieu is Back! After establishing Rutherford as a great Napa Cab site and joining Louis Martini, Inglenook and Charles Krug as a America’s foremost wineries from the end of Prohibition – the 1970s, BV’s quality sagged a bit in the 1980s and 1990s. Multiple changes in corporate ownership didn’t help, and having to replant virtually all of their Rutherford sites in the early 1990s due to phylloxera wasn’t an asset, either.

Things got a little better after André Tchelistcheff returned as a consultant in 1991 (he’d retired in 1973). He pushed for lower yields in the new vineyards and helped BV make the transition from redwood fermentation tanks and American oak to stainless steel and French oak. But the winery’s focus on its value, supermarket, wines after Tchelistcheff’s death in 1994 left the fine wine program a bit adrift.

Fortunately, a new focus on quality emerged in the mid-2000s with the hiring of Bordeaux consulting superstar to work on the Georges de Latour Private Reserve program. As Robert Parker noticed in his reviews of the 2005 releases, “Michel Rolland, the brilliant wine consultant, was brought in to help resurrect the Private Reserve program, and it appears his magic has spilled over onto the other wines as well.”

Tasting these 2012s, you’ll be immediately struck by how the new BV is marrying the restrained, traditional, style that made the winery great with an increased emphasis on ripe fruit and supple, velvety, structures. Yes, you’ll find a little of that “Rutherford dust” cocoa powder texture to the tannins and a hint of grated allspice, too. But mainly you’ll love how both wines are so pure, textured, and fun to drink right now.

And, at these prices, a little gold dust is sprinkled in with the Rutherford dust, too.

 

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Virginia is For (Wine) Lovers!

Sorry, low hanging fruit there in the title. We don’t stock many Virginia wines here at the store for a variety of reasons (you can read a little more about why here). Even so, when you live so close to an emerging wine region, it seems almost criminal not to visit. So, last week I spent a couple of days visiting Virginia wineries to get to know the producers we work with a little better, and to visit a few wineries whose wines I am less familiar with. It was a wonderful mini-adventure, and I can’t wait to go back and explore more!

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On Thursday, I headed over to Barboursville and met up with Fernando, their vineyard manager. The staff was so apologetic that their general manager was busy, but this ended up being my favorite visit, because Fernando was *awesome.* We hopped in his truck right away, which was so filthy that it made me feel better about my own messy car. He drove me all over the property, and we checked out the Muscat, Sauvignon Blanc, and some of the reds – the Muscat is almost ripe!

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Much of it stays under netting to protect it from birds. Fernando has been managing vineyards in California and Virginia for almost 30 years, and his love for the land he takes care of is infectious. Being around someone so passionate about what they do is such a joy, and getting a personal tour of Barboursville’s vineyards was so educational and fun.

After a few sips of an already bottled Sauv Blanc (very refreshing, kind of like green melon and fresh flowers) and a walk through the barrel room, it was time to leave for Early Mountain.

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Early Mountain was a completely different, and much fancier experience. CEO Peter Hoehn gave me a tour of the whole, grand facility, from the wine library to the gorgeous, airy tasting room and even the airstream trailer they bought to take their wines on the road!

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Early Mountain is committed to featuring wines from all over Virginia in their tasting room. After I was finished tasting through their current offerings (the delicious Foothills Red was just as good as I remembered!) I had a glass of the vibrant, toasty Thibaut Janisson’s Blanc de Blancs. There are usually 8-10 wines from other Virginia wineries being featured at the tasting bar at any given time, and the selections rotate often. As I was leaving, Peter and the rest of the team were setting up for a tasting group that they hold with other Virginia winemakers so they can taste and discuss each others’ work. Super cool.

The next day was rainy, foggy, and damp, and up in the Blue Ridge mountains at Glen Manor, the fog looked so beautiful and mysterious wrapped around the vineyards.

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Their Sauvignon Blanc is so good we often shelve it in our regular white wine area instead of keeping it with the other Virginia wines because we don’t want anyone to miss it! The 2014 is bursting with juicy grapefruit flavors and a mouthwateringly dry finish. The Petit Manseng I tried, with its electric sweet-tart balance, didn’t hurt either.

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Then it was on to Linden, another producer in Front Royal, known for its wines made with minimal intervention. Jim, the winemaker, showed me around his property, and I loved seeing how stripped-down and broken in all the equipment was, like this old German press from the 1950s. So cool!

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The wines were all beautiful, but the single vineyard Sauvignon Blanc had a wonderful weight and chalky texture, with bright lemon flavors. So refreshing and perfect for summer.

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I can’t recommend visiting our local wineries enough – whether you want a luxe experience at a place like Early Mountain (the charcuterie plate was to die for!) or something with a real small-production, lo-fi feel like at Linden, there’s something for almost every wine lover right here in our home state.

–Diane