User ID:

Remember me
Lost password?

Rutherford Cabernet: The “Taste Good” Factor

By Stephen Eliot

Few if any would argue with the idea that a winemaker should make the best wine that she or he can in any given year. The question, however, is how you might define “best?

It is not uncommon these days to hear that “delicious” should not be the aim, but that any wine worth drinking must possess a palpable “sense of place” and, barring that, is necessarily a second-class effort at best. It is the mantra of minimalist winemaking. One could argue, however, about how many “places” actually have something unique, infinitely precise and consistently identifiable to say. I, for one, have no problems with delicious. Several observers at the recent Rutherford Dust tasting commented that winemaking style seemed to trump any abiding and shared expression of terroir among the wines, yet there was dissentionless acclimation that the wines were very good.

It got me to thinking if I should be less enthusiastic and, perhaps, even a bit guilty in the pleasures I found in so many of the Rutherford bottlings. I cannot honestly say that I found a distinct and consistent stamp of place tying all of the wines together, but I walked away impressed at the richness, range and depth of most of the wines nonetheless. They were not all the same, they each had their own voice, and, while they all said Napa Valley Cabernet in no uncertain terms, there was nothing about them, no singular and indelible trait that immediately differentiated them from the better bottlings of Oakville, St. Helena, Yountville, et al. Certainly the intractable champions of “place” would have a hard time with the wines and would likely spend their time damning their ripeness, their oak and their generous fruit, and I expect that the ubiquitous villain of “manipulation” would be cited as the cause.

Is place important? Do some wines have an identifiable sense of place? Most assuredly so; truly great wine grapes do not grow just anywhere. But becoming so preoccupied with the notion that every fine wine must first and foremost speak to its site is to miss all the other things that it may have to say. The wines of Rutherford were in no way lesser because they did not in unison say Rutherford.

Terroir, I would argue, is but one part of the winemaking calculus and cannot be viewed separately from the vintage and the makers themselves. Recently, I read a piece from a respected European wine writer that true vintage character was a must in worthwhile wines, even if the vintage was not very good. It essentially said that winemaking should not mask the character of the vintage. It was another new twist to the “get out of the way” school of viniculture, and one that left me shaking my head.

So, I suppose that the debate about what is “best” and how to get there is likely to be a permanent piece of the winemaking discussion, and that is just fine. Serious wines are neither created nor appreciated according to some rigid and inflexible formula. The best draw us in and make us think. Appreciation becomes a very personal thing and is perforce the engine of opinion. For some, it appears, complexity, richness and range and even a unique voice are not enough. I refuse to feel guilty if they are for me.

The CGCW Experience - Take the Tour

Meet the New CGCW

For thirty-five years, Connoisseurs’ Guide has been the authoritative voice of the California wine consumer. With readers in all fifty states and twenty foreign countries, the Guide is valued by wine lovers everywhere for its honesty and for it strong adherence to the principles of transparency, unbiased, hard-hitting opinions. Now, it is becoming the California winelover’s most powerful online voice as well. And, our new features provide an unmatched array of advice and information for aficionados of every stripe.


by TomHill
Posted on:7/29/2015 11:07:11 AM

Gasp....Charlie...I can't believe that you can so casually dismiss the importance of "terroir" in wine. That's pure heresy. You are going to have all the "natural" winemakers, all the people who worship at the altar of terroir, all those Burgundy vnyd owners, RajParr,  coming to tar & feather you!!  :-)

   But I think you are absolutely right in minimizing the importance of terroir in wines and the suggestion that displaying terroir is the highest calling any wine can have.

   If you sit down and taste a bunch of Zins from Pagani, a bunch of Cabs from Rutherford, a bunch of Syrahs from BallardCanyon; somehow, magically, the commonality of the smells and flavors across all those wines should allow you to, finally, recognize the "terroir" of those areas. To tell the truth, I've not been able to do that. But I just sorta dismissed it as having such a klutzy palate and "terroir" of an invidual vnyd is just beyond my grasp.

   So you couldn't find the touted "Rutherford Dust" in all the Rutherford Cabernets that you tasted?? That certainly makes me feel a whole lot better about my puny palate. I think there are a lot of other writers & bloggers, some much less famous than yourself, who would be loudly & repeatedly, proclaiming the "Rutherford dust" they were indentfying in those wines. Thanks for being so honest w/ us, Charlie. It renews my faith in all the "old white guys" writing about wine.

   I'm with you, Charlie...the "Tastes Good" factor should trump any suggestions of terroir or varietal typicity or anything else.



Terroir--What Terroir?
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:7/29/2015 12:14:06 PM

Hello Tom--

Thanks for the nice words, but I have to confess that Steve Eliot, not I, is the author of the piece.

I did create the title because the essential message here is that taste is everything. Terroir, varietal identity, brislting acidities or not depending on your preference are all well and good, but the single most important factor is "tastes good".

All the rest of it is window dressing.

As for Rutherford terroir, I sort of disagree with Steve on that, but he is more than a little bit right in any event. The AVA system allows Rutherford to cover a multitude of sins from east to west, from hills to valley floor and everything in between. And that very fact means that Rutherford, Oakville, St. Helena (all those in the heart of the valley) have commonalities that relate more to things like east-facing alluvial fans (what we ourselves have been calling the West Rutherford Bench--courtesy of Barney Rhodes and those who came before us, by the way) than with west-facing hillsides that get a lot more late afternoon direct heat and have, to our tastes, a different profile.

Thus, Rutherford itself is not one definition but several, and the same goes for Oakville. That, I believe, it what Steve meant and not that there are no unifying themes in the Napa Valley.

Me Bad..
by TomHill
Posted on:7/30/2015 6:37:33 AM

Thanks, Charlie. I was rushed & didn't catch Steve's name at the start. Sorry, Steve.



Place matters to a point...
by Stephen Eliot
Posted on:7/30/2015 11:04:48 AM

Hi Tom,

I, too, appreciate your kind words, and, yes, you can blame me for this morning’s heresy. I agree with Charlie on the shortcomings of the AVA system as it stands in Napa Valley. Most of the AVAs on the valley floor are defined laterally with boundaries running east to west rather than north to south. I have long felt that the vineyards arrayed along the west side of highway 21, be they in Oakville, Rutherford, Yountville, etc. share much more in common than those of the same appellation on the extreme east or west side.

I am not saying that there isn’t something to the notion of “Rutherford Dust” and, from time to time, I have been able to recognize it in our blind tastings.  But, it is not universal, nor is it the requisite piece in defining successful wines from Rutherford, and it is far from apparent in every one of the wines bearing the Rutherford address. That said, it does not matter to me as long as the wines are deep, compelling and delicious.

The importance of terroir is immense, but in my view its principal importance is that the circumstance of climate and soil allows certain grapes to achieve maturity and inherent balance. That there are places where those goals are met more easily than in others, thus a wine’s provenance of genuine significance, but expecting a specific “taste of a place” in every wine grown therein and deeming them lacking in its absence, regardless of how delicious wine is, is pretty wrong-headed to me.

by Stephen Eliot
Posted on:7/30/2015 11:05:52 AM

I confess that I have my own perspectives on the character I expect from dozens of vineyards and districts from the Sta. Rita Hills and Santa Maria Valley in the south to Carneros, various Napa Valley AVAs and Anderson Valley in the far north, but we taste wines blind and if something is good, I do not change my opinion when discovering its origin that it did not meet my model.  Good is good, and good does not hinge on any single aspect or trait.

I have grown impatient with would-be wine experts of limited experience, and there were a few at the Rutherford event, who are quick to praise or dismiss wines based on some foggy notion of what “proper” terroir is. And, I think that folks who starting to develop a true appreciation for my favorite drink are not being well-served by those pundits are so preoccupied with identifying place that they miss all the interesting things that a wine has to say.

by TomHill
Posted on:7/31/2015 9:12:37 AM

Thanks for clarifying things, Steve. Pretty much in total agreement with most everything you say. I've long thought that those who worship at the altar of terroir are missing out on a lot of good wines. It always pleases me when I can recognize the Rutherford dust or the Pagani earthiness in a wine from there, but that's not the be-all and and end-all to appreciating those wines from there.



Leave a comment below, but please limit your comments to 1,200 characters or less. We find it helpful to make a copy of our comments to be sure that they fit. In that way, you can edit them if they run long.

(Please note: your e-mail address will not be visible after posting)



Note: Refresh your browser to see your latest comments.

Having technical problems with the comment system? Click here.