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Is Rutherford Still The Center of The Earth In California Wine?

By Charles Olken

I have long held the belief that the world (the big wide world, not the geek’s world) thinks of California wine as starting with Napa Valley. It is not hard to support that theory when one looks at the number of people across the full spectrum of wine drinkers who still think of the name, Napa Valley, when they think of California wine. It is seen in the number of visitors to Napa. It is seen the elevated prices for the wines of Napa, and frankly it is seen in the history of California wine. Napa was and still standing at the top of the hill.

But, wait. How then does one account for the fact that Pinot Noir from the Russian River Valley now enjoys the cachet of greatness and that my well-educated, well-heeled, wine-drinking neighbors consume more of my Pinot Noir at neighborhood events than they do of Cabernet?

And what about Merlot? Yes, Merlot does not share the mantle of greatness amongst the folks I use as my measuring rod of what is going on in the wider wine world, but more of those folks proclaim themselves as Merlot addicts than in the geek population. That latter group has lately gone nuts over Merlot’s latest ripe, rich, succulent offerings. And we are finding an ever-widening number of Merlots that deserve winedrinkers’ attentions in our tastings. We will have more to say on this subject when the results of our latest batch of Merlots is released with our November issue.

I can certainly go on in this vein citing Pinots from all over California as well as the great Zinfandels from Sonoma, especially the Dry Creek Valley and the adjacent and overlapping Rockpile area, the Barberas coming from Amador County (still in limited numbers but putting Barbera back into the frame as a collectable—albeit this time for the geeks and not my neighbors since availability does matter). California was never only about Cabernet Sauvignon to me or to Connoisseurs’ Guide to California Wine.

Back to Napa, however. Here is how I would have summarized California wine back in the days when CGCW came into being in the early 1970s. California wine, in the day, was defined in people’s minds by the Napa Valley. And Napa Valley was defined by Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon was defined by Rutherford, and Rutherford was defined by the wines of the West Rutherford Bench—a stretch of alluvial soils on the west side of the Napa Valley stretching from upper Yountville to St. Helena and centered on Rutherford and Oakville.

I have accepted that equation as a truism borne of long experience in the winewriting business. When I suggest that it is no longer true today, I am not saying that Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon has lost its luster. Truly great wines are coming out of the Napa Valley today. Some would argue that the latest batch of Napa-named Cabernets are proving why their sometimes mindblowing prices are not irretrievably out of line. The wines are simply that likeable.

But Napa now shares the spotlight with Pinot first and then with other great and near great varieties coming from California. The fact that wineries like Siduri, Testarossa, DuMOL, Merry Edwards have also become household names for my neighbors is not down to the wines I have poured for them but belongs entirely to the quality of the wines that those folks produce along with dozens of others ranging from the relatively available offerings under the Gary Farrell label to the still limited but highly desirable wines of Williams Selyem and Kosta Browne to limited production favorites like Arista, Benovia, Three Sticks.

I share that view. My cellar, once devoted first to Cabernet Sauvignon (mostly from the Napa Valley and substantially from Rutherford and its immediate neighbors) and Zinfandels from Ridge, Ravenswood and Joseph Swan, is now more populated by Pinot Noir than ever before. But, just when I was ready to declare that my love for Pinot has overreached my fascination with the heady red wines of Napa, I am brought home by our latest tastings.

Napa Valley (Rutherford) Cabernet may no longer be the singular definer of California wine, but its glory is not gone. Its quality has not diminished. Its desirability has not faded. The West Rutherford Bench may no longer be the only name in California wine, but it now must share the spotlight with Pinot Noir, with the Russian River Valley, with the Santa Lucia Highlands, with Santa Barbara County and increasingly with the best of Paso Robles and Amador County.

And this is a good thing. Rutherford Cabernet has not had its copy book blotted. It has simply found new friends.


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by Charles E. Olken
Posted on:10/11/2017 12:01:29 AM

The fires that will affect about 25% of Napa Cab may not change Cabs place in the hierarchy but certainly are going to raise questions about the 2017 vintage 

by Merlot
Posted on:11/15/2017 8:58:01 PM

a pleasing grape indeed.

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