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Rutherford AVA

by David on June 20, 2009

According to Andre Tchelistcheff, the man many of us think of as the father of the post- repeal Napa Valley wine renaissance, “Cabernets need a touch of that Rutherford dust.” It’s hard to pin down the illusive, dusty character he referred to, and today’s Rutherford Dust Society says “What we now fondly refer to as “Rutherford dust” has come to reflect an enduring commitment to quality, a spirit of achievement and a deep connection to Rutherford’s soil – as opposed to any sensory component in the appellation’s wines.”

The Rutherford District attained AVA (American Viticultural Area) status in 1993 and is the proud home of many fabled Napa Valley names such as Caymus, Beaulieu, Cakebread, Rubicon, Staglin, Quintessa, Bella Oaks vineyard and Bosche vineyard. And these names tell you that this is Cabernet country.


The first wine we know of from Rutherford was made by the town’s namesake, Thomas Rutherford, somewhere between 1850 and 1880. He had married into the Yount family, who owned the Caymus Rancho, a remarkable land grant from General Vallejo totaling nearly 12,000 acres. It began south of Yountville and stretched all the way up to Zinfandel Lane, just south of St. Helena. As a wedding gift, Mr. Rutherford and his bride received over 1000 acres at the northern end of the Rancho in what is now known as the Rutherford AVA.

As the rest of the Caymus Rancho was gradually sold off, the Rutherford area welcomed some well-known, historic names in wine such as Gustave Niebaum (Inglenook) and Georges de Latour (Beaulieu). By the late 1880s there were over two million vines under cultivation in Rutherford as the phylloxera problem began to spread. De Latour proved to be a valuable addition to the community, in that regard, as he brought phylloxera-resistant rootstock to the valley, which were used to start his vineyard, and he also became a major supplier for other valley growers faced with devastation.

In 1900, he established his winery, Beaulieu Vineyard, on the site that is still home to B.V. and won local respect for his high standards in winemaking. B.V. was one of a handful of wineries that garnered a number of awards and also managed to survive prohibition by producing sacramental wine.

De Latour was also renowned for recognizing brilliance when he saw it – he brought the young enologist, Andre Tchelistcheff, to Napa Valley in the late 1930s to further improve wine quality. Tchelistcheff went on to consult for countless local vintners and is considered largely responsible for leading the valley’s industry through successful reconstruction following repeal of prohibition.


Smack in the middle of Napa Valley, the width of Rutherford spans about two miles from the western Mayacamas Range to the Vaca range to the east. It meets with the St. Helena AVA at Zinfandel Lane, its northern border, and stretches about 3 miles, just beyond Cakebread Cellars, to the south. Bisected by the Napa River, the total area is 6,840 acres, 3,263 of it planted to vineyards.


Like its neighbor to the south, Oakville, the valley floor in Rutherford is a mix of various loams (a mixture of sand, silt and clay), especially gravelly and sandy loam. Weathered, broken down rock from the hills on either side of the valley was washed down over the millennia to mix with the river and stream deposits and rest on a bed of well-drained gravel.

It becomes interesting because the two ranges are of different origin and so are their contributions to the valley-floor soils. The western Mayacamas range was pushed up from the ocean floor and this Franciscan-series soil is a chaotic mix of ancient marine rock formations, sandstone, limestone, serpentine (California’s state rock!) shale and metamorphic rocks. The famous alluvial fans are made up of shattered, well-bedded sandstone that’s high in gravel, promoting excellent drainage.

Rather than pushing up, the eastern Vaca range was formed, layer by layer, by the deposit of repeated volcanic eruptions caused by fissures in the tip of the San Andreas fault as it was dragged north by the Pacific and North America plates. It left compressed volcanic ash (tuff or tufa – often exposed tufa), lava flows, volcanic mudflows, a variety of other pyroclastic deposits (fragmental pieces of rock, such as minerals or glass, spewed by the eruption), and sedimentary rocks of volcanic origin. Virtually every knob and knoll you see in Napa Valley is of the same volcanic origin. The native growth – mainly sage brush, scrub and California oaks – on the eastern transition between hillside and valley floor attests to the thin, poor soils, which deepen as they meet with the valley floor. The eastern valley floor of Rutherford is, overall, slightly richer in soil than the western “benchlands”.


Just a bit warmer than its southern neighbor, Rutherford enjoys mid-summer highs in the 90s, quite often, and typically drops to the mid-50s, at night, when the fog moves in. The heat of the day forwards the maturation of the slow-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon that dominates the district. As the heat rises, eventually, it pulls in cool bay fog and breezes from San Pablo Bay at the southern end of Napa Valley. The fog often lingers until mid-morning the next day, preventing over-rapid sugar accumulation and retaining color and refreshing acidity. Like the rest of the valley, there’s a wet season in winter, with rainfall around 36″ and a long, dry growing season. This is about as good as it gets for Cabernet Sauvignon.

The region could be neatly subdivided by the Napa River in terms of climate, and to a lesser degree soil, because the eastern side gets the full impact of the late afternoon sun, while the west side is cooling in the shadows of the Mayacamas.

The Wines

Clearly, Cabernet is king in Rutherford, with over 70% of the acreage dedicated to it. The regional character is described as full and ripe with intense cherry, currant and earth with firm, supple tannins. The remaining land is planted to Merlot, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc and a smattering of other varieties. While conventional wisdom is that Chardonnay should be grown in the cool Carneros region in the southern end of the valley, Rutherford Chardonnay is attractive by way of rich, full-blown apple and tropical flavors.

Regional Statistics (with thanks to the Napa Valley Vintners Association):

Climate: Moderately warm, still marginally influenced by early morning fog. Western bench area is cooler, with less late afternoon sun, tempered by afternoon marine winds. (This AVA averages a bit warmer than Oakville and Stags Leap District). Usual summer peak temperatures are mid-90°F with good diurnal range.

Elevation: 100 to 500 ft. (33 to 150m).

Rainfall: 38 inches (95 cm) annually.

Soils: Western benchland is sedimentary, gravelly-sandy and alluvial, with good water retention and moderate fertility. The eastern side has more volcanic soils, moderately deep and more fertile.

AVA status: 1993

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