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One can imagine myriad reasons for the wine trade to be invited to Napa Valley on a sunny afternoon, but this one was intriguing. We were convened on July 23 to celebrate a day in the dust. We weren’t kicking around in it or sweeping it up. We were there to taste it. The late winemaker André Tchelistcheff is reputed to have said that it takes “Rutherford Dust” to grow great cabernet. He was referring to the gravelly, sandy, and loamy soil found in the Rutherford viticultural area. But knowledgeable folks say you find the dust in the glass, in the lingering dusty, earthy, spicy flavors of Rutherford cabernets. After arriving at the annual Rutherford Dust Society Grand Tasting held in the barrel room of Niebaum-Coppola Estate Winery, I grabbed my Riedel tasting glass and surveyed the scene. This was a classy affair, with a pianist who was all but drowned out by the din from the eager tasters jostling to discover that Rutherford Dust essence. Lining the room were representatives and principals from 29 wineries pouring mostly yet-to-be-released wines. I took note of the well-known producers from this area including the oldest bonded winery still in operation, Beaulieu Vineyard ( www.bvwines.com) and also Heitz Wine Cellars ( www.heitzcellar.com) and Raymond Vineyard & Cellar ( www.raymondwine.com.) But, I was there to discover the smaller players. I first made my way to the 1999 and 2001 cabernet from Livingston Moffett ( www.livingstonwines.com). I asked Trent Moffett to describe Rutherford dust. He calls it “a light earthy edge that integrates with the fruit.” The Rutherford vines that produce their cabernet grow in deep volcanic soils and produce graceful cabernets with intense flavors. I highly recommend these wines. The 2002 cabernet from Sullivan Vineyards ( www.sullivanwine.com) was equally impressive. Winemaker Philippe Langner attributes the depth and complexity of this wine to dry farming, which means that the vines are not irrigated. The roots reach deep into the soil, and that results in a higher concentration of fruit and tannin. The Monticello Vineyards 2000 cabernet is a well-integrated wine with spice and cherry aromas. It is produced from grapes from the Tietjen Vineyard located near the base of the Mayacamas Mountains ( www.corleyfamilynapavalley.com). Rounding out the pack were the 1999 and 2000 vintages being poured from Quintessa ( www.quintessa.com). These were elegant Meritage blends of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet Franc, and merlot. The 1999 Rutherford Grove cabernet sauvignon exhibited vanilla and spice notes ( www.rutherfordgrove.com). Bell Wine Cellars ( www.bellwine.com) offered their 1999 and 2000 Baritelle Vineyard Reserve wines, which have a rich, concentrated black cherry flavor. I also tasted some phenomenal offerings from three other wineries. I loved the wines from Sawyer Cellars ( www.sawyercellars.com). The 2000 Estate cabernet sauvignon has intense flavors of blackberry, cherry, and vanilla, which lead to a cedar and cocoa intensity on the finish. I also was bowled over by the 2000 Bradford Meritage with its black cherry flavors and its dynamite white pepper finish. The 2000 cabernet sauvignon made by Staglin Family Vineyard ( www.staglinfamily.com) from grapes from the Stalus Family Vineyard also delighted the palate with its ripe berry flavors and spice finish. And yet another surprise was the 2000 Rutherford cabernet from producer Frank Family Vineyards ((800) 574-9463), owned by Richard Frank, former president of Walt Disney Studios. This full-bodied wine has flavors of dark berries and chocolate and firm tannins on the finish. What I gleaned from the afternoon is that the range of the Rutherford essence varies from winemaker to winemaker, and that the overall quality of Rutherford fruit from the 2000 vintage is divine. But, before I can say that I would be able to identify that dusty character, I’d like to have a blind tasting with other Napa Valley cabernets alongside the batch from Rutherford. To learn more about winemaking in the Rutherford viticultural area, check out www.rutherforddust.org. Elisabeth Frater is “Wine Counsel,” a wine law attorney based in Napa, Calif. Wine Counsel can be reached at [email protected].

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