A Memorable Wine Adventure: Inside A Prestigious Napa Valley Wine Tasting

Napa valley

Photo: Galileo55 via Flickr

I receive a ton of email every day; offers for this, suggestions for that, questions on all sorts of topics. So it’s not uncommon for me to face off with my computer each morning fortified with a triple latté and a blueberry muffin wondering what the Internet has in store for me. 

A few weeks ago, somewhat bleary eyed from a week-long fam trip and an all-nighter writing up an article for a new editor I received an  invitation to attend The Rutherford Dust Society’s media and trade annual tasting taking place on July 13, 2011 at Rubicon Estate in Napa Valley, CA. I now know what can wake me up faster than a triple shot of caffeine.

This is a prestigious tasting. Not a lot of invitations are sent out. Not many wine writers will ever get the call. 

But there I was, invitation in hand, computer screen glaring at me, waiting to see if I could clear my schedule to attend. Well, gee, let me think about this for a Nano second…yes, yes, yes!

I was curious how the committee would arrange the day. I arrived on time at 10 am at Rubicon Estate Winery. Thankfully the evening before I did a test run from my B & B lodging in Sonoma. 

Good thing I did as my GPS had me stopping in a patch of weeds waaaay down the road from the Rubicon entrance. A less determined person might have been deterred. But I was determined to get to this tasting. After driving up and down St. Helena Highway several times, pounding on the GPS repeatedly, and finally stopping at the Rutherford Grill for instructions (turns out it was right across the street), victory was mine.

Back to the tasting. About 10:20 AM the group was escorted into Rubicon Estate’s historic barrel room for the seated media tasting. There were 22, 2008 Cabernet’s poured in two flights of eleven. We were asked to taste 11 wines in 20 minutes in silence.  We had a 10 minute break between flights. We had the choice of tasting blind (without pre-prepared notes) or tasting with collateral materials.

After the 2-hour tasting, lunch was served upstairs—with even more wines. To our great delight, Frances Ford Coppola joined us. It was a convivial hour and a half of great food, premium wines, some networking opportunities, and some short talks by Dust Society members. After the lunch we were escorted to the afternoon trade and media tasting. More wines, more wineries, more networking.

So let’s see, by my count I tasted over 30 premium distinctive Cabs in just a little over 4 hours! Between the morning tasting, the luncheon, and the afternoon trade tasting, I think I now have a very good idea of what the Rutherford Cabernet taste profile is all about: Smooth, aromatic, complex and elegant. I am   impressed that most of the 2008 Rutherford Cabernet blends I tasted are drinkable now. I was expecting more tannic wines.

I was wrong. There are plenty of cherry, berry, currant and vanilla notes, standing competitively  alongside attention-grabbing waves of spice, mineral, cocoa and plum. My guess is that even with the smooth nature of these wines, most of them can age nicely for 10 years or more.

It’s interesting to note what gave these 2008 wines their voice, as 2008 was anything but a model year for grape growing. Growers experienced a cold winter, frost in March and April, below average rainfall, early bud break, excessive heat during bloom, a heat wave in August and September, high sugars and early ripening… and wild fires.

That’s enough to make any one want to turn and throw in the shovel. But crazy as it sounds, what happened was growers ended up with a small crop of quality grapes that were nicely balanced leading to some really great wine. The harvest might have been 23%-35% off, but the wines turned out subtle, elegant and slightly better than the acclaimed 2007 vintage.

Out of the 22 wines I tasted in the morning a couple of things to note.  The alcohol levels ranged from 13.7% (Frog’s Leap) up to 15.3% (Beaulieu Vineyard) and the prices swung wildly from $26 (Pedemonte Cellars) to Rubicon Estate ($200). Some of the wines we tasted are already released, some we’ll have to wait for until Spring 2012. 

There wasn’t a dud in the bunch. The wines were chosen carefully by a team of Sommeliers who started with 39 wines to choose from, narrowing the choices down to 22. Two thumbs up for their choices!

As with any informal tasting, some wines are bound to have better voices than others.  I’ve listed all the wines I tasted, in the order I tasted them, but have given special attention to the ones I particularly enjoyed or thought you should try.

Flight One

  1. Peju Rutherford Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, $105, 900 cases, release date 9/1/14. A winner right out of the gate with its aromatic nose, lovely scents of vanilla, currant, spice and black cherry. Recommend!
  2. Monticello Cellars Tietjen Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, $65, 224 cases, release date 10/1/11.
  3. Flora Springs Rutherford Hillside Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon,$100,  347 cases, release date 10/1/11.
  4. Sullivan Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford Reserve, $100, 200 cases, release date 4/1/11.
  5. Round Pond Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford, $50, 3210 cases, release date 1/1/11. Nice plum, coffee, cocoa in the mouth. Tasty raspberry and cherry on the nose. Recommend!
  6. Pedemonte Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford, $26, 360 cases, release date TBD.  More earthy than some of the others with hints of cedar and mint on the nose and ripe boysenberry and cherry in the mouth.  Great buy for the price.
  7. Frog’s Leap Winery Rutherford, $75, 1,865 (6/pk) (means that they produced the wine in 6 bottle cases, rather than 12 bottle cases, so there were 1,865 cases of 6 bottles each), release date 10/1/11.
  8. Honig Cabernet Sauvignon Campbell Vineyard Rutherford, $75, 250 cases, release date 6/1/12
  9. Quintessa Rutherford, $145, 7,820 cases, release date 9/1/11.
  10. Conn Creek Cabernet Sauvignon Hozhoni Vineyard Rutherford, $45, 200 cases, release date spring 2012. A very interesting wine with layers of dark berries, vanilla and spice. Velvety tannins. Worth the wait.  Recommend!
  11. Piña Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Firehouse Vineyard Rutherford, $85, 237 cases, release date11/1/10. A stylish wine showcasing a full bodied experience of blackberry, minerals, and sweet spice. Recommend!

Flight Two

  1. Sawyer Cellars Cabernet Reserve Rutherford, $49, 850 cases, release date 6/1/12. Loved the concentrated fruit flavours on the nose of this wine.  On the palate expect opulent blackberry, black cherry, a touch of fig and toasty oak.  Great Cab for the money proving the point that Cab does not need to be expensive to be good.  Recommend!
  2. Meander Cabernet Sauvignon Morisoli Vineyard Rutherford, $125, 40 cases, release date 3/1/11. Nice burst of smooth espresso, plum, and cocoa on the nose and palate.  Enjoy the black fruit, spice,  and vanilla overtones. Recommend.
  3. Beaulieu Vineyard Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford, $115, 8200 cases, release date 8/1/11.
  4. Rubicon Estate Rubicon, $200, 6,675 (6/pk) cases (means that they produced the wine in 6 bottle cases, rather than 12 bottle cases so there were 1,865 cases of 6 bottles each), release date 3/1/12.  The most expensive of the group it’s showing great promise now and I expect next year when it is released it will be exceptional. Recommend.
  5. St. Clement Vineyards Star Vineyard Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon, $80, 225 cases, release date 11/1/11.
  6. Staglin Family Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford, $185, 2600 cases, release date fall 2011. Smooth with intense notes of blackberry , spice and black cherry.  Recommend.
  7. 12C Wines Cabernet Sauvignon Beckstoffer Georges III Vineyard Rutherford, $70, 120 cases, release 8/1/2010.
  8. HUNNICUTT Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford, $75, 125 cases, release date Fall 2011.  Elegant nose of blackberry, cherry, and vanilla.   Spicy and rich on the palate, one could get lost in this gorgeous wine quite easily.  Recommend.
  9. Soujourn Cellars Beckstoffer Vineyard Georges III Cabernet Sauvignon, $95, 140 cases, release date 2/1/11.
  10. Frank Family Vineyards Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, $85, 1780 cases, release date 1/1/12.  One to watch for when it’s released.  It is a blend of 93% Cab, 4% Cab Franc, and 3% Petit Verdot. I like it now, but think in a few months it could really sing.  Recommend.
  11. 2008 Hall Wines Exzellenz Sacrasche Vineyard Rutherford Red Wine, $165, 219 cases, release date 11/1/11. Nicely integrated nose of dried black cherry, mild spice, blackberry and toasty oak.

Story and photos by Linda Kissam.

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