Okay, pardon the hyperbole, but that's how a majority of 2004 Rutherford Cabernets, poured for the press this morning at Rubicon Estate (formerly Niebaum-Coppola Estate Winery), in Rutherford, will likely be labeled by wine lovers.
Hot on the heels of stunningly good 2002 and 2003 Cabernet-based wines from Rutherford comes yet another vintage of truly iconic wines, some which will take your breath away as you gasp for adjectives to describe them in all their glory.
"Rutherford is the historic center of Cabernet in America," we were reminded by Andy Beckstoffer, one of the appellation's best-known growers and president of the Rutherford Dust Society, a self-promoting organization.
Rutherford, which lies at the epicenter of Napa Valley, has a reputation that far exceeds its geographic footprint. While only six square miles in size, and planted with barely 3,300 acres of vines, Rutherford is home to some of the nation's top wineries whose labels grab international headlines. Yet Rutherford produces less than one-quarter-of-one-percent (.25 percent!) of all the wine produced in America. Forget microclimate; they should call Rutherford a femtoclimate (a femtometer is one quadrillionth of a meter, way smaller than the period at the end of this sentence).
Rutherford has been a recognized AVA (American Viticultural Area) since 1993, one of 14 sub-appellations within Napa Valley. Cabernet is King here, as today's tasting proved yet again.
"There are 30 wineries and 75 growers in Rutherford," says Paul Wagner, executive director of the Rutherford Dust Society. "We have a sense of community and there is something common to the wines grown and produced here."
That "something" has been called 'Rutherford Dust.'
Andre Tchelistcheff, the first winemaker at Beaulieu Vineyards, and a legend of Napa Valley winemaking in his own right, started all the talk about 'Rutherford Dust' decades ago. Andre said that if you were going to grow great grapes that reflected the terroir, or soil, then you needed to plant them in Rutherford Dust (as opposed to other sites within Napa Valley).
Now, as a side note, I have been reviewing wine for 30 years and in a blind tasting of wines from many different Napa Valley AVAs, I cannot readily pick out Rutherford wines from, let's say, those of neighboring Oakville. Which is not to say that these differences don't exist. Let's just say that the story about the way that Rutherford Dust supposedly affects wines is apocryphal. And a damn good marketing story to amplify what is an already given -- great Cabernets with abundant ripe fruit.
"What makes Rutherford Cabs so special?" asked Richard Betts, Master Sommelier at the award-winning dining room of The Little Nell, in Aspen, CO. I don't think it's a particular flavor profile instead, I think it's balance. It's like, 'I don't care what you wear - it's how you wear it!' It's all about 'balance.'"
At the center of the fermenting room at Rubicon Estate this morning was a magnificently l-o-n-g table, set with 616 Riedel glasses. Thirteen glasses for each taster plus a Riedel water glass per person.
Cab is King at this tasting
Many of my colleagues and two sommeliers present chose to record their tasting notes on a printed sheet of the wines being poured. I chose, instead, to taste through 25 wines blind; I did not want to be influenced by friends' wines. I live in Rutherford, I have many winemaker friends and it would be unwieldy, if not journalistically improper, to rate these wines knowing what I was tasting.
In year's past, I have discovered inexpensive $40 wines in this fashion that tasted like $100 wines. This year, my top-scoring wines are a bit more dear, in the $85-$125 range. Though I was giddily impressed by the $56, 2004 Tres Sabores Rutherford Perspective Cabernet Sauvignon from Julie Johnson, which I rated 93 points, a femto-point behind my top-rated wines of the day, yet half their price!
My top-scoring wines
2004 Quintessa. How does the Huneeus family do it year after year, make wines of such elegance, such velveteen texture? This stuff goes down like velour. The wine exhibits dark, ripe red and black fruits on the nose, suggesting perfect equilibrium on the palate, and the wine delivers on the palate, in spades.
This is a classic Rutherford Cab, gorgeous fruit; a stunning attack, a beautifully long bridge in the middle palate and a lustrous finish of notable length. I rated this wine 94 points but might have said 95 in hindsight. $125.
2004 Frank Family Vineyards Rutherford Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. Rich, ripe, red fruit on the nose with a whiff of fresh Virginia tobacco; on the palate, the first thing that strikes you is the elegance, the balance, the finesse, the harmony of fruit, alcohol and tannins. A "wow!" wine that right from the get-go, I wanted to swallow and not spit. I rated this a tie with the Quintessa, at 94 points. $85.
2004 Rubicon Estate Cabernet. This was a surprise for me in the tasting, very likely the single best young Rubicon that I've ever tasted. The 2002 Rubicon was stunning, but for the most part, I have always felt that this was an underperforming brand. But Scott McLeod, winemaker, and his talented assistant, Tondi Bolkan, have started to seriously turn up the heat and they are now producing exceptional wines. The 2004 Rubicon Estate Cab has a just-brewed coffee aroma on the nose, but it also has richness, a luxuriousness, even an elegance that you can smell. And then it delivers all this again on the taste and eventual swallow (also not a candidate for spitting). I rated this wine 94 points, tied with the others above. $125.
2004 Tres Sabores Rutherford Perspective Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine jumps out of the glass, tweaking your nose with ripe fruit and elegant, dark cherries; the flavors suggested appear in the swallow and the wine exhibits magnificent balance. My hand-scribbled tasting note concludes: "Shows impeccable growing and winemaking skills. A stunning effort!" I rated this wine 93 points as it just falls out of the range of luster of the three wines above.
But when I found out that Tres Sabores is half the price of Quintessa, I have to speak of this wine on the same page, because PRICE DOES MATTER.
Sadly, you're going to have to race to get this wine, because Julie Johnson only made 200 cases. Hurry, hurry. $56.
The other really good wines from the 2004 vintage
In the next tier of wines tasted, I would include the following:
2004 Raymond Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon. Rich, elegant, with a very tight core, lots of tannins suggesting a very long life ahead. Very well made. Great effort. 92 points. $55.
2004 Galleron Family Vineyards, Generation Series, Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon. Rich, ripe, elegant aromas waft from the glass. A classic Cab nose. Lots of ripe red fruits on the palate and the degree of ripeness of the fruit could be used as a textbook example of what to do/what to look for. Layers of integrated richness of wood and fruit and the alcohol is nicely balanced. 92 points -- and catch the price, only $40!!
2004 Pine Ridge Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon. I loved the 2003 vintage of this wine, with its forward fruit, cheery cherry notes, rich finish. Tasted blind today, the 2004 is a different animal; lots of coffee and toffee on the nose, almost candy-like. I swear I smelled a melted Krackle bar. A very strange, but still alluring wine; tastes like a Starbucks entry in the tasting, filled as it is with so many coffee notes. Ends with a lush espresso roast finish. Reminds me of the coffee notes sometimes found in Plumpjack wines in the late 1990s. If you're in a Starbucks, or Peet's, mood, you'll love this wine. 91 points, $48.
2004 Elyse Tietjen Cabernet Sauvignon. In days gone by, I often ran past the Tietjen plot as I jogged through the vineyards of Rutherford. I often mused to myself that, one day, I would have to sit down and taste/rate this wine. And now I have. The 2004 effort has a royal Rutherford nose, rich with red fruits and dark cherry nuances. On the palate, my notes recorded: "A classic Rutherford Cab. There is nothing to not like about this wine. It shows ripe, black fruits, dark cherries, there is a judicious infusion of oak but not over the top. Bravo." 91 points, $80.
But what's the 2004 vintage most like?
So that napaman.com readers - and wine buyers - might get a sense of how this vintage stacks up against previous vintages, I asked a number of winemakers for comparative vintages. (My thinking goes like this: if you can relate to a vintage that you have previously tasted and liked, then you will understand how, or whether, the 2004 Rutherford reds may appeal to you.)
"2004 was a warm year," says Charles Thomas, winemaker at Quintessa. "The heat spiked early, reminding me of 1978."
"I think the 2004 Rutherford Cabs are most like the wines we made in the mid-to-late 90s," says Julie Johnson, winemaker and owner of Tres Sabores. "If I had to be more specific, I'd probably say the 2004 is most like 1996, or maybe 1997."
"2004 is a lot like 1994 or maybe even 1990," says John Williams, owner of Frog's Leap Winery. "There is an evenness of harvested fruit, there is a common intensity in the wines. But if you asked me how the 2004 stacks up in terms of ageing potential, I'd say it's more like the 1991 and 1996 efforts from Rutherford growers - superb ageing potential!"
"2004 is most like 1997 in my mind," says Chris Cooney, associate winemaker at Provenance Vineyards.
Napaman.com readers interested in learning more about Rutherford wines, or who wish to get on the appellation's mailing list should contact firstname.lastname@example.org.