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NorCal Wine Blog

What is Rutherford Dust?

Rutherford dust is a phrase very closely linked with the wines of the Rutherford AVA in Napa Valley. People often describe wines as having Rutherford Dust, or wines from neighboring St. Helena and Oakville lacking it. Rutherford’s association of growers and vintners even calls itself the Rutherford Dust Society. I have heard people identify Rutherford dust as a specific flavor, sometimes cocoa powder or chocolate, sometimes coffee. Others use it with regard to texture, the dusty feeling of tannins in a Rutherford AVA Cabernet Sauvignon. And I’ve seen books refer to it as a particular minerality. So, what does Rutherford dust actually mean?

Yesterday, at a media lunch hosted by the Rutherford Dust Society and Rubicon Estate, someone asked just that. It was the perfect occasion for the question. Among the Rutherford experts at the table were both Andy Beckstoffer and Joel Aiken. There is literally nobody better qualified to explain Rutherford dust than they.

Andy Beckstoffer first walked through the vineyards of Rutherford in the mid-1960’s. Working for Heublein in 1966, he convinced the company it needed to be buying vineyards in California and Napa Valley in particular. Beckstoffer believed that the future of premium American wine was there. Soon, Beckstoffer had helped Heublein acquire both Inglenook and Beaulieu Vineyards, among other properties. But, by 1973, Heublein’s business interests had shifted. Beckstoffer arranged to buy their Napa vineyard holdings for himself.

Andy-Beckstoffer
Andy Beckstoffer explains Rutherford dust at Rubicon on July 13, 2011
Photo: Fred Swan

In Rutherford, his company owns the Melrose Vineyard and the Beckstoffer George III Vineyard (formally Beaulieu Vineyard No. 3), more than 400 acres in all. He was a founder, and has served as president, of both the Napa Valley Grape Growers Association and the Rutherford Dust Society. He was the first grape grower inducted into the Culinary Institute of America’s Vintners Hall of Fame. And he knew André Tchelistcheff well, working closely with him in various ways for twenty years.

Tchelistcheff is the man most people credit with having originated the term “Rutherford dust.” He led the winemaking at Beaulieu Vineyards from 1938 until his retirement in 1973. Thereafter, he consulted for a variety of wineries, including Beaulieu Vineyards. Tchelistcheff used to say, “Wine begins in the vineyard and always, always, we must come back to the vineyard.” This, according to Beckstoffer, is what Tchelistcheff was talking about when he spoke of Rutherford dust.

When Tchelistcheff said, “The wines must have Rutherford dust in them,” he did not mean they had to taste of dust. “André meant they needed to taste like they came from Rutherford’s vineyards,” Beckstoffer explained. Tchelistcheff was talking about terroir.

Joel Aiken joined the winemaking team at Beaulieu Vineyards in 1982. He served as VP of Winemaking there from 1999 through 2009. He is also a founding director and past president of the Rutherford Dust Society. During his time at BV, Aiken worked side-by-side with Tchelistcheff on a number of projects.

Joel-Aiken
Winemaker Joel Aiken at the Rutherford Dust Tasting, Rubicon, July 13, 2011
Photo: Fred Swan

Joel Aiken confirmed that Tchelistcheff’s use of the phrase Rutherford dust wasn’t referring to a specific flavor or mouthfeel but to the combination of soils, aspects, climate and other environmental elements that make Rutherford unique. Aiken contributed another interesting tidbit though, “André Tchelistcheff told me that he didn’t originate the term Rutherford dust. He said it was Maynard Amerine.”

Amerine was a scientist and faculty member of the U.C. Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology from 1935 to 1974. Among his almost significant, and almost countless, contributions were papers on the suitability of various grape varietals for specific growing areas in California. He also did ground-breaking work in the sensory evaluation of wine.

Whether the first person to mention Rutherford dust in connection with wine was André Tchelistcheff or Maynard Amerine, it is very clear that both men placed great importance on how the character of good wine reflects the vineyard from which its grapes came. And, based on what Andy Beckstoffer and Joel Aiken have said, we can be confident that Rutherford dust means the terroir of Rutherford and the sense of place exhibited by its best wines.

Which wines do you think best exemplify Rutherford dust? Do you find Rutherford dust in its Sauvignon Blanc, or just the red wines?

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2011 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

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