In late 2009, we counted down the Top 10 North American Wine Destinations on this blog.
And the winner was (drum roll, please) the Rutherford district of California’s Napa Valley.
The list was maybe 1% objective and 99% subjective. We made no bones about that in the countdown. These were places that I had visited, and I put the list together in an order that reflected my personal tastes and preferences.
The wines made from Rutherford grapes are truly world-class. But I’m not ashamed to admit that a big part of that district gaining the No. 1 spot was the presence of my favorite restaurant on the planet: the Rutherford Grill. You can read why that dining spot is so special in the blog, which is linked above.
While the district provides exceptional dining and accommodations, Rutherford earned the No. 1 spot on our list because of the wines it produces.
Today, I thought I’d share some information about the appellation — in other words, what makes Rutherford special from a grape growing and winemaking perspective.
The Rutherford district first gained worldwide recognition in 1939 when Georges de Latour won a gold medal at the Golden Gate International Exposition for his 1936 Beaulieu Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon.
Since then, BV’s Private Reserve wines have set a standard for many of the appellation’s wineries. While several other varietals, such as Sauvignon Blanc, grow well there, Cabernet Sauvignon performs best in the vineyards of Rutherford.
The Rutherford viticultural area covers approximately six square miles, beginning just south of Cakebread Cellars and BV Vineyard #2 along Highway 29. It ends at Zinfandel Lane, 3.3 miles to the north, and stretches across the valley (two miles at its widest point) from Mt. St. John on the west to the Vaca Mountain Range on the east.
Soils from three alluvial fans are primarily gravelly, sandy and loamy. The fans are formed from shattered, well-bedded sandstone, and their deposits are high in gravels. Deep and well-drained, the fans have pockets that allow runoff to easily flow to the streams and Napa River. Rutherford soils are dominated by Franciscan marine sedimentary materials with some volcanic deposits (primarily Bale, Pleasanton and Yolo loams).
Rutherford has a higher radiant value than other parts of Napa Valley. Because the area is located at the valley’s widest point, it spends more time in the sun.
Warm summer days ripen Rutherford grapes, giving way to cool evenings. An average summer day may drop 12 degrees immediately after sunset. This fluctuation allows the fruit to ripen at a steady pace; temperatures north and south of Rutherford can vary as much as 10 degrees.
Rutherford has an average rainfall of 26-36 inches per year. Although typically mild, spring can bring freezing temperatures at night during March and April. Growers and vintners know this, and are ready with big fans and heating- lamp-like devices to protect the vines.
Although bordered on the west and east by two mountain ranges, the Rutherford viticultural area does not extend above 500 feet in elevation. Regardless, the elevation is quite pronounced. Vineyards creep up the nearby hillsides from the Napa River in the center of the appellation, which lies just 172 feet above sea level.
All in all, Rutherford is both distinctive and special. That’s why it was No. 1 in my book back in 2009, and why it remains so today.