When discussion turned to traits of wines before us, my fellow oenophile would swirl, taste and exclaim, "Ah, Rutherford dust."
There is a school of thought that wines coming from the Rutherford AVA (American Viticultural Area) take on the taste of Rutherford soil. This concept is not unlike what the French call terroir.
French winemakers are proponents of the theory that soil composition has a direct correlation to how a wine will taste.
But French terroir is more encompassing than just expensive dirt. Terroir has to do with soil composition but also soil drainage, sunlight received, wind direction and every other vineyard condition that goes into making a particular wine what it is.
Rutherford AVA is centered around the town of Rutherford in the Napa Valley. It encompasses approximately 6,500 acres, primarily known for producing great cabernet.
Some of California's premier producers, such as Cakebread, Beaulieu, Caymus, Quintessa and Staglin Family, are located in this AVA.
In 1994, wineries and growers of this area banded together to form the Rutherford Dust Society.
The organization takes its name from a statement by the late Napa wine pioneer André Tchelistcheff, who said, "It takes Rutherford dust to make a great cabernet."
The Society does not purport that Rutherford soil is somehow detectable in Rutherford wines.
Conversely, its mission statement says, "Rutherford dust has come to reflect enduring commitment to quality, a spirit of achievement and a deep connection to Rutherford's soil as opposed to any sensory component in the appellation's wines."
This statement is in line with findings from various scientific studies saying the idea that one can taste minerality or soil composition in wine is completely bogus. "That humans perceive minerality in wines is untenable. The idea is romantic and highly useful commercially, but scientifically unsound," said Alex Maltman, a professor at the Institute of Geography and Earth Sciences at Aberystwyth University in Wales.
From time to time, I am guilty of using minerality as a wine descriptor, especially when describing chardonnays from Burgundy and New Zealand sauvignon blancs, although now it appears this is simply a romantic notion of mine.
Try these locally available wines to see if any Rutherford magic dust is detectable.
All are from predominantly Rutherford fruit, but not quite the 85 percent required by law to carry the specific Napa sub-appellation of Rutherford on their labels.
Rutherford Hill Winery 2005 Napa Cabernet. $35 at The Wine Cellar on Quintard in Anniston. Sourced from vineyards located in the heart of the Rutherford AVA. Aged 19 months in French oak. Described by the maker as exhibiting aromas of blueberries and cherries with hints of vanilla.
Raymond Vineyards 2007 Napa Cabernet. $18.75 at Tyson Art and Frame in Golden Springs. Predominately from Rutherford cabernet. Exhibits dark, concentrated fruit. Aged in a combination of new and older French oak barrels. A delicious, big, red California cabernet. Balanced with nicely integrated tannins.
Avalon 2007 Napa Cabernet. $14.75 at Tyson Art and Frame. Pleasant, concentrated fruit on the approach. Slight sweetness dissipates mid palate into a well-balanced, pleasant red wine.
Caymus Napa Valley Cabernet 2007. $65 at Tyson Art and Frame. Should I win the lottery, this would become my official house wine. It doesn't get any better than this (unless you move up to Caymus Special Selection in the $160 to $170 per bottle range). I taste ripe berries and dark plums in this remarkably smooth, nicely structured wine, but, alas, no dust.