The History of Rutherford’s Magic Dust

On a scorching, dusty day in July, wine experts and guests gathered for the 17th annual “Day in the Dust” event held by the Rutherford Dust Society at the historic Inglenook winery.

They all had come to explore a mystery: What sort of magic has come together that makes many of the cabernet sauvignon wines made from Rutherford grapes so uniquely delicious? For many, the answer seems right under their feet.

“It’s something in the soil of this place,” said Ross Sullivan, president of Sullivan Vineyards. “It’s also the weather and knowing what wine grapes and rootstock to grow. When it comes together, it can be pretty magical.”

The Sullivan family owns one of the 48 wineries (according to literature provided by the society) that are found within the approximately six-square-mile area that is Rutherford, a tiny hamlet with a population of 164.

To put this in perspective, the entire area of Rutherford is less than 1 percent of the total land area of Napa County (789 square miles), but it accounts for roughly 10 percent of Napa’s recognized wineries. So if you are one of the lucky few who actually live in the town of Rutherford, you don’t have far to go for your next bottle of wine because there is one winery for every 3.5 people living in this small town. It hasn’t always been that way, however.

Yount and the Grizzly Bears

In 1860, Thomas Rutherford and his new wife, Elizabeth Yount, received a wedding gift of roughly 1,040 acres of land from her grandfather, George Yount. They called it Rutherford Station.

Elizabeth’s Grandfather Yount, an explorer and pioneer, had been the first Euro-American permanent settler in the Napa Valley. With the help of his employer and friend, General Mariano G. Vallejo, Yount had been granted two Mexican land grants: the Rancho Caymus land grant (11,887-acres) in 1836 and the Rancho La Jota land grant (4,454 acres) on Howell Mountain in 1843.

Born in 1794, Yount had been a farmer in Missouri until being lured west, first for the War of 1812 and then as a fur trapper, joining other mountain men such as Hugh Glass (the subject of the recent movie “The Revenant” — some of the details of this true story actually came from Yount’s writings) and William Wolfskill as they tamed the West together. These men also probably talked about wine and agriculture because Wolfskill eventually went from trapper to California agriculture developer and vintner, producing up to 50,000 gallons of wine by the time of his death in 1866.

At that time, wine was on the minds of many Americans since years earlier Thomas Jefferson had traveled to France and learned to love the wines of Burgundy and Bordeaux. Thereafter, America’s third president rejected the more alcoholic wines (Madeira and port) favored at the time and instead chose to drink and serve wines of France and Italy. He hoped his countrymen would follow his example and eventually grow and make fine wines from American soil, saying, “We could in the United States make as great a variety of wines as are made in Europe, not exactly of the same kinds, but doubtless as good.”

But before that could happen, it seemed that the Napa Valley had to be conquered first. And Yount was the man to do it. Yount had been an adventurer for years, moving from place to place, but when he visited Napa Valley in 1831 he wrote in his diary, “In such a spot would I clear a bit of ground and build a home; in such a spot would I live and die.”

Yount found that Vallejo in nearby Sonoma needed both a carpenter (Yount knew how to make wooden shingled roofs) and a grizzly hunter. In California thousands of enormous grizzly bears (sometimes standing as tall as 12 feet or more) were killing off livestock and wreaking havoc with the influx of new settlers.

“They (grizzly bears) were everywhere — upon the plains, in the valleys, and on the mountains, venturing even within the camping-grounds, so that I have often killed as many as five or six in one day, and it was not unusual to see 50 or 60 within the 24 hours.” — George C. Yount from The Hesperian (San Francisco), March 1859.

Eventually, all the grizzly bears were killed and Yount gained his land grants and settled down for a quiet life in the Napa Valley, where his granddaughter and her new husband set about building their own ranch. There, the young couple planted grains, grew livestock and planted European wine grape varieties.

European wine grape varieties shine

Earlier, in 1850, another local pioneer, J. M. Patchett, had shown that European wine grapes could be grown and made into wine in the Napa Valley, having made his first shipment of such wine from the county in 1857.

… six casks and six hundred bottles (were shipped); in 1871 the export was over half a million gallons. And still the industry is but in its infancy.” — C. A. Menefee from the Historical and Descriptive Sketchbook of Napa, Sonoma, Lake and Mendocino, 1873.

Before that time, the grapes grown in the region were primarily “mission varieties,” planted by the Spanish. But with the European grapes and early innovative vintners gaining hold, the Napa Valley was on its way and Rutherford was at the heart of the action.

Enter Gustave Niebaum. The Finnish sea captain had made a fortune in the Alaskan seal-fur trade and frequented San Francisco while dropping off cargo. There he met and married Susan Shingleberger, a German-American. Niebaum had dreamed of one day owning a chateau in France, but his wife refused to leave her home state, so the captain went about re-creating a French-influenced wine estate in the heart of the Napa Valley. In 1879, he founded Inglenook, the first bonded winery in Rutherford.

Like other vintners before and after, Niebaum spared no expense while designing his vineyard and winery. He used an innovative gravity-flow system and employed cutting-edge viticultural and winemaking practices that included removing stems and leaves prior to fermentation. He also bottled the wine under an estate label, which was not common at the time.

Niebaum’s efforts paid off and resulted in Inglenook wines winning gold medals at the World’s Fair in Paris in 1889, which brought the world’s attention to the Napa Valley and to Rutherford, as being a New World wine region that might rival the Old World.

The second winery to take the Rutherford spotlight was Beaulieu Vineyard. Established by Georges de Latour and his wife Fernande, BV was bonded in 1900. Just as they got going, however, Prohibition was passed and Rutherford and the rest of the Napa Valley fell on hard times.

After Niebaum’s death in 1908 Inglenook carried on under the stewardship of his wife until her death, but Prohibition brought the winery to near ruin. Beaulieu Vineyard, on the other hand, found that to survive they could legally sell wine to the Catholic Church, and as they did they perfected their techniques so that when Prohibition was repealed in 1933 they were positioned to produce the 1936 Cabernet Sauvignon that won the Golden Gate International Exposition in 1939.

The Judgment of Paris

The same year, Niebaum’s great-nephew, John Daniels Jr., took the reins of Inglenook in an attempt to bring back its former glory. He was reported by André Tchelistcheff, years later, to be the greatest winemaker in the Napa Valley.

Often touted as the most influential Napa Valley winemaker himself, the Russian-born Tchelistcheff had joined Beaulieu Vineyard in 1938. He had been trained with a new generation of winemakers in Europe at the Pasteur Institute and believed that enology and microbiology could be combined with art, science and the latest technology, to improve wine quality. Always the scientist winemaker, residents often saw him strolling around the dusty streets of Rutherford wearing a white lab coat.

In 1976, Northern California’s Wine Country was again thrust onto the world stage when Chateau Montelena’s Chardonnay and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet-blend won the “Judgment of Paris.” Influenced by local unsung hero, Joanne DePuy, the tasting was organized by British wine journalist and author Steven Spurrier, and resulted in the Napa Valley wines beating some of the world’s most highly prized French wine producers.

From that single event, careers, fortunes and legacies were created. The winning cabernet had been grown and made by Warren Winiarski at his winery in what’s now the Napa Valley’s Stags Leap District American Viticultural Area. The chardonnay grapes had been grown in Sonoma County (Russian River and Alexander valleys) and then processed in Calistoga at Jim Barrett’s Chateau Montelena by winemaker Miljenko “Mike” Grgich. The grapes and wine had not come from Rutherford, but both winemakers, Winiarski and Grgich, had trained in Rutherford under Tchelistcheff.

Top standout wines the Day in the Dust

— 2014 Sullivan Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon. Wildly expressive flavors and aromas of crème de cassis, white truffle, roasted walnut, fine chalk and candied violets. For me, this wine spoke to both place and people working together to produce something epic. ($85 a bottle, 1,262 cases made).

— 2014 Honig Campbell Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. Black cherry, sweet dried thyme and almond toffee. Grippy and meaty, with well-integrated oak, this wine finishes long with black and blue fruits and dark chocolate. ($100 a bottle, 300 cases made).

— 2014 Quintessa Rutherford Red Wine. This is a classic California-meets-Bordeaux style wine to which I imagine Tchelistcheff, Daniels and maybe even Jefferson would tip their hats. Rich and deep but soft and silky for a new wine. Wonderful blueberry tart, expansive midpalate that moves from black raspberry to Earl Grey tea and then to plum and tobacco. ($175 a bottle, 8,000 to 10,000 cases produced per vintage).

Other standout Cabernet Sauvignons: Martin Estate, Collector’s Reserve (earth, chocolate and dried lavender), Long Meadow Ranch, Rutherford Estate (very unique — strawberry and mint — maybe not so much for its “Rutherfordness” but certainly a delicious wine to ponder over), Flora Springs, Rutherford Hillside Reserve (who knew hazelnut, root beer and bacon could come together so fantastically), and Heitz Cellar, Trailside Vineyard (dark and brooding — made me rue the day I gave up cigars).

Dust to dust

Now there are 48 Rutherford wineries, and plenty of other wines made with Rutherford grapes, too, each attempting to highlight its interpretation of this special place.

Rutherford plays a central role in the history of Napa Valley and more broadly, it’s always surprising when I drive through the town on Highway 29. So unassuming. So quiet. The beautiful ivy-covered-stone walls of Beaulieu Vineyard, a couple of gaudy sculptures at the entrance of Inglenook and the ever-present gathering of diners at the door of the Rutherford Grill. Other than these, nothing much suggests that this place is literally the heart of the Napa Valley.

I went to nursery school in the little clapboard house on Niebaum Lane. My wife’s family, the Keigs, at one time owned about 1,200 acres between Rutherford and Oakville. When I drink the best wines of this tiny place, the ones that are true to both the variety and place, I can close my eyes and taste the history. Call it dust if you like. I prefer to call it home.


Originally published in the Napa Register, August 2017