When the Rutherford Dust Society was formed in 1994, it was with the thought that the Rutherford appellation brought with it that ineffable sense of place. Legendary Beaulieu winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff coined the term Rutherford Dust to describe the unique expression of Cabernet Sauvignon grown in the district.

Unfortunately, the society’s annual tasting held this year at Rubicon Estate, merely reinforced my belief that the current over-ripe style of winemaking entirely masks a sense of place. Power and spectacle are valued more highly than elegance and nuance. We tasted  27 wines from the 2005 vintage, of which only two were under 14% alcohol, three were over 15%, and the average was 14.7% as stated on the label (I’m sure lab tests of actual alcohol would reveal many more over 15%). They were, almost without exception, big, dense, jammy wines — “fruit bombs” that could just as well have come from Australia or Chile. They were aromatic and powerful, in the mold of rum and Coca Cola.

They were also expensive, ranging in price from a low of $30 to a high of $225. The average was $84, with 8 over $100 a bottle. I don’t know about you, but a wine has to be extraordinary before I’ll shell out $84 a bottle. Most were small-production Cabernets; only Beaulieu, Provenance, and Quintessa produced more than 5,000 cases.

I gave only three wines 90 points:

Frog’s Leap, $75, an absolutely lovely wine in all respects, with an expansive cherry nose, sweet ripe fruit on the palate, substantial though soft tannins, and subtle vanilla and milk chocolate notes rising on the finish. It’s good now and promises long development. And it’s only 13.8% alcohol, so you can enjoy more than a glass or two.

Freemark Abbey Winery, Cabernet Bosché, $75, is a Cabernet with elegance and restraint, showing cherry, vanilla, subtle soil notes and lovely sweet spice notes rising through the lingering finish. This is mature winemaking. 14.1% alcohol.

Provenance Vineyards, $45, was the only high alcohol wine to which I gave high marks, because of all the insanely ripe table wines in this tasting, it came closest to being balanced. This wine is all about the texture, and it has layers of complexity with its green olive, pepper, coffee and mocha notes over vibrant blackberry fruit. As good as it is, at 14.9% alcohol, I’ll only be able to enjoy one glass without regrets. It falls outside the purview of a “table wine.”

A complete listing of the wines tasted appears, with scores but without comment, at the end of this article.

Vineyardist Andy Beckstoffer gave a speech which shocked me with its audacity. Speaking as President of the Society (which is made up of 42 wineries and 43 growers), he said that global warming should actually help balance, because night time temperatures would rise, giving more flavor development, so the wines could be picked earlier at lower sugars, and would thus be lower in alcohol. This was spin-doctoring at its best. I cornered him after the tasting and called to his attention that for 30 years all of the premium wine regions of the world have emphasized that cool night time temperatures are essential to making fine wine, as it helps the grapes retain acidity. Well, yes, he agreed, that was true, and then did some back pedaling — it seems there’s a narrow band of over 40 degrees, but under 45 degrees that would actually be of benefit. Theoretically speaking.

In our subsequent conversation, when I questioned why winemakers persist in making these alcoholic monsters, he said, “Well, they get the points.” I pointed out that I didn’t give them high scores, and a host of other writers at the tasting didn’t give them high scores. They’re not making these wines for me, so whom are they making them for? It was a rhetorical question: the answer was, of course, Robert Parker. “I have winemakers tell me all the time they don’t want to make these kinds of wines, but they have to if they’re going to get high scores from Parker. High-rollers come into the winery and say ‘I only want to taste wines over 92 points,’ and they buy ten cases.” I suggested the winemakers hire a hit man and get on with the task of making the best wine they can, or as an alternative, band together to discredit Parker.

Everyone seems to know the scores. They appear as “shelf talkers” in your local wine shop. The Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast are sometimes credited as well. My arguments for giving wines point scores have been noted elsewhere (see What the Ratings Really Mean). I think a point system is useful. However, they reflect only one critic’s view. Few people actually read Parker’s newsletter, but they still look for Parker points on “shelf-talkers.” I don’t agree with his taste — I’d rather know what Hugh Johnson thinks. So why do winemakers turn somersaults to please him? The answer is because there are a few people with more money than sense or taste, who cannot be bothered to appreciate a wine’s nuances, and they love Parker’s penchant for jammy wines. They simply want the biggest, the boldest, the highest scoring, and they’re willing to pay big bucks for it. That’s why wineries can charge such enormous prices for their wines. It is a business, after all, and the laws of supply and demand still apply. It’s why wineries now look like palaces, and why Napa Valley has developed the orchestrated air of a theme park.

Other 2005 Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignons Tasted and Rated
Flora Springs, Hillside Reserve, 89 points, $100

Fountainhead Cellars, Morisoli, 89 points, $50

Frank Family, Reserve, 88 points, $85
Pedemonte Cellars, 88 points, $50

Raymond Vineyards, 88 points, $55
Sawyer Cellars, 88 points, $48

Monticello Vineyards, 87 points, $58

Quintessa, 87 points, $135

Tres Sabores, 87 points, $64

Trinchero Family Estates, Chicken Ranch Vineyard, 87 points, $30
Hewitt Vineyard, 86 points, $85
Peju Province, Estate Rutherford Reserve, HB Vineyard, 86 points, $225
Slaughterhouse Cellars, Reserve, 86 points, $60
William Harrison Winery, Rutherford Red, 86 points, $80

Rutherford Grove, Estate, 84 points, $45

Piña, Firehouse Vineyard, 83 points, $78
Round Pond Estate, 83 points, $60

Sullivan Vineyards, Reserve, 83 points, $100
Beaulieu Vineyard, Georges de Latour Private Reserve, 82 points, $115
Rubicon Estate, 82 points, $145
Scarecrow, 82 points, $100

Staglin Family Vineyard, 81 points, $175

Honig Vineyard & Winery, Mitchell Vineyard, 80 points, $75
Zahtila Vineyards, Vineyard Georges III, 80 points, $65

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