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Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons: Rutherford Bench vs. Stags Leap District

by Steve Pitcher

The "Rutherford Bench" doesn't really exist in a physical sense, except in the form of a giant-size wooden bench with the words "Rutherford Bench" etched into the backrest, located in front of the visitors' center at Franciscan Vineyards along the St. Helena Highway (Hwy. 29).

Some wine writers began using the term back in the 1970s to refer to a variously described area in the middle of the Napa Valley extending west from Highway 29 (or the Napa River, according to some) to the foothills of the Mayacamas Mountains, bordered on the north roughly by Zinfandel Lane just above the town of Rutherford, and on the south roughly by the Oakville Grade Road just below the town of Oakville.

Rutherford Dust

Wines made from grapes grown in this "benchland" area are said to exhibit "Rutherford dust," shorthand for a dusty-berry-spicy element that is difficult to put your finger on, exactly (Hugh Johnson suggests that allspice is the most precise reference). There's also often an herbaceous character, with the wines showing sturdy tannins. Most of the soil here is well-drained gravel loam.

Wineries making wines from vineyards in the "Rutherford Bench" include some of the greatest names in the history of Napa Valley: Beaulieu (Georges de Latour Private Reserve), Inglenook (in its prime), Heitz Martha's Vineyard and Bella Oaks, Freemark Abbey (Cabernet Bosche), Robert Mondavi (reserve Cabs) and, more recently, Opus One.

When growers and wineries petitioned the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) in 1989 to recognize within the main appellation of Napa Valley the sub-appellations of Rutherford and Oakville, there was also an effort to carve out two separate sub-appellations of the Rutherford Bench and the Oakville Bench. By the time the Rutherford and Oakville sub-appellations were recognized in 1992, the proposal of separate bench areas had been dropped by the sponsors.

Stags Leap District

The Stags Leap District (SLD) is a recognized sub-appellation of the Napa Valley which begins about six miles southeast of the southernmost extension of the "Rutherford Bench" area. The district is situated east of the Napa River and five miles north of the city of Napa on both sides of the Silverado Trail. Barely a mile wide and about three miles long, this funnel-shaped winegrowing area is defined by the jagged outcroppings of the Vaca Range to the east, the Napa River to the west and Yountville Crossroad to the north, with the broad end of the funnel open to the south and the cooling breezes of the San Pablo Bay. About 1200 acres here are planted to vineyard.

When the district was recognized by BATF in 1989, it was agreed that the word "Stags" in the name would not include the apostrophe, in deference to the two wineries in the district which had earlier settled their differences by agreeing that both could use the word "Stags" in their name, but with the apostrophe placed differently: Stag's Leap Wine Cellars and Stags' Leap Winery.

As is the case in the Rutherford Bench, SLD is planted almost entirely to red varietals, primarily cabernet sauvignon and merlot. Two main soil types predominate here. West of the Silverado Trial on the valley floor bale loam derived from old Napa River sediment is the most common. East of the Silverado Trail, up the slopes and into the foothills, a mixture of coarse volcanic soils provides excellent drainage.

Distinguishing Character of SLD Cabs

Cabernet producers using SLD fruit -- including S. Anderson, Chimney Rock, Clos du Val, Pine Ridge, Shafer, Silverado Vineyards, Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, Stags' Leap Winery, Steltzner and Vichon -- claim that SLD Cabernets are rich, round and soft in the middle and tend to show pronounced fruit flavors, such as cherry, cassis and blackberry, which are united with a silky-chocolaty character and soft tannins. According to Bernard Portet of Clos du Val, "They don't have the tannins and intensity that the Cabernet Sauvignons from Rutherford have, but are much broader with softer fruit."

A recent Vintners Club blind tasting of six Cabernet Sauvignons from vineyards in the "Rutherford Bench" (RB) area versus six from the Stags Leap District (SLD) sought to test these theories, as well as the "Rutherford dust" theory. Both areas produce excellent wines; what the panel wanted to determine was whether there is a noticeable difference between the growing areas' wines and, if so, whether the wines from a particular area tend to exhibit similar characteristics.

As between growing areas, the Rutherford Bench area wines tended to show more black fruit character, and every single wine had an herbal component (bell pepper, thyme, green olive). Many exhibited a spicy, mocha-like characteristic, which could be that "Rutherford dust."

The SLD wines also showed a fair amount of herbaceousness, but the fruit tended more to red cherries and berries than black fruits. Only one, the Clos du Val, had a chocolaty component. On the whole, the SLD wines were more approachable, with round, supple textures in most cases (except for the Stag's Leap Wine Cellars SLV, which was quite tannic).

Tasting Notes

FIRST PLACE

1992 Whitehall Lane Cabernet Sauvignon, Morisoli Vineyard [RB] ($36)
Forward, inviting scents of ripe black cherry-blackberry fruit, cinnamon spice (which could be that elusive "Rutherford dust"), cedar and mint, plus hints of tar and leather. Sturdy tannins frame deeply concentrated black cherry-cassis fruit, accented by mild herbaceousness. An intense, complex wine that requires several years of cellaring for the tannins to resolve.

SECOND PLACE

1992 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Cask 23 [SLD] ($80)
Fragrant nose offering tarry, slightly spicy cassis with a hint of bell pepper and toasty oak. Deep and rich on the palate showing ripe berry-cassis fruit and mild herbaceousness; medium tannins. A delicious wine with excellent acid balance and fine concentration; long finish.

THIRD PLACE

1992 Shafer Cabernet Sauvignon, Hillside Select [SLD] ($50)
Very fragrant and complex nose of toasty oak, white chocolate and cocoa, vanilla, ripe berry-cassis fruit and a hint of mushroom earthiness. A delicious, voluptuous wine with complex flavors focusing on ripe, slightly dusty, cherry-cassis-blueberry fruit. Smooth with medium tannins.

FOURTH PLACE

1992 S. Anderson Cabernet Sauvignon, Richard Chambers Vineyard [SLD] ($50)
Forward scents of raspberries, black currants and plums plus lots of vanilla and hints of mild herbs and a leathery note. Rich, smooth and mellow in the mouth, with ripe berry-cassis fruit that shows considerable depth and concentration, accented by vanilla and black pepper. Medium tannins and good acidity.

FIFTH PLACE

1991 Sequoia Grove Cabernet Sauvignon, Estate Reserve [RB] ($25)
Complex, fragrant nose of cassis and sour cherries, hints of warm earthiness (fresh topsoil), bell pepper and thyme, plus spicy black pepper. Generous in the mouth with lots of ripe, concentrated cherry-berry fruit, along with hints of garden herbs, coffee and black pepper. Medium tannins; long finish.

SIXTH PLACE

1992 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, SLV [SLD] ($35)
Mildly herbaceous nose of cedar, tar, vanilla and raspberry-cassis fruit, plus clove spice and a touch of earthiness. A big, brawny, intense wine with just enough cassis-like fruit to balance the medium-full tannins, accented by mild herbaceousness. "SLV" is the abbreviation for the winery's Stag's Leap Vineyard.

SEVENTH PLACE

1992 Staglin Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley [RB] ($30)
Fragrant, though not particularly intense, nose of shy herbaceousness, black cherry-boysenberry fruit and smoky oak. On the palate, the wine offers moderately concentrated fruit reminiscent of cassis and sour cherries and good acidity. A tasty, restrained wine with elegance and finesse.

EIGHTH PLACE

1992 Vichon Cabernet Sauvignon [SLD] ($32)
Fragrant, though restrained, nose of vanilla and red cherry-cassis fruit. Straightforward strawberry-cassis fruit on the palate with moderate depth and medium-full tannins. Slightly sharp in the finish.

NINTH PLACE

1992 Beaulieu Cabernet Sauvignon, Georges de Latour Private Reserve [RB] ($40)
Forward, fragrant nose of mild herbs (thyme and sage), cassis, mocha and vanilla, accented by medium-char oak and an element some tasters described as "tomato." Pleasant black cherry-cassis fruit with good depth, plus minty, green herb flavors. Lighter in body than most of the wines in the flight.

TENTH PLACE

1992 Clos du Val Cabernet Sauvignon [SLD] ($21)
Chocolate, berry-cassis fruit, black pepper, mild herbaceousness and roasted coffee define the nose. Light and elegant on the palate, offering straightforward cassis flavors; lacks depth. Seems mature for the vintage. Medium tannins.

ELEVENTH PLACE

1992 Livingston Cabernet Sauvignon, Moffett Vineyard [RB] ($30)
Appealing, mouthwatering scents of deep, ripe, plumy raspberry-cassis fruit, vanilla, cedar, plus a hint of cocoa and spice. A soft, fruity entry leads to lots of cassis-like fruit on the palate and a hint of herbs. A tannic wine that is somewhat rough on the palate.

TWELFTH PLACE

1991 Freemark Abbey Cabernet Sauvignon, Bosche Vineyard [RB] ($28)
Black cherry-cassis fruit is overshadowed by a dusty quality that some tasters found distracting, plus some mild green-olive herbaceousness and a hint of volatile acidity (vaguely vinegary). The dustiness shows up again on the palate, which offers generous fruit and smooth texture with medium tannins.

Steve Pitcher is a freelance wine writer based in San Francisco. He is vice president of the Vintners Club and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the German Wine Society.



Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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