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Dust to Must

By Debra Meiburg MW

Hong Kong families employ some 300,000 domestic helpers in the hope of eliminating dust. Conversely, in the heart of the Napa Valley there is a group of winemakers who treasure their dust so much that they formed a society to honor it: the Rutherford Dust Society.

The Rutherford name isn’t to be confused with Rutherglen, Australia. Rutherglen produces one of the world’s top sweet wines, whereas Rutherford produces one of the world’s finest Cabernet Sauvignon wines. Rutherford is an American Viticultural Area (AVA) encircling a small town named after Thomas Rutherford who in the mid-1800’s was the first to take viticulture and winemaking seriously in the Napa Valley. Perhaps it was an attempt to please his in-laws who generously gifted him 1,040 acres on his wedding day.

Rutherford town might be named after this early pioneer, but it is Georges de Latour who put Rutherford’s name on the enological map. In 1900, de Latour established a small winery, which he named Beaulieu meaning “beautiful place” in de Latour’s native French language. Setting out to make the finest Cabernet Sauvignon in California, he hired the now legendary winemaker André Tchelistcheff, a Russian immigrant widely regarded as being one of the most influential forces in the success of Napa Valley. It was Tchelistcheff, who in his heavily accented speech said, “It takes Rutherford dust to grow great Cabernet”. Beaulieu Vineyards remains Rutherford’s flagship winery today.

The idea of dirt being an integral aspect of wine quality is certainly not new. French wineries have been throwing dirt into their marketing campaigns for centuries, though they use the more stylish term “terroir.” As with most terroir proponents, Rutherford producers insist that their special dust isn’t simply gravel, sand and gritty loam. The concept is intended to comprise soil, air, water, drainage, climate and weather – all the growing conditions that produce grape characteristics unique to a site. Rutherford dust is a California terroir.

Rutherford is a small AVA at about 6,700 acres (2,711 hectares). Because it is positioned at Napa Valley’s widest point, Rutherford vines spend more time basking in the sun than other Napa AVA’s, thus its reputation for ripe and densely textured wines. As with much of California, Rutherford’s hot days are followed by cool nights. The heat of an average summer day might drop 6 °Celsius once the sun sets, which is why Californians favor dressing in layers. Cool nighttime temperatures are integral to Rutherford’s wine quality as the chilly evenings preserve the natural acidity important to wine balance. Rutherford’s summer months are dry as a bone. Their rainy season is mostly in the winter months and is about 26-36 inches (660-914 mm) per annum, which is the equivalent of a typical Hong Kong September or October.

Wine collectors will recognize the Rutherford Dust members as they are some of California’s finest producers, such as Caymus, Conn Creek, Flora Springs, Merryvale, Peju, Quintessa, Staglin, Rutherford Ranch, Beaulieu and Niebaum-Coppola, which is owned by film producer Francis Ford-Coppola. These highly regarded producers do not limit themselves to providing pleasure for our palates, however. Eager to preserve their unique micro-climate, the Rutherford Dust Society has formed an ancillary committee to manage and restore the Napa River to a healthy state. The group is called the Rutherford Dust Restoration Team (RDRT), colloquially known as “our dirt.” It seems throwing dirt around is fashionable everywhere given that we’re spending an awful lot of money boosting the dirt levels in our harbor. Perhaps we Hongkongers could establish “our hurt”? Responsible Harbour Restoration Team?

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