Rutherford Dust Never Sleeps

God. (Photo courtesy Pope Benedict XVI)

‘Dust you are, and to dust shall you return.’  – Genesis 3:19

Open letter to God:  In the meantime, can we borrow some to make Rutherford cabernet?

And although Robert Mondavi and Louis Martini might disagree (in spirit, of course, since nowadays, they’re spirits) when I say God, I don’t mean André Tchelistcheff.

The same Tchelistcheff, Beaulieu Vineyard’s larger-than-life winemaker for thirty years, who once declared:

 “It takes Rutherford dust to grow great cabernet..”

André Tchelistcheff. Despite the face and accent, he is different from Bela Lugosi.

Star Dust

As a fellow wine weasel, you should remember Tchelistcheff’s name whether or not you can pronounce it, since he’s credited with having defined the style that we now recognize as Napa Valley cab: Big-bellied fruit-bombs; exotic, spicy; generally denser and sweeter than their Bordeaux counterparts which had hitherto been the world’s benchmark.

In 1938, Tchelistcheff teamed up with Georges de Latour, who’d been crushing grapes in Napa since the nineteenth century.

And That’s When The Real History of New World Wine Began… 

Tchelistcheff has been called The Godfather of Cab, the Dean of American Enologists and Андрей Челищев (that’s Russian–I don’t know what it means either) , so it’s odd to consider that his glory years as a winemaker were probably the dullest ones of his life.  Born to Muscovite aristocrats in 1901, his family became outlaws under the Bolsheviks, who burned their ancestral seat and hanged their hunting hounds; in retaliation, Tchelistcheff joined the anti-Communist White Army during the Russian Civil War and was machine-gunned on some forsaken Crimean battlefield and left for dead.  He recovered and went to wine school,Add an Image but somehow, yummy cab does not appear to be the highlight of his resume.

But Unto Dust I Will Return…

In 1994, at the cellar age of 92, Tchelistcheff departed for the celestial tasting room (I’d say he bit the dust if I was that kinda rude), leaving behind legion of Rutherfordophiles—especially, a gang of oddball, righteous cab crusaders called the Rutherford Dust Society.  Among their action-items for the ‘09/’10 engineering calendar is a massive restoration project centered on 4.5 miles of the Napa River as it wends through the heart of the Rutherford AVA.

Despite the bureaucracy inherent in enterprises relying on boards of directors, subcommittees and regulatory reviews, the Rutherford Dust Restoration Team (RDRT or ‘our dirt’—how cute is that??!) is moving ahead full-steam.  According to Project Director Dr. Lisa Micheli: “Working with Rutherford growers and vintners on this project has been a terrific experience! They understand the need to give and take when working with natural systems. Over 18 acres of productive vineyard has been generously re-dedicated to the river corridor to enhance its ecological health. This is a gift of a living river for future generations.”

The course of that re-dedication requires the bulldozing and removal of many, many truckloads of… you guessed it: Rutherford dust.  And tons of the foo-foo flakes responsible for Tchelistcheff’s treasured terroir—rootstock-candy for every Rutherford multi-digit cab you can name—Caymus, Frog’s Leap, Niebaum Coppola, Quintessa—are being offered to you, the aspiring winemaker living on deficient dust for the remarkably low price of… zero.

How can this be?  How can Gretchen Hayes soliciting dust-bunny-wannabes to come ‘n’ get it, as much as you want while supplies last?  I don’t pretend to know the inner workings of the dirt cartels, but I do know that I’m always seeing billboards reading ‘Fill Dirt Wanted’ or ‘Fill Dirt Available’ and wondering why these factions can’t figure out how to get together without all the visual pollution.

What I can shed some light on, however, is the operative, ground-level question:

What’s in This Magic Powder, Anyway?

If I said ‘sediments from the Franciscan Assemblage’, you might want a bit more; so, the Rutherford AVA is a narrow band of alluvial soil stretching from St. Helena to Yountville, and it’s primarily built of gravel, loam and sand loaded with volcanic deposits and dead fish fossils, which all combine to create the right mix of fertility, drainage and soil chemistry to nature/nurture grape vines.  Above the ground, climatic conditions make the appellation ideal for cabernet in particular, and the entire ecosystem is, therefore, among the world’s preeminent sites for this noble varietal.

Now, as I mentioned, I’m no economist, but I am aware of terms like ‘loess leader’, wherein you get some schmuck with a semi to come haul away your free dirt and hope he leaves with a few bottles of cab, too.

But I think they are missing the Good Ship Capitalism on this one.  I’ve been to the Jordan River and I’ve been to Lourdes, and in both places I prayed my toochis off while bathing in the sacred soup—and though I am still waiting for Nelly Furtado to call me for that night on the town, I left both spots with a five-dollar flagon of holy water, which I proudly display to this day.

Dixie Cup stemware for fine wines

'I Sink, Therefore I am'

So, I think Dixie Cups full of Rutherford Dust sold at roadside stands up and down the St. Helena highway would be a sure-fire tourist draw, and the proceeds could be used to build a massive statue like that giant Jesus in Monroe, Ohio—only this one to honor the late, great André Tchelistcheff.

And consider this: if you happen to believe all that Biblical fiddle-dee-dee about ‘unto dust you will return’, you might just have a little snort of old André right there in your souvenir flask.

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One Response to Rutherford Dust Never Sleeps

  1. george Kaplan says:

    Not to blunder into seriousness here, but big-bellied fruit bombs are exactly what the Andre-era( which started around 1940 and included the Daniels era at Inglenook, the Robert era at Mondavi and the Joe era at Heitz) BV wines were not. They tasted, and especially felt, a lot like Bordeaux,
    especially with some years on them. Nowadays it takes some doing to discern any dust at all in the overgrown, overalcohol, overextracted, syrupy prunefests now the Napa standard, notably at BV.
    By contrast, the Stags Leap wine cellars cabernets, which you have justly praised, still have what Winiarski liked to call the fire in the soil that makes that part of Napa a nice place to visit.

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