The phrase "Rutherford dust" was allegedly coined by legendary BV winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff, and is often associated with descriptions of wines from the Napa Valley region.

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BEING THE proud owner of a Northwest wine palate, with a personal inclination toward European elegance over sheer fruit-bomb power, I have struggled to understand how the winemakers in California — particularly Napa — define their terroir.

Terroir is an untranslatable French term that is kicked around by winemakers like an errant soccer ball. But for you and me it basically signifies that in someone’s opinion a certain place, growing certain grapes, delivers certain desirable, identifiable and somewhat unique flavors in its best wines. Terroir, simply put, is the Holy Grail of winemaking.

But there is a problem. Modern winemaking practices emphasize evenly ripened fruit at high sugar levels, berry-by-berry sorting at crush, designer yeasts, added nutrients and extended aging in new oak barrels. I have come to believe that in combination, all these things may deliver scrumptious, jammy, toasty, full-bodied wines. But they obliterate terroir.

Nonetheless, I try to maintain an open mind. The Rutherford Dust Society is a winery association dedicated to promoting Napa’s Rutherford appellation (a subset of the larger Napa Valley AVA). The society organizes an annual trade tasting called A Day in the Dust. Held last July at Rubicon Estate, some 38 wineries poured more than 70 wines. I was not able to attend the event, but was offered a representative sampling of wines to taste for myself.

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According to the society’s website ( the Rutherford Viticultural Area is approximately six square miles, beginning just south of Cakebread Cellars along Highway 29, and ending at Zinfandel Lane, 3.3 miles to the north. It reaches east across the valley two miles at its widest point from Mount St. John on the west to the Vaca Mountain Range on the east. Among the more famous producers within the appellation are Beaulieu Vineyards, Conn Creek, Flora Springs, Rubicon Estate, Quintessa and Staglin Family Vineyard.

The phrase “Rutherford dust” was allegedly coined by legendary BV winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff, and is often associated with descriptions of wines from the region. What exactly is meant by that, I wondered? And does it have something to do with terroir?

When the wines arrived, I added a few other bottles to see if I could find some terroir lurking among them. All were from the 2008 vintage and ranged in price from $45 to $200. Not your everyday supermarket specials. Suffice it to say that they were all good, though few reached the level of greatness that I would expect from a comparable assortment of Washington cabernets.

Some put an emphasis on sweet, juicy fruit; some on expensive barrel flavors. A Sullivan Vineyards Reserve ($100) was especially deep and dense, while a toasty Monticello Vineyards Tietjen Vineyard bottling ($65) was the favorite of some visiting friends with whom I tasted. If I have a complaint it is that too many of the wines seemed to show a chalky finish, perhaps from unresolved acidification.

At least one writer who did attend the event — Mike Dunne — noted in his review that although he found the wines firm, tangy, “models of equilibrium,” he couldn’t find any trace of Rutherford dust.

I think it is there, at least in some sense, and pertains to the fine-grained tannins that are polished and firm, but have just a hint of granularity that enhances the mouthfeel.

Is that the dust that Tchelistcheff was contemplating? Perhaps. Or maybe the famously garrulous and often inscrutable winemaker was simply acknowledging that there was something special about the soils in the area. In other words, terroir.

The revised second edition of Paul Gregutt’s “Washington Wines & Wineries” is now in print. His blog is Email:

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