2001 Ruston Family Vineyards Cabernet, St. Helena, Napa

There still are bits of authentic Napa valley tucked into the side valleys and nooks and crannies of a valley that is increasingly dominated by grand architecture, big companies, and industrial size wine facilities. Invariably these last bastions of down-to-earth winemaking and hospitality are hold outs — families that have been there for decades and who still cling to their family land, working it as they always have done, refusing to sell out to the suits that come knocking.

It’s odd that St. Helena, arguably the yuppie epicenter of the valley should play host to more than a few of these small family wine enterprises. I would expect that’s due to its history as one of the older towns in Napa, and would naturally have been a place near which families would settle themselves after the depression.

The Ruston family arrived in 1941 and promptly established themselves as growers of prunes and walnuts. Not much changed for several decades, other than the normal cycles of the seasons, kids being born and folks getting old. In the late 1970s, however, the fruit orchards were clearly no longer a source of viable income, and like many families, the Rustons turned to the grape business. Lorraine Ruston planted grapes, mostly Merlot and Cabernet, which the family sold to Merryvale and Havens throughout the 1980’s until her son John and his wife Janet decided, as many families who get their start in winegrowing do, to make their own wine.

From their 4 acre vineyard on the west side of the valley which slopes up towards the Mayacamas Mountains, the Rustons began making several small production wines in the late 1990s, with their first commercial release in 1996 I believe.

Ruston Family Vineyards is an example of a small label which actually does own vineyards in the valley, they’re not big enough to have a proper tasting room. Should you manage to get an appointment with John and Janet to taste their wines, it’s like to be over their dining room table.

Despite their small size, the Rustons have, smartly, gone in for some heavyweight talent in the winemaking department. Their 1999 to 2001 vintages, which includes this wine, were made by Philippe Melka, the Bordeaux-trained winemaker who has been consulting for some time with Napa’s biggest name wineries, including Bryant Family, Harlan, Vineyard 29, Oriel Wines, Lail, Quintessa, and Hundred Acre. His place was taken in 2001 by Joshua Krupp whose background includes Fisher Vineyards and Paul Hobbs as well as Michel Chapoutier in the Rhone Valley.

Ruston currently produces several Bordeaux style red blends, a Sauvignon Blanc, a Cabernet Franc, a Merlot and a dry Semillon, in addition to this Cabernet (which actually has about 21% Merlot and 2% Cabernet Franc in it). This wine is sourced from four small vineyards in and around St. Helena.

Tasting Notes:
A bright medium ruby in the glass, this wine has a soft and delicious nose of cherry, mocha, vanilla and black cherry syrup. In the mouth it is soft and supple with a very nice mouthfeel. Medium bodied with a nice acid balance and very soft tannins, it has primary flavors of bing cherries, a bit of cola, and a hint of nutmeg, as it pushes towards a moderate finish with notes of chocolate. This is a lighter style of Cabernet for Napa Valley, with slightly lower alcohol and softer flavors that make it very pleasant to drink.

Food Pairing:
Because this wine is a bit more delicate and pretty than the traditional bombastic big Cabernets that live nearby, I suggest slightly lighter fare like rosemary and garlic veal chops with grilled mushroom relish and grilled artichokes.

Overall Score: 9

How much?: $38

This wine is readily available for purchase on the Internet.