I love Napa and its wines, but the bits of it that are truly dear to my heart tend to be off the beaten path, away from the big shiny wineries that front the main roads, with parking lots big enough for tour buses.
Finding the “down home” bits of Napa has become harder and harder, but thankfully not impossible. It is still easy, with a little sleuthing, to track down tiny producers that cling to their little vineyards, making small quantities of good wine, and selling them for a reasonable price.
Often, these last bastions of down-to-earth winemaking and hospitality in the valley are hold outs — families that have been there for decades. In many cases, the family began by selling their grapes to others, and then eventually decided to put their own name on the label.
Ruston Family Vineyards is a great example of just such a small operation. The Ruston family arrived in Napa 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 to make their own.
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. The first few vintages were made by Pam Starr, and a few later vintages by Philippe Melka, but the current winemaker is Julien Fayard, who spent time as Melka’s assistant before consulting with Ruston.
I don’t know the total case production for Ruston, but the family doesn’t make a lot of wine. They buy some grapes from vineyards in Napa and in Sonoma’s Alexander Valley, and make six or eight wines with some consistency. Other than the winemaking duties John and his wife Janet handle just about everything with the winery, which is presumably why their web site hasn’t been updated for the last ten years. It’s all they can do to get the wines to market. Should you ever make an appointment to taste the wines, you’ll likely end up tasting at their dining room table, as they don’t own a tasting room.
I’ve noticed some variability in the winemaking of Ruston’s wines over the years, and while always competent, in recent vintages they seem to have swung heavily towards more use of oak or perhaps just heavier toasting. At least that’s how they taste to me — increasingly driven by wood, rather than fruit. This is not inherently a bad thing, but it’s not particularly pleasing to my palate.
This particular wine, named after John’s Spanish-speaking mother who was given the nickname “La Maestra — the teacher” by their vineyard workers, definitely gets the balance between wood and fruit much closer to the ideal. It stood head and shoulders above the other Ruston wines in 2009, and is a real winner. It’s a blend of Cabernet and Merlot, with some other Bordeaux grape varieties thrown in, though I’m not entirely sure which ones.
If you’re looking for distinctive, small production Napa wines, you’ll do well to keep your eye out for bottles with Ruston’s name on them, and their elegant and distinctive watercolor labels with grape tendrils.
Full disclosure: I received this wine as a press sample.
Dark ruby in color, this wine smells of cherry, tobacco, and cola with a hint of green herbs and wet dirt. In the mouth, wonderfully balanced flavors of cherry, cocoa powder, tobacco, and cedar meld beautifully under a fleece blanket of soft and supple tannins. New oak is present but quite understated, lending a smoky quality that lingers through the finish. The wine has a cool poise, and tastes a degree or so lower than its 14.7% alcohol.
I’d drink this wine with prime rib and be very, very happy.
Overall Score: Between 9 and 9.5
How much?: $50
This wine is available for purchase on the Internet.