Vintage Report: 2015 Rutherford District Cabernet Sauvigon

by Fred Swan - Guest Blogger

Daybreak at Frog's Leap Winery

The Rutherford Dust Society conducted their annual AVA tasting and vintage review on July 11. The event highlights a soon-to-be-released vintage, in this case 2015. As always, I was among the select writers given the opportunity to taste through 12 of the wines blind to focus on vintage realities rather than brand expectation.

The tasting seminar was led by renowned wine writer and education Karen MacNeil. Also on the panel to describe the vintage and answer questions were four people with extensive, long-term experience in the AVA:

Sara Fowler - winemaker at Peju and a 19-year veteran of the Rutherford district

Lauren Leeds Pesch—a Rutherford-based vineyard consultant specializing in organic and dry-farm viticulture

Emma Swain—CEO of St. Supery Estate Vineyards and Winery

Regina Weinstein—director of marketing at Honig Vineyard and Winery, where she’s worked for 17 years

Davey Piña, president of the Rutherford Dust Society and co-owner of Piña Vineyard Management, and Joel Aiken, proprietor/winemaker of Aiken Wines and former winemaker for BV, were also on hand to field questions and add their perspectives.

About the Rutherford District AVA

The Rutherford District AVA of Napa Valley consists of 6,840 total acres with 4,731 dedicated to vineyards. The AVA includes 48 wineries and 229 vineyard owners. Cabernet Sauvignon occupies 67% of Rutherford’s vineyard land [2,928 acres]. The next most-planted grape is Sauvignon Blanc, accounting for only 476 acres.

Rutherford District may be the most-recognized AVA within Napa Valley. Among its famed wineries and vineyards are Inglenook, Beaulieu Vineyards (BV), Caymus, Frog’s Leap, Quintessa, Bosché, Sycamore, Morisoli, and Beckstoffer Georges III.

About the 2015 Vintage

2015 was another dry year for Napa Valley. Total rainfall was roughly 13,” about a third of what used to be considered average. And, as typical for a Mediterranean climate, almost all the precipitation came during winter. Just two inches fell during the growing season, mostly in April but with a trace in May. Most growers irrigate as needed, so drought didn’t impact the crop much. And there was enough moisture for some deep-rooted, old vine, dry-farmed vineyards to make it through too.

There were only a few days during the growing season on which temperatures exceeded 100 degrees. But the mercury topped 90 degrees on more than a quarter of the days in June through September. Only on a handful of days did it fail to reach 80.

In such vintages, moisture-driven threats, such as rot and mildew, are not a factor. Instead, the challenge is inhibiting sunburn and raisining, and to ensure grapes reach phenolic ripeness before sugar accumulation makes harvest necessary.

Bud break for Cabernet Sauvignon came in mid-March. The early start and dry, warm growing season led to an early harvest. Picking for Cabernet Sauvignon began in late July and was complete by the end of September.

Overall, the growers of Rutherford appear to have succeeded in working with the vintage to produce wines of high quality. They are certainly ripe, structured, and potent, but dried fruit flavors don’t predominate. The tannins are substantial and very firm upon first tasting, but they soften nicely with 30 minutes of air. And, since most of these wines are several months to a year from release, they will be even more approachable by the time they reach consumers.

Most of the wines will benefit from some further bottle-aging under good cellar conditions. The wines will soften and gain some complexity. With just moderate acidity though, they aren’t built for extremely long aging. I recommend a drinking window of 2020-2033.

Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon

Twelve 2015 Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon Evaluated Blind (in order tasted)

2015 Conn Creek Cabernet Sauvignon Hozhoni Vineyard, Rutherford, Napa Valley
Ripe black currant, candied cherry, dark spices and oak aromas. Medium-plus body with plenty of very fine, slippery tannins along with some grainier tannins that will soften with time. Intense flavors of black cherry, syrupy black currant and dark chocolate.
100% Cabernet Sauvignon from northeastern Rutherford District. 15.0% alc.

2015 Round Pond Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford, Napa Valley
The nose of jammy black currant and dark spice is reserved at first, but builds intensity with air. The palate is dense, chewy and ripe-fruited with medium-plus body and very fine, well-integrated tannins that gain firmness on the finish. Very good, but wants time to gain complexity.
98% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Petit Verdot from the Rutherford District valley floor.

2015 Sequoia Grove Cabernet Sauvignon Tonella Vineyard, Rutherford, Napa Valley
The nose is jammy black currant and black cherry with accents of dusty wood and spice. The flavors are less ripe, showing black raspberry and prominent herbal spice. Medium-plus body and juicy with fine, grainy tannins that have some grip. Long finish. The current vintage is 2013.
96% Cabernet Sauvgnon, 4% Cabernet Franc from gravelly soil in the center of the AVA

2015 St. Supery Rutherford Estate Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford, Napa Valley
Attractive notes of black cherry compote, eucalyptus and mint on the nose with jammy black and red fruit and spice on the intensely flavorful palate. This wine is already approachable with fine, toothsome tannins and a long finish.
83% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Merlot, 8% Petit Verdot. 14.5% alc.

2015 Piña Cabernet Sauvignon Firehouse Vineyard, Rutherford, Napa Valley
This full-bodied wine with fine, well-integrated tannins was one of my favorites from the tasting. The nose offers ripe black fruit and a melange of spices, The palate has an even more complex, delciious range of spice and herbal flavors.
100% Cabernet Sauvignon. 15.0% alc.

2015 S. R. Tonella Cellars Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford, Napa Valley
This was another standout and very distinct in style from the Sequoia Grove wine made from the same vineyard. They both share black cherry jam, but there’s more density to the fruit here and no herbal aspect. Despite the fruit intensity, which was explosive after 30 minutes of air, the S. R. Tonella showed nuance and very attractive notes of baking spice and mocha.
100% Cabernet Sauvignon

2015 Freemark Abbey Cabernet Sauvignon Bosché Vineyard, Rutherford, Napa Valley
A burly wine among burly wines. Ripe black fruit, heavily accented by dried currant leaf, spice, and mint, show on both nose and palate. The tannins are substantial and quite firm, but fine in texture. Unlike some others of the vintage, but typical for the vineyard, this wine will age and improve for 20+ years.
92% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Merlot. 14.5% alc.

2015 Matthew Bruno Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford, Napa Valley
More approachable out of the bottle than most in the tasting, this wine shows a full spectrum of Cabernet Sauvignon flavor. Blackberry jam, spice, mocha, coca cola, oak and spice appear on both nose and palate. There’s a touch of sourness to the fruit on the palate, along with refreshing acidity.
100% Cabernet Sauvignon. 14.9% alc.

2015 Beaulieu Vineyards Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford, Napa Valley
Deep ruby-purple in the glass with aromas of blackberry jam, dark spice, carob, wheat flakes, and oak. The medium-plus bodied palate is intense and long with flavors of dark spice, jammy black fruit, unsweetened dark chocolate, and charred oak. Tannins are fine and gently firm. 95% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Petit Verdot. 15.0% alc.

2015 Mersenne Cabernet Sauvignon Dalla Gasperina, Rutherford, Napa Valley
Hedonisitic and particularly approachable with fine, slightly grippy tannins and very rich flavors of raisined black currant, sour cherry, spice, and chocolate.
96% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Cabernet Franc. 14.9%

2015 Alpha Omega Cabernet Sauvignon
A strong core of sweet, ripe black fruit a a thread of acidity balance the copious tannins which are very fine and chalky with some grip. Powerful with a relaxed pace; the attack, mid-palate and finish are all long.
100% Cabernet Sauvignon. 14.8% alc.

2015 Hewitt Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford, Napa Valley
Full-bodied with loads of velvety tannins and ripe black currant. Notes of paraffin wax, spice, oak, sweet herb and spicy eucalyptus add interest. Long, warming finish.
96% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Petit Verdot. 14.9% alc.

2015 Provenance Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford, Napa Valley
Aromas of raisin and dry leaves transition to sweet and herbal flavors of ripe dark fruit, raspberry, cherry, spice and eucalyptus. Full-bodied in the mouth with very fine, grippy tannins. Long, warming finish.

2015 Frank Family Cabernet Sauvignon Winston Hill, Rutherford, Napa Valley
Full-bodied and extremely long with very fine, grippy structure balancing ultra-ripe, juicy black cherry and berries, garnished with spice, bay leaf and cocoa.
81% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Merlot, 6% Cabernet Franc, 6% Petit Verdot. 14.5% alc.

Notes on Other 2015 Rutherford Wines

A panel of Rutherford wine industry people blind tasted all wines submitted and chose the twelve above for inclusion in the seminar. Many more wines were available for tasting by media and trade after the seminar. Overall, the additional Cabernet followed in the same vein as the seminar wines, but will a little less intensity of fruit and somewhat more of the spicy herbal notes, which tend to dissipate with three-to-five years of bottle aging.

Of those wines, the 2015 12C Beckstoffer Georges III, Chaix Wines Rutherford, and Tres Sabores Perspective, and Freemark Abbey Sycamore Vineyard were particularly attractive.

Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon in the Market

While most of the 2015 Rutherford Cabernet have not been released yet, JJ Buckley has a couple of highly rated ones on hand. Antonio Galloni called the 2015 Frog’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon gorgeous, giving it 94 points. The 2015 Nickel and Nickel Cabernet Sauvignon C. C. Ranch garnered broad acclaim too.

There are also a number of well-reviewed Rutherford Cabernet Sauvigion from 2013 and 2014 in stock too.

JJ Buckley guest blogger Fred Swan is a San Francisco-based wine writer, educator, and authority on California wines and wineries. His writing  appears in The Tasting Panel, SOMM Journal,,,, and his own site, FredSwan.Wine (formerly NorCalWine). He teaches at the San Francisco Wine School. Fred’s certifications include WSET Diploma, Certified Sommelier, California Wine Appellation Specialist, Certified Specialist of Wine, French Wine Scholar, Italian Wine Professional, Napa Valley Wine Educator and Level 3 WSET Educator. He's twice been awarded a fellowship by the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers.

Feature photo courtesy of Frog's Leap Winery Photo credit: Thomas Heisner