Sunday, July 29, 2018

Team at Rudd Oakville Estate Ups Its Game: Organic Vines, Stunning Wines

Thousands and thousands of sunflowers line the road, summer's golden glory on display. Beside them, sheep graze (year round), amidst vast green swirls of sorghum. A very big American flag on a tall pole waves in the breeze. Could this really be Napa? Oakville?

Right there in plain view lies one of the valley's treasures, created by a successful and magnanimous man who had a vision, an empire and a long term view.

It was Leslie Rudd's dream - from the start - to have a multigenerational family winery. A trip to Haut Brion at age 21 inspired him to think in generational terms. With his death in May of this year (from esophageal cancer), his dream has become a reality as his daughter Samantha Rudd, 30, and the mother of a new baby (named Rudd), now takes over the reigns of the family's Oakville estate winery (purchased by Rudd in 1996).

Leslie Rudd, a successful businessman, got into the distribution business at an early age in Wichita, where he expanded from his family's business into regions far beyond Kansas. Over the course of his lifetime, he bought and sold food and wine companies, creating an empire.

His businesses included the upscale grocer Dean & DeLuca, the 30 brand wine company Vintage Wine Estates, a kosher winery (Covenant Winery, which he kickstarted), and other ventures.

Rudd originally purchased the property that became Rudd Oakville Esate in 1996 when it was called the Girard Winery (a brand Vintage Wine Estates has recently relaunched).

Dedicated to preserving Napa's history, he also restored Edge Hill, (video), planting a new vineyard there with a field blend of varietals from the past, restored and reopened Oakville Grocery, and launched PRESS Napa Valley restaurant, an eatery with a wine list emphasizing glorious, older vintages of Napa Valley wines.

He was unique, even among Napa Valley's business community, in his passion for the past.

He also funded he Rudd Center for Professional Wine Studies at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone and his own Rudd Foundation, providing scholarships in Kansas, support for Jewish charities, and the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at UConn.

When he became ill two years ago, he officially passed the baton to his daughter Samantha.


A new direction had already begun by then, with the decision, in 2011 to move toward organic farming and certification and new staff. In 2013 Rudd hired a new Bordeaux trained winemaker - Frederick Ammons - and a year later a new vineyard manager - Macy Stubstad, who graduated from Cornell in viticulture. (She is also one of the organizers of the Organic Winegrowing Conference put on by the Napa Valley Grapegrowers).  The vineyard was converted starting in 2015 and then completed certification in 2018 in Oakville and 2017 on Mount Veeder.

The winery ended its contracts with outside vineyard management companies and started farming solely with an in house crew of 15 that is employed year round (health care and other benefits are included). Stubstad teaches pruning to the crew. "How we prune is the most important stage of the year," she said.

"By integrating the farming, we went from being an estate vineyard - farmed by a vineyard management company - to being an estate winery," said Ammons.

"The wines have only gotten better...We can pick earlier, and there is better balance between sugar/acid ripeness and phenolic ripeness," he continued. "The vines are more balanced...The wines are fresher, with a little bit lower alcohol."

On top of that, there was the organic direction. "Going organic was a no brainer and quite easy," he said.

The team's collaborations are starting to bear fruit in the current releases from the 2014 vintages (and future vintages as well).


Rudd Oakville Estate has 47 acres of planted vines (at the intersection of the Oakville Cross Road and Silverado Trail, on a 55 acre parcel). This part of Oakville could be described as the Beverly Hills of Napa vineyards. Rudd's neighbors are Plumpjack, Dalla Valle, Bond St. Eden and Screaming Eagle. 

Purchased in 1998, Rudd's Mount Veeder estate consists of 17 acres of vines plus Rudd Farm. White and red Bordeaux grapes are planted here. The vegetables go to PRESS Napa Valley, a Rudd restaurant next to Dean and Deluca in St. Helena.

The decision to not only farm the vineyard organically but also become certified was made, according to Ammons, "to show that the winery is really doing it."

The two sites give Ammons a big toolbox to play with, along with new winemaking tools he brought into the winery.

Vine age is also contributing to wine quality, as most of the Oakville vines are now 20-21 years old, an age when Cabernet vines start to express themselves more fully.

In the vineyards, life really changed when the winery got a new Clemens [a type of plow], said Stubstad. "It was a game changer," she said. Stubstad had the Clemens retrofitted to be two-sided, meaning one pass can trim the weeds on both sides of the row, reducing compaction. (Rudd's vine spacing is 4 by 4 with a high density of 2,700 vines per acre.)

"Our tolerance changed, too," she said. "A weed by a trunk is not the end of the world."

Macy Stubstad, vineyard manager at Rudd, with her sheep and sorghum;
some of the land is allowed to lie fallow to replenish itself, a sign of
more patient and generous farming practices 
The winery was also able to cut down on the number of sprays by more than 75% after implementing spore monitoring and tracking conditions more carefully.

"We used to go by the label rates, which say spray every 7-10 days," Stubstad said. (Vineyard management companies also get paid by the number of sprays). "But we started to realize that there was so much less mildew pressure than we used to think." Spraying decreased from 13-14 per year to 3-4 per year, she said.

"We've stopped using fertilizer - we haven't use any for three years now. We use home brewed compost tea and botanical teas," she added.

The winery is also minimizing tillage in favor of crimping, a technique that reduces soil disturbance but cripples weeds. It has also moved toward using misters to combat extreme heat events. "They use only 7 percent as much water as irrigation," said Stubstad, adding that she's learned not to overpamper the vines.

Stubstad has two completely different sites to manage - Oakville, on the hot valley floor, and Mount Veeder, at 1,600 feet in a much cooler area - according to what's best for each.

"What works in one vineyard doesn't necessarily work in the other vineyard. They have their own cultural and climatic demands," she said.


In the winemaking department, Ammons also manages two different sites - both on the Oakville property. "We have two different soil types here," he said. "One is the volcanic blocks by the road. The other is the alluvial fan...That's the magic of Rudd - the marriage of the two soils domains in the bottle."

In addition to managing the two soil types from the Oakville property, he makes two estate wines.

To enhance the flavors in each, he created new fermentation vessels - in two different shapes - for the the two different soil types, explaining that each shape of vessel produces a different type of extraction.

Ammons with his two different shapes of fermentation tanks
The tank with the larger bottom is more mechanical in extraction; he uses this for the volcanic blocks. The tank with the smaller bottom is more fluid, he says, based on infusion. It's better for grapes from the alluvial blocks. He also has terracotta amphora from Italy for some of the reds.

The whites are fermented in concrete eggs and tanks. With the help of a French consultant, Ammons has concrete tanks constructed that are lined with aggregate (not just cement) from the estate, enhancing the terroir driven influences in the wine even more.

The vintage doors to the winery were sourced
 from a former ice warehouse in New Jersey
Howard Backen designed the winery; the surrounding gardens (not pictured) were
created by the legendary Canadian designer Thomas Hobbs.

On his 21st vintage as a winemaker, Ammons says he has worked with grapes from every appellation in Napa. He's lived through the generation that has moved from preferring maximum ripeness (aka the Parker era) to one based on optimal ripeness. A fan of Burgundy (but one who trained in Bordeaux), his tastes run to more nuanced wines and winemaking.

From the beginning, Rudd sought to integrate Bordeaux sensibilities at his Oakville estate, hiring David Ramey as his first winemaker. Ramey had worked with Christian Mouiex from Petrus to start the Mouiex's Napa winery Dominus.

In presenting the wines in the Howard Backen designed tasting room (cum boathouse) overlooking the pond and gardens, Ammons prefers to sequence the tasting in the opposite order most wineries would present them - starting first with the estate's top wine, $250 Estate (ageworthy), followed by $175 Samantha's (drink now but better of course with age), and then capping off the flight with the $80 Sauvignon Blanc (from Mount Veeder), which feels like it is from a different planet compared to the first two (which it is).

The Estate Red is a different blend each year, and sourced solely from the Oakville estate. While the current release is based on Cabernet Sauvignon, in other years it has beed based on Merlot. It's designed to reflect the terroir of the estate.

The 2014 is predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon (77%) with Cab Franc (15%), Petit Verdot (5%) and Malbec (3%). The wine is aged in French oak (74% new).

Though all of the wines are built for aging, the Samantha's can be enjoyed now.

I was especially impressed with the aromatics on the Estate. At first, I put my nose in the glass, and then withdrew it, only to linger just above the glass. The nose is that big...and sumptuous. The old wine tasting note trope that the wine "leaps from the glass" is no trope here. I found that it widened the window of pleasure.

Galloni called it a big departure from previous vintages, writing it's a "hugely promising wine...bursting with energy and class."

The 2014 Samantha's Cabernet Sauvignon is sourced from more of the alluvial soil vines and aged in French oak (86% new).

The Sauvignon Blanc is from a completely different set of soils - tufa (which on Mount Veeder is quite common) and cobbles (another Mount Veeder staple). I'm a fan of White Bordeaux blends and therefore appreciated that this wine's a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Gris and Semillon (16%). The Rudd has softer, fuller flavors than your basic high end Napa SB, which are going for acid. I found the Rudd SB has, to use my new favorite wine descriptor, more pixels.

In some vintages, Rudd also makes 75 cases of a Semillon based blend called Susan's Blanc, which is named for Mrs. Rudd (a serious gardener who works in the garden alongside the hired help and whose exquisite taste led to the selection of Thomas Hobbs in designing Rudd's unique and elegant gardens.)

Currently Rudd Oakville Estate makes just 3,000 cases of wine a year, but Ammons said that will soon change. "We'll be making more estate wine in future years," he said.

Note: Rudd is open to the public for tastings by appointment only. Serious collectors are encouraged.

You can also taste Rudd's wines at PRESS Napa Valley. There, the Samantha's Cabernet is even available by the glass ($35 a glass). 

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