The Exquisite Cabernets and Spirit of Leslie Rudd

When Leslie Rudd died last May at the age of 76, I hope a soft wind blew down the rocky face of the Vaca Mountains and nestled into the tender curves of his vineyard below.  Indeed, it must have happened. For standing in that vineyard now, how else is one to explain the feeling of being wrapped in a gentle soulfulness? It’s perhaps not an exaggeration to say that vineyard was Leslie.

I remember, decades ago, the first time I saw the corner of Oakville Crossroad and the Silverado Trail. It wasn’t Rudd Estate back then, but rather a weary patch of vines that looked like bedraggled soldiers coming home from the war. The vivid auburn red soil was there. Beams of sunlight bounced down from the canyon above just as they do today. But the vineyard itself was a neglected mess.

For Leslie, I suspect it was love at first sight.

Over the next 22 years, Leslie Rudd created one of the most fantastic (and serene) vineyards in the Napa Valley. His wines were “of the neighborhood”—a neighborhood that included Screaming Eagle, Dalla Valle, Gargiulo, and Bond St. Eden, among other top estates.

Leslie was a friend, and I tasted wines at Rudd every year, often several times a year. I have always adored their minerally bright sauvignon blanc (made mostly in older oak and concrete eggs). But on a recent visit, it was the red wines that I found especially stellar. (More on which in a moment).

Leslie died of cancer and during the final years of his illness, he taught and guided his young daughter Samantha, preparing her to take over the estate with the help of estate director Oscar Henquet and winegrower Frederick Ammons.

The three of them have helped the wines move to the next electron level of quality and helped the estate to become biodynamic.

“Leslie considered an estate a place where you and you alone must do the work,” said Oscar. “For us, that means we cannot give the hard work to others to do. We must all get up at three in the morning to steep the [biodynamic] teas and spray them on the vineyard. We must all stuff and bury the cow horns. It’s a mindset. In biodynamics it’s said the best fertilizer for any farm is the farmer’s own two feet.”

As for the wines, the 2014 Rudd Estate ($250) red (mostly cabernet) had a texture so sumptuous it was like melted chocolate and yet it was uncannily fresh, vivid and pure at the same time. The 2014 Samantha’s Cabernet Sauvignon ($175) had long swaths of violet blue fruit and a sensational structure.

Both wines were so textural, they could make you feel momentarily mindless.

Said Frederick, “In Burgundy, it’s often thought that a wine’s signature is its texture, and that texture is what terroir gives you. Smell and flavor are more changeable over time.”

Oakville isn’t Burgundy of course. But the Rudd wines are languorously textural and the estate is, in many ways, not unlike a Burgundian clos: a walled vineyard; a vineyard with a certain spirituality; a vineyard that people care for by hand with near obsessive passion. Or maybe compassion.

There is no question that in this vineyard and in these wines, Leslie Rudd’s spirit is alive.

See also my article on Rudd Estate and Leslie Rudd in the upcoming August/September issue of Somm Journal.

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