Midpoint in Napa Valley
The Food Soldiers Of Rutherford

By Kenneth Friedenreich

So there I was typing away in my garret one chilly night when my keystroke missed. Instead of “foot soldiers,” I struck the letter “d.” So, like Dr. Fleming, who wanted to make a smoothie and ended up by mistake with penicillin, I invented the food soldier. West Point will never be the same.

A food soldier, it occurred to me, represented a go-to bottle of wine any winemaker with kitchen sense would pair with a favorite meal. The idea is so appealing because the wine projects the character of the dish without itself going AWOL. This is the kind of wine that can come from any region.

What makes the Rutherford wine so distinctive, a growing area of 7,600 acres, with a trade association of 65 grower and vintner members, is first its midpoint placement in the Napa Valley, warm rather than hot, cosseted by marine air, comprised of slopes over here and flat river land over there comes down to grapes, largely Cabernet Sauvignon.

Steve Tonella, president of the eponymous winery who has lived with this territory for several decades, puts the matter in perspective. He told me it’s the acid balance here that thrills him most—that element helping to organize and preserve what’s in the bottle, adding these points:

Rutherford is an appellation within the appellation, which has a diversity of soils, exposure, and orientation that is as complex as Napa Valley.

The pioneers associated with the marquee wineries here such as Beaulieu or Inglenook will figure in any respectable history of the state’s wine industry. Maynard Amarine and Andre Tchelistcheff put the place of origin at the top of making superior wine from varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon. The "dust" is pertinent to the effects on mouthfeel and flavors once the cork pops—chocolate, coffee, and some elusive acidity that encourages cellaring wines from the area.

Visiting Rutherford calls to mind places like the Grill, an industry gathering haunt where every table has several bottles opened at once, a kind of parade ground for growers and winemakers. What we gather here are inspirations that come from the kitchens of those producing these wines. The searching out will improve any round of tastings.

The Rancho Caymus Inn located in the revamped town center is a good place to rusticate as you find your way to a winemaker’s home kitchen or special event. The food soldiers, wherever they march, will help secure a perfect meal.

Food Soldier Wine: PEJU 2008 Reserve Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon
Owners: PEJU Family
Winemaker: Sara Fowler
Recommended pairing: Rack of lamb. Remove most of the fat layer. Season heavily with Lawry's seasoned salt. Cook 30 minutes at 480 degrees, then broil 5 minutes
"I cook almost every night. Have done so my whole life." - Herta Peju

Foot Soldier Wine: Sequoia Grove Winery Cabernet Franc, Tonella Vineyard, Rutherford
Winemaker: Molly Hill
Recommended pairing: Black Cod with beluga lentils, plum sauce, and caramelized fennel and parsnip puree. Chef Britny Maureze created this recipe for Sequoia Grove's Terroir Tasting experience.
"My goal is not only to enhance what's already great about our wines but to challenge the pairing paradigm and encourage others to do the same. Seafood and red wine aren't an obvious fit, but by choosing the right flavors and textures, fish can pair just as well, if not better, than your typical red meat option. Black cod is a decadent fish, providing richness and protein, both essential elements to reigning in youthful tannins. The complex spices, tart plum, and creamy purée bolster layers of earth and toasted barrel, concentrated fruit, and luscious texture." - Chef Britny Maureze

Food Soldier Wine: 2016 Conn Creek Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon
Winemaker: Elizabeth DeLouise-Gant
Recommended pairing: Gnocchi Di Zucca (Gnocchi with Kabocha squash, sage, and Pecorino cheese) Travis Westrope created this pairing for Conn Creek's Anthology Club members.
"It's a simple yet flavorful dish that brings out the black currant and blackberry flavors in the wine." - Chef Travis Westrope

Food Soldier Wine: S. R. Tonella Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford
Owner: Steve Tonella
Recommended pairing: Grilled Herb-Crusted Rack of Lamb with Mint Chimichurri

Food Soldier Wine: Davis Estates 2016 Reserve Sauvignon Blanc, Rutherford
Owner: Mike Davis
Recommended pairing: This 2016 Reserve Sauvignon Blanc from Rutherford glistens with a light straw hue and brilliant clarity. The aromas of lime zest and tropical fruit are bright and vibrant. A soft, rich mouthful opens to a well-balanced acidity that reveals subtle nuances of lime, grapefruit, and pineapple.
"It reminds me of a vacation in a glass, paired perfectly with sunshine, the pool, and good friends." - Mike Davis

These pairings suggest that the varietals featured in the recipes have the mojo and flavor profiles to stand up against savory dishes conceived to show off the virtues of the Rutherford AVA. As a famous general noted centuries ago, armies move on their stomachs. We might add, they prevail at dinner on their palates. Special thank you to the Rutherford Dust Society—who celebrates its 25th anniversary this year—for providing the inspiration.

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