Rutherford Hill Winery (founded 1972) is located about a mile east off of Silverado Trail at the end of the same road that winds past the luxurious Relais & Châteaux Auberge du Soleil hillside resort & spa. Rutherford Hill’s motto is “Life looks better from Rutherford hill” and could easily be “Life looks better from Rutherford Hill drinking Merlot”! This winery is a leader in the development of California planted Merlot and today this variety comprises a large portion of their entire production. Conditions near the winery somewhat resemble Pomerol (the Right Bank in Bordeaux) – a prominent region for growing Merlot among other varieties in France. Besides the winery property, they also own property in Pope Valley to the east (still in Napa County).
Rutherford Hill is one of the older wineries in all of the Napa Valley – having been founded in 1972 (making them among the oldest 30 still-existing wineries in the Napa Valley who have been producing continuously since 1972 or earlier). The winery building was constructed in 1968 by Joseph Phelps of Hensel Phelps Construction Company. The property has had three owners during its lifetime – for a short time the winery was owned and operated by Pillsbury Company (the same company that made the Pillsbury dough-boy famous). They called the winery Souverain of Rutherford.
In 1976, a family with extremely deep roots in the Napa Valley and significant connections and contributions to the Napa wine world, the Jaegers led an investment group and in purchasing the winery and renamed it to Rutherford Hill. Founding winemaker & one of the early partners Phil Baxter was at Rutherford Hill for 10 years. The Jaegers operated the winery for some 20 years (significantly increasing production – the height of the production of Rutherford Hill was around 150,000 cases annually – today they produce about 40,000 cases annually). In 1996 the Jaegers sold the winery to the Terlato family, based near Chicago and still the current owners.
The Terlato family operate a large, historically rich and significant wine focused company (Terlato Wine Group) which includes both winery and vineyard ownership, wine import and export and wine marketing and sales. This multi-generational company imports wines from around the world. Besides Rutherford Hill (their first winery purchase), they also own Chimney Rock Winery, located just to the south of here next to the Silverado Trail, produce a very limited high end wine from Napa Valley called Episode, produce Napa and Sonoma Wines under the Terlato Family Vineyards brand, own Klipson Vineyard in the state of Washington’s Red Mountain AVA, own the majority of Sanford Winery in Lompoc and are partnered in Domaine Terlato & Chapoutier in Australia among many other partnerships, brands and holdings.
Still very much family owned, the company was led by visionary Anthony Terlato for many years (he died in July 2020) and today his sons Bill and John are carrying on the family business. Anthony got his start in the world of wine in 1955 working at his father Salvatore Terlato’s wine & spirits shop in Chicago (opened in 1955) called Leading Liquor Marts and then for his father-in-law Anthony Paterno at Pacific Wine Company. Over the years he has played a prominent role in a number of wine related businesses including wine importing – initially focusing on Italy. Often called the ‘father of Pinot Grigio” Anthony was responsible for introducing many American consumers to this variety for the first time. Although as a side note – separately, David Taub of Taub Family/Palm Bay International, arguably was also responsible for his role in bringing Pinot Grigio to the American market.
A highly recommended read for enthusiasts of Rutherford Hill Winery is Taste, a Life in Wine by Anthony Terlato. He describes his early upbringing, his fierce work ethic supported by strong family ties and his remarkable success and accomplishments in more then 50 years of working in the wine industry. His decisions and timing helped launch Lancers Rosé in Chicago, played an integral part in the success of Samuel Adams, Markham Vineyards and numerous other wineries and brands. And for culinary enthusiasts, this book is sprinkled with select family recipes (Italian cuisine of course).
The Olive Grove
And take note of the olive orchard – the trees look quite old and they are. But unlike many new Napa wineries who bring in old olive trees and replant them on their sites, many of the trees in this grove has been here for more then 100 years old and a number of the trees are original plantings. Visitors can take a stroll through part of the total 6 acre grove using the gravel lined path near the picnic area. This grove contains more then 200 hillside trees and the oil produced from these trees is sold in the tasting room.
And this grove has additional more recent history – Lila Jaeger restored some of the trees and produced her first commercial olive oil from the grove in 1991 under the Jaeger Family Olive oil label. Lila (now deceased) also founded the California Olive Oil Council in 1992. While the Jaeger Family olive oil is no longer produced from this particular grove, their award winning olive oil continues to be produced. So you can see this grove is quite special for a number of reasons.
Rutherford Hill produces a wide variety of wines including their flagship varietal – Merlot, a rosé of Merlot and a reserve Merlot. The limited production Winery Exclusive wines tend to be produced in small quantities, but are also wines from varieties often used in blending such as Petit Verdot, Malbec and Cabernet Franc.
The inception of a wine called Ian Tiago involves an engaging story. Winemaker Marisa Taylor discovered that she was pregnant around the same time as her assistant winemaker at the time, Ana Diogo (who has since gone on to become Director of Winemaking at Artesa Winery). Ana is from Portugal. In a round about way, with encouragement from the Terlato family, both women decided to honor both their sons who were born within weeks of each other – and their respective heritage with a red blend, 50% Cabernet Sauvignon and 50% Malbec. This was a wine that was intended to be made only once – but became popular so now it is produced every year – always the same blend. The first vintage of this wine was in 2009.
The 2016 Rutherford Hill Ian Tago is dark ruby in color; it shows a sweetness of fruit on the bouquet including black cherry and plum. Hints of cedar and a very subtle note of jalapeno pepper. Slightly savory in its aromatics. Very balanced – shall we say, a crowd pleaser. Plush with a suppleness from start to finish. Flavors of licorice and cherry. A hint of vanilla on the back of the palate along with crushed pepper corn. The tannins are well integrated – finer in their feel while still retaining a bit of tightness in their youth.
The 2012 Terlato Family Vineyards Hill Cardinales’ Peak is a Bordeaux styled red blend. Offers pretty aromatics of ripe raspberry, red currant and chocolate covered cherries. Very food friendly with its energetic vibe of higher acid. Balanced with flavors of cranberry and red cherry. A tartness on the finish – with nicely integrated tannins. This wine has loads of life ahead of it – we tasted it 8 years after vintage and it seemed almost like a younger wine.
There are not many Napa Valley wineries who produce a 100% varietal Petit Verdot. The 2016 Rutherford Hill Petit Verdot offers a diversity of aromas with plenty of fruit including a nice union of plum, red cherry and raspberry, along with black licorice, dried rose petal, dried herbs, dust and hints of pepper. Somewhat savory in its aromatic presentation. Red fruit across the palate with still tight somewhat astringent chewy tannins.
The 2018 Rutherford Hill Chardonnay was sourced from Carneros in the southern part of the Napa Valley. This wine is pale golden in the glass – shows a raciness or foxiness on the bouquet that we sometimes but don’t usually find with Napa Valley wines of this varietal. As the wine breathes, opens to aromas of honeysuckle with hints of dried straw. Nice viscosity – almost oily in its textural feel. Flavors of green apple and hints of popcorn (a butter note we didn’t smell on the bouquet). Flavors of mandarin, some mineral nuances – lingers with a lemon/lime note.
And what is highly rare for a Napa winery – they often have certain older vintages for sale found under their library wine selection.
The tasting room while spacious can get crowded at times – the rectangular bar serves all sides. Tasting space is also located directly outside the tasting room under a canvas type tent; this is open year round and during the winter or colder days there is a liberal use of heat lamps (along with faux fires also providing heat). Unlike many wineries in the valley, Rutherford Hill provides bottle service – and guests can elect to order and enjoy a bottle of wine rather then doing a normal tasting flight.
Many Napa wine caves are very similar in appearance; barrels of wine will be stacked up inside gunnite coated (a type of sprayed on concrete) tunnels. The caves here are no different, however what sets them apart is that they are one of the oldest of the “modern caves” built in the Napa Valley (dating from the mid 1980’s). In addition, the tunnels are both wide and tall and extend for almost a mile. We were told up to 8,000 barrels are stored within the cave at any one time. As a result, their cave tours are extremely popular during all times of the year, but especially during harvest.
We have taken their cave tour several times – usually allow 90 minutes to 2 hours for the full tour + tasting experience. The tour is extremely general in its presentation of wine related knowledge and best for someone new to wine who wants to combine wine education with Napa history, taste some well made wines at reasonable (for Napa) price points, with a cave experience coupled with some interesting views of the valley from a hillside location.
During the tour you will try a barrel sample (usually of a Merlot) and visit the primary hospitality cave room – which has been used in several TV culinary shows. This room can also be reserved for special events (during one of our visits it was being used as part of a corporate retreat) or even as a proposal spot.
Daily tours are given 3x a day on the weekdays and 4x a day on weekends and accommodate up to 15 guests so if you are visiting during a ‘slow’ time you may be able to reserve tour space that day by buying a “tour pass” from their tasting counter. Merlot blending seminars and several cave experiences and other meals can be reserved on a limited basis. Also check out the private shaded Oak Grove Picnic area, reserved for guests of the winery – with great views of the valley through the trees.
The winery building was in part constructed from recycled old railroad ties. Woodpeckers have an appetite for parts of the outside wood and during your visit, you might hear hawk calls being played on outside speakers. During visits when the calls are not playing, we have noticed woodpeckers hanging out around the wooden building.
On a clear day there are certainly stunning views overlooking the valley floor, rolling hills, and of the Mayacamas mountains on the opposite side of the valley.
We should also mention that for quality of wines, their prices have always been reasonable. For more information and to join one of their wine clubs, visit: www.rutherfordhill.com
OTHER TERLATO DOMESTIC AND OR HISTORICAL SPACES
NOTE: as time and budget permits, we will follow the heritage of the Terlato family to various places and spaces – and will significantly update this review accordingly over the next several years.
Site of Anthony’s grandfather Antonio’s Floral Shop
(179 Hester Street, NYC)
Original Site of Leading Liquor Marts
(5965 North Clark Street, Chicago)
Original Site of Pacific Wine & Paterno Imports Bottling Facility
(836 South Sherman, Chicago)
Site of Pacific Wine & Paterno Old Distribution Center
(2701 South Western Avenue, Chicago)
Tangley Oaks (International Headquarters) Lake Bluff, Illinois
Visit and notes coming by 2021.
Sanford Winery, Lompoc
Visit and notes coming by 2021.
Sanford Tasting Room, Santa Barbara
Visit and notes coming by 2021.