Rutherford Ranch Winery was founded in 1978 by husband and wife Ernie and Virginia Van Asperen and their business partner Charlie Abela (all since deceased). Ernie was a WWII pilot who flew flew B-24 bombers from Italy and long enjoyed aviation (at one point he donated a small plane for use at the tiny airport at Pacific Union College in Angwin on Howell Mountain – but this plane has long since been traded away and is no longer used at the airport). He was also a very successful businessman having founded Ernie’s Wine and Liquor in 1938 which eventually grew into more then 80 stores in the San Francisco Bay Area by the 1960s; Ernie and Virginia later opened St. Helena Wine Merchants (in 1973), a wine shop that was located just south of St. Helena. They eventually sold this shop in 1983 to Alden Yates (part of the same family that owns vineyard land and Yates Family Winery on Mt. Veeder). The shop continued under Yates family ownership until 2011 when it was sold and today is the tasting room for Vine Cliff Winery.
For many years, Ernie used to bottle wine as a negociant under several labels including as Ernie’s and Round Hill and would sell this wine in his stores. While no longer owned by the Van Asperen family, by our last count there are still seven Ernie’s Wine and Liquor stores in the San Francisco Bay Area. Today all are independently owned and sell a variety of convenience store items, cheaper wines and other alcohol. We have visited four of the seven stores (see our photos below), the one in Palo Alto near Stanford University dates back to the 1950s and the one in East San Jose is known locally as being the store that sold a $543 million dollar winning lottery ticket in 2018. During our visit to this store, we also purchased some lottery tickets hoping to capitalize on the store’s history of big winnings but had no such luck.
The Van Asperen’s also used to own two restaurants in Marin County, the Dock on Main Street in Tiburon (now site of the Waters Edge Hotel) and Windjammer. Ernie and Virginia moved to the Napa Valley in 1968 from Marin County and purchased 200+ acres of land off of White Sulphur Springs Road in the hills just east of St. Helena. Their primary residence was on top of a knoll they called Round Hill. Incidentally, today this site is owned by Kathryn Green (the Green Vineyard) – Kathryn also owns Napa Valley’s iconic Grace Family Vineyards.
Round Hill wines were initially produced in 1978 at what was originally the York Winery founded in 1880 by Eli McLane York on Lodi Lane (just north of St. Helena). This winery was abandoned at the time Ernie began making wine here – the building has an interesting history – at one time the upper floor was used by York’s grandchildren as a skating rink. Severely damaged in the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, it was extensively restored and today is a private residence.
Rutherford Ranch was a label within their overall wine portfolio. In 1986 the Van Asperen’s purchased 5 acres on the Silverado Trail and built a winery which opened in 1988 (this is the site of Rutherford Ranch Winery). A huge part of their early production was private-label wines – selling to restaurants, country clubs and others.
The Van Asperen’s retired in 2000 and sold their interest in the winery to the Zaninovich family (Marko and Theo) who at the time were long time shareholders. The Zaninovich’s are multi generational farmers from California’s Central Valley and also run Sunview Marketing International in tiny McFarland about 30 minutes north of Bakersfield. That business focuses on growing numerous varieties of table grapes and raisins as well as offering cold storage facilities.
Rutherford Ranch label uses grapes sourced exclusively from the Napa Valley – both from their two estate vineyards and from non-owned premium vineyards. Most of their other labels feature wines made from grapes grown in select parts of California. Scott Family Estate wines are Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the family vineyards in the Arroyo Seco appellation in Monterey County. Note that wines from the other labels may not be available at the tasting room.
Rutherford Ranch produces some of the more affordable priced wines in all of Napa Valley, especially from their Round Hill label. Well-known wine writer, Robert Parker has highlighted their wines as being one of the best values coming from a California Cabernet Sauvignon producer.
Some Cabernet Sauvignon is planted on site just behind the winery at the base of the hills and they source the rest of the grapes for their Rutherford Ranch wines from select Napa vineyards. Rutherford Ranch is located on the east side of Silverado Trail among old oak and 100+ year old olive trees. With tables and chairs in front of the tasting room, weather permitting, this is a fine place to relax while you sip their very food friendly wines.
While the hospitality center is fairly small with the winery ‘hidden’ towards the back of the property – their production is anything but tiny. A number of their wines are well distributed nationally and people who know of Rutherford Ranch often try their wines at restaurants for the first time.
For many years the winery has partnered with a chocolatier based in the city of Napa and chocolate pairings can be enjoyed with the wines on site. A portable sign advertising their wine + chocolate pairings is often placed next to their driveway, easily visible from the Silverado Trail.
As of the time of our latest update to this review, they offer a variety of tasting flights including a Reserve Tasting, a Cabernet Sauvignon only tasting, a white wine only tasting and a wine and charcuterie experience. Private tastings can also be arranged.
For more in depth visits, the winery offers some fun experiences including a vineyard tour paired with a box lunch, a sensory analysis seminar and a blending seminar.
The 2005 Rutherford Ranch Zinfandel which was almost sold out the time of our first visit to the winery many years ago (a popular wine) has pleasant smoky white pepper characteristics and is not jammy but rather fruit forward with an elegant finish. Their Rutherford Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon is one of Napa’s better deals on wines of this variety. We tried the 2005 vintage; a food friendly wine with excellent acidity and tannins that are well-balanced. Drinks nicely in its youth.
The 2005 Rutherford Ranch Moscato Muscato di Amore is delicious because it is fairly light in its palate presentation – wines like this can sometimes be overly sweet, syrupy and high in alcohol – this wine is not like this. Unfortunately this was only a limited time production.
The 2005 Rutherford Ranch Rouge Zinfandel Port on the other hand, is a very rich full bodied wine with delicious sweet cherry fruit flavors especially on the mid palate. Pair a cigar with this wine or enjoy with chocolate. Their Rouge port-styled wine was popular; our first introduction was while we were tasting at the counter, someone arrived just to buy a case of this wine.
The 2013 Rutherford Ranch Merlot shows pink purple in the glass with floral notes on the bouquet (dried rose petal), raspberry and freshly squeezed red cherries. These are tender aromas that tend towards lighter red fruits rather than darker fruits. Texturally the wine is soft in the mouth (medium bodied) and presents decent acidity. Fine grained and slightly chalky tannins linger delicately. This is a versatile wine that should pair well with a number of lighter styled dishes.
The 2012 Rutherford Ranch Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon is not distributed, rather it is only available to wine club members and to visitors at the winery. On the bouquet it shows some baking spice, red cherry, blackberry and some noticeable dustiness. The fruit is focused, very balanced on the palate with a red cherry, red currant tartness that lingers. The tannins are slightly dusty and frames the fruit on the finish very well.
Rutherford Ranch has long been associated with producing private label wines for numerous clients including restaurants. In fact their closest client can be seen from Rutherford Ranch’s driveway – the storybook looking Auberge du Soleil Resort located in the nearby foothills.
For additional information about the winery or to sign up for one of their wine clubs, visit: www.rutherfordranch.com
Rutherford Ranch Winery
Ernie’s Wine and Liquor
Note: exterior photos of Ernie’s Livermore, Milpitas and Santa Cruz coming sometime in 2020.