The roots of Rutherford—the historic grape growing center of the Napa Valley—actually stretch south of its central location in Napa Valley to Yountville, where George Yount settled in1838. Yount, an explorer and pioneer, was granted 11,814 acres by Mexican General Mariano G. Vallejo as repayment for a variety of services.
This land was called “Caymus Rancho,” and extended north from the western foothills of Mt. St. John to what is now the intersection of Zinfandel Lane and Silverado Trail.
Yount had three granddaughters. Elizabeth married young Thomas Rutherford in 1864. As a wedding present, the newlyweds received 1,040 acres at the northern end of Yount’s land grant.
While Yount is considered to be the first to plant wine grapes in Napa Valley, it was Thomas Rutherford who made a serious investment in grape production and winemaking. From 1850 to 1880, Rutherford established himself as a grower and producer of high-quality wines.
In the meantime, a man named Florentine Kellogg built a line of public wells at his own expense along the 23-mile stretch of road between Napa and Bale Mill (just north of St. Helena).
Five years after Yount’s death in 1865, the land he hadn’t given away or sold was sold by the court. Much of this property was purchased by Judge Serranus Hastings, chief justice of the California Supreme Court.
Gustave Niebaum purchased several pieces of property in 1880, including the Watson ranch and land surrounding Rutherford Station. His first crush was in 1882 at a winery facility that had been part of Hasting’s “Nook Farm.” Never happy with the facility, Niebaum began construction of a new winery which was completed in 1887; he called it “Inglenook”.
By the late 1880’s, a private census reported 2.05 million vines under cultivation in the Rutherford area, even as California was facing its first bout with Phylloxera, a microscopic root louse that slowly began devastating vineyards, although this didn’t slow vineyard purchasing and planting much.
Enter Georges de Latour, a French immigrant whose first successful venture in the Napa Valley was a cream of tartar business. In 1900, de Latour and his wife, Fernande, purchased a 4-acre parcel of land adjacent to Niebaum’s Inglenook which they called Beaulieu, meaning “beautiful place.” De Latour planted his vineyards with imported rootstock from France, resistant to Phylloxera. He subsequently became a primary supplier of rootstock to vineyards stricken by the infestation, throughout California.
A second crisis struck Rutherford’s wine industry in 1919: Prohibition. Again, de Latour appeared prepared. Due to a close association with the Catholic Church, he began producing sacramental wine for the church which allowed his wine business to thrive during these gloomy years.
Following the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, de Latour continued to make significant contributions to the growth of Rutherford’s wine industry. His wines, as well as those from Inglenook, began collecting gold medals and increasing attention from around the world. Beaulieu was only one of two recipients of the “Grand Sweepstakes” award from the Golden Gate Exposition in San Francisco in 1939. Just prior to his death, de Latour brought a young enologist to Beaulieu, André Tchelistcheff, who was to become a legend himself.
Tchelistcheff once generously insisted in an interview with James Laube that it was John Daniel Jr., and not he, who was Napa’s greatest winemaker, for Daniel not only set impeccably high standards for his wines, he also had the courage not to sell wines of inferior quality. Daniel, great-nephew and heir to the Gustave Niebaum estate, became owner-manager of Inglenook in 1939 and ran it for 25 years. He served also as its winemaker, eliciting widespread respect in the Napa Valley and wielding influence throughout the California wine industry. His 1941 Cabernet Sauvignon is still considered one of the finest wines ever produced in California.
André Tchelistcheff, though, brought with him many innovations including cold fermentation and controlled malolactic fermentation. He eventually consulted for a long list of vintners, and his contributions to the wine industry over the 92 years of his life are admired around the world. By the time of his death in 1994, it could be said that Tchelistcheff had led Rutherford and Napa Valley’s wine industry through its period of reconstruction (1938-1965); an era of rebirth (1965-1980); and ultimately, the age of its refinement (the 1990s).