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Randy Caparoso's Culinary Wine & Food Matching is everything you wanted to know about wine in the context of food, sans the usual gibberish and vague generalities.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Is California Grenache on a cusp?

Bokisch Vineyards Garnacha, lit up like Christmas during veraison

Letting a grape finally sing

Earlier in the month (May 2015), I endeavored to take a measure of California grown Grenache in a tasting of the very best varietal bottling of said grape.   

The tasting was a long time coming – I first thought about doing it at least five years ago, after tasting a pair of pure Grenache bottlings produced by Harrison Clark Vineyards, grown on a spectacular chalky hilltop estate in Santa Barbara’s Ballard Canyon AVA.  These sensuous, scintillating, ultra-spiced red wines were like a proverbial epiphany to me.  Never knew a California Grenache can taste so "complete."

Harrison Clarke's calcareous hilltop estate in Santa Barbara's Ballard Canyon AVA

It took a while to put together something of a definitive tasting, but I’m glad it’s finally done.  My thoughts on the matter...

First, over the past four, five years we have been hearing the rumblings; mostly out of the mouths of wine savvy friends and colleagues in the wine industry.  “Grenache is now my favorite grape.”  “Nothing is better than a good Grenache.”  “God, I love Grenache.”

I don’t know how much of this has been genuine, or just attributable to a coolness factor.  Certainly, we all occasionally do and say things just to be cool or different (or at least to make ourselves think we’re different).  But the point is:  I’m not the only one who’s been harboring a growing fondness for Grenache.

Michael McCay, Randy Caparoso & Markus Bokisch in Lodi Lake Park

Not, mind you, the usual Grenache based blends with SyrahMourvèdreCarignan, or other grapes deliberately used to beef up Grenache in some way, shape or form; based on the seemingly obvious assumption that Grenache makes too simple or feeble a red wine to stand on its own.  Bonny Doon Vineyard, for instance, has been on a tremendous winning streak with recent vintages of its Grenache driven Clos de Gilroy – buoyant, bosomy, irrepressibly lush and delicious red wines. 

Clos de Gilroy, however, is rarely more than 65% or 75% Grenache.  Grenache, as Randall Grahm contends, is “really the star” in his blends; but I still feel like you’re not really getting the taste of the grape in pure, unadulterated form.  What you’re getting is something of an “improved” Grenache – like the wonderfully improved versions of Barry Bonds (I was a big fan, and still am) in his latter years.

To appreciate Grenache, I think you need to accept the fact that, ultimately, the grape produces a lighter style of red wine than even the most moderated “GSM.”  It’s never going to soar as high as the finest Syrahs, and it’s never going to have the soulful, sonorous meatiness of Mourvèdre.  So what?

Grower Phil Abba and winemaker Michael McCay in Abba Vineyards (Lodi's Mokelumne River AVA)

I submit that the recent surge in interest in 100% pure Grenache as a varietal red is, more than anything, a sign that a growing segment of the wine market is finally willing to perceive subtlety as a quality, as much or even more so than sheer weight or intensity.  A wine need no longer be “big” or “powerful” to be impressive. 

It’s a mental thing, as much a shift in taste.  It entails dishing out "points" for expressions of less, not more.  Pure styles of red Grenache definitely fall within the softer, gentler, more floral spectrum of red wine styles; more often than not with its own modest complexity of red berryish fruit (often suggesting cherry, strawberry, raspberry or pomegranate), tinged with spice (black pepper or brown kitchen spices).  But if you expect power in the nose, or phenolic muscle in the body, you will usually be disappointed. 

Bottom line – the more you appreciate delicacy in red wine, the more you appreciate Grenache!

One of our tasters, noted Lodi winemaker Chad Joseph

McCay Cellars’ Michael McCay has been fond of describing Grenache as “Lodi’s Pinot Noir.”  McCay is alluding to the Lodi AVA’s Mediterranean climate – which is the natural environment for Grenache (but not so much for Pinot Noir, which reaches heights in colder climate regions) – as well as to the finely perfumed, mildly spiced, Pinot Noir-like qualities of the varietal. 

But red Grenache, of course, is not Pinot Noir; nor is it Carignan, Sangiovese, or any other variety with propensity towards red fruit fragrances and softer tannin structures.  It comes in its own package of attractive attributes; fairly defined only on its own terms.

Last year the San Francisco Chronicle headlined a story on Grenache’s recent “star turn,” describing the varietal as “the perfect Mediterranean grape” while proclaiming, “Now is the moment to embrace one of California wine's great successes.”  20 years ago, there was no way anyone would use words like “star” or “great” in the same sentence as Grenache.  There seems to be, borrowing Star Wars lingo, a “strong disturbance in the Force” – or rather, among those with say in the wine world.

Bokisch Vineyards' Markus Bokisch

Four of us, tasting from paper bags

For our blind tasting, I gathered 15 examples by producers who I believe are producing the finest pure styles of California Grenache today.  Oh, I may have left out another two, three, or even four, five other producers of merit.  But you have to start somewhere, and I choose to start from my own tasting experiences (never believing what I’m told or what’s being written).

Since it was easier to do this tasting in my own home in Lodi, I invited three of Lodi’s most respected vintners to help evaluate the wines along with me:  Markus Bokisch of Bokisch Vineyards, Chad Joseph of Harney Lane Winery and Oak FarmVineyards (plus three more Lodi based wineries), and Michael McCay of McCay Cellars.

Among the line-up, as it were, were the 2012 Bokisch Terra Alta Vineyard Clements Hills-Lodi Garnacha (Bokisch grows a clonal variant of the Grenache grape from Rioja Baja in Spain) and the 2012 McCay Cellars Lodi Grenache.  The various other Grenaches represented growths in Sonoma Valley, Inland Mendocino, Paso Robles, Santa Clara, Santa Barbara, Amador County and El Dorado.

McCay's 2014 Mokelumne River-Lodi Grenache harvest

Lest you think otherwise, none of our Lodi winemakers ended up recognizing their own wines in this blind tasting – not an uncommon occurrence in my experience, tasting with even the sharpest winemakers.  This means our Lodi guys were not predisposed towards Lodi grown wines while proffering their opinions and, in the end, picking out their favorite wines in the tasting.

Not only were none of us able identify the Lodi Grenaches among the others, following our discussion and voting of our favorite wines, we were actually shocked to discover that the Grenache everyone lauded as being the most intense in terms of spiciness, earthiness and perfume was, in fact, the 2012 McCay Cellars Grenache grown in Lodi.  Of course, we did not all agree that more was better, but c’est la vie.

Our "top 3" Grenache reds

Between the four of us, we came up with a total of 7 wines singled out as our three “favorites.”  We didn't "rate" the wines - all of them were damned good - but we jotted down our personal preferences, mostly for the sake of discussion.

Winemaker Jordan Fiorentini in Epoch's calcareous Paderewski Vineyard (Paso Robles Willow Creek District)

Full disclosure:  I picked the Lodi grown McCay and Bokisch Grenaches #1 and #2 – under the mistaken notion that these wines were more likely from Santa Barbara.  The wines I thought were from Lodi actually ended up being from Testa Ranch in Mendocino and the Santa Barbara Highlands Vineyard.  If I’ve grown a “Lodi palate,” evidently it’s been by accident. 

In any case, my #3 choice was Epoch WinesSensibility, grown in the steep, white, calcareous shale slopes (+1,200-ft. elevation) of Paso Robles’ newly recognized Paso Robles Willow Creek District AVA.  Aside from the Baiocchi (Fair Play/El Dorado) and Neyers (Sonoma Valley), the Epoch was just about the most aggressive, full and densely structured Grenache in the bunch, exuding a pervasive, ringing peppery spice.  Mr. Joseph, on the other hand, found the Epoch to be a shade “clunky.”  A well-made wine is like a mountain – everyone looks at its features from slightly different angles.

Mr. Joseph, as it turned out, really loved the two Ballard Canyon/Santa Barbara bottlings from Harrison Clarke Vineyards, picking them as his #1 and #2.  All I can say is, he has very good taste.  His #3 choice, for the record, was the Lodi grown McCay.

Unbeknownst to each other, Mr. McCay and Mr. Bokisch ended up picking the exact same wines as their 1, 2, and 3:  first, the full bodied (by Grenache standards), fleshy, richly layered Baiocchi from El Dorado’s Fair Play AVA; followed by the more feminine, flowery, silky A Tribute to Grace from Santa Barbara Highlands Vineyard, and the 2011 Harrison Clarke (the slightly leaner, yet somewhat brasher, of the two vintages of Harrison Clarke in the tasting). 

A Tribute to Grace winemaker/owner Angela Osborne in Amador County's Shake Ridge Ranch

In alphabetical order, more detailed notes on the seven wines that ended up among our “top 3”:

2013 A Tribute to Grace, Santa Barbara Highlands Vineyard Grenache (about $50) – From a remote, high elevation (3,500-ft.) vineyard located in an even warmer site than anywhere in Lodi; furnishing more than enough proof that perfectly refined, feminine, silky yet zesty, upbeat Grenache can be grown in a place that is the opposite of “cold climate” (and is also why, when the French and Spanish talk about Grenache, they gleefully proclaim the merits of “hot climate” viticulture).  McCay described the finely wrought elegance of this bottling as “Sinatra-like,” and Mr. Bokisch loved the way its low-key cedarbox-spice/oak melded with its fragrant raspberry/cherryish fruit.

2012 Baiocchi Wines, Sharon’s Vineyard Fair Play (El Dorado) Grenache ($39) – Focused strawberry/plummy aroma backed by a faint note of minerality, mingling with a scrubby spice; firm, fairly full bodied style (relative to the rest of the Grenaches, which were by and large moderate in weight), with attractively round, fleshy, balanced qualities to the mineral-tinged fruit intensity.

Bokisch Vineyards' Rioja Baja Garnacha clonal selection

2012 Bokisch Vineyards, Terra Alta Vineyard Clements Hills-Lodi Garnacha ($23) – This planting – grown on the rocky, clay loam soils of Lodi’s Clements Hills AVA – comes across as notably svelte, refined, yet zesty.  The varietal qualities are properly soft and strawberryish – described as “bright” and “lifted” by Chad Joseph – augmented by a whiffs of leafy-greenery which added (for me) a nice complexity; the medium-weight, fruit-focused sensations coming across as gentle yet exuberant, stretching gracefully across the palate.

2012 Epoch Estate Wines, Paso Robles Sensibility (about $50) – Although in the past this winery has blended small proportions of Syrah in their Sensibility bottlings, their 2012 is 100% Grenache; evoking ultra-intense, almost heady strawberry/raspberry fruit with a cracked peppercorn spiciness, leaping from the glass; with a notably thick, full, bold yet typically soft (for the varietal), silken textured feel on the palate.

Harrison Clarke co-owner/winemaker Hilarie Clarke

2010 Harrison Clarke Vineyards, Ballard Canyon-Santa Ynez Valley (Santa Barbara) Grenache ($32) – This estate planting – on a dusty-white, calcareous limestone-replete hilltop in Santa Barbara’s Ballard Canyon AVA (a sub-appellation of Santa Ynez Valley) – remains one of my all-time favorite sources of Grenache.  The wines are unfailingly spicy and mobilized by zesty, fresh fruit acidity (high pH soils being more favorable to lower pH wines).  In this bottling, a fragrant, flowery red berry perfume is infused with an aromatic minty/sweet herb spiciness; tied together on the palate with still-youthful tannin, filling out a firm, medium sized body.

2011 Harrison Clarke Vineyards, Ballard Canyon-Santa Ynez Valley (Santa Barbara) Grenache ($32) – This vintage produced a slightly leaner prickly, layered, silken Grenache; with a brazen, generous fruit dimension verging on blackcurrant-like berryishness, tinged with fresh Bing cherry and mildly sweet oak flourishes; finishing fresh, sleek, lissome, lively.

2012 McCay Cellars, Lodi Grenache ($28) – From trellised vines in Phil Abba’s meticulously farmed Abba Vineyard, located on the east side of Lodi’s Mokelumne River AVA.  Notably the most pungent, perfumed, sweet black peppercorn spiced, veering on peppermint, Grenache in this tasting, with Old Worldish whiffs of organic loaminess (also the earthiest wine in this tasting).  The feel is soft, round, fairly fleshy, with mouth-watering zip.  Mr. Bokisch described its nose as “Santa Rosa plum and strawberry,” while Mr. Joseph singled out its “mineral texture” and “rich strawberry jam” qualities.

Baiocchi Vineyards owner/grower/winemaker Greg Baiocchi

The others – a litany of Grenache “stars”

I have done tastings, even entire judgings, where none of entries are “second-rate” – every wine a winner in any given wine aficonado's book.  This was one of those tastings, in spades.  We truly felt that the quality of each of the following wines was first-rate – indicative of the high standard of red varietal Grenache reached in California today.

In alphabetical order:

2013 A Tribute to Grace, Shake Ridge Ranch Amador County Grenache (about $50) – With the huge respect we all have for grower Ann Kraemer’s amazing work at Shake Ridge Ranch, the combination with A Tribute to Grace’s Angela Osborne’s customary minimalist winemaking regime – strictly native yeast, partial (50% to 70%) foot treading of whole clusters, neutral wood, et al. – seems like a hand-in-glove fit.  In this bottling, Osborne achieves an epitome of the varietal’s gentle, fragrant, medium bodied charms; the strawberry/cherry fruit spruced up by a cocoa-ish, baking spice complexity; some youthful tannins tightening the finish, which still projects a fine, almost ethereal texturing.

Shake Ridge Ranch, Amador County

2013 A Tribute to Grace, Besson Vineyard Santa Clara Grenache (about $50) – Ms. Osborne informs us that this is sourced from ancient vines, planted in 1910.  In comparison to her other two cuvées submitted in the tasting, this prettily scented wine seemed to register a slightly lower key expression of the cherry/strawberry varietal perfume, while remaining true to the pliant, feminine personality of the varietal; the nose exuding a flowery note, transitioning into a soft, almost airy, yet appealingly bright, snappy McIntosh apple-like crackle and pop on the palate.

2013 Beckmen Vineyards, Purisima Mountain Vineyard-Block Eight Ballard Canyon-Santa Ynez Valley (Santa Barbara) Grenache ($52) – Few vignerons lavish as much attention on Grenache as Steve Beckmen, and it shows in this bottling from a Biodynamic® farmed block of own-rooted, head trained vines, planted on a sparse calcareous slope.  Vividly rich and compact cherry/strawberryish varietal aroma touched up by a mild herbiness; fairly full, soft and fleshy, but seemingly held back a little by a young, linear, tight tannin component.

Neyers Vineyards winemaker Tadeo Borchardt in Sonoma Valley's Rossi Ranch

2012 Big Basin Vineyards, Coastview Vineyard Monterey County Grenache ($44) – Coastview is as the name implies – a 2,200-ft. elevation planting located in the Gabilan Mountains, overlooking Monterey Bay and Salinas Valley. This was also the only Grenache in our tasting blended with a small dose of Syrah (5%).  Nonetheless, the impression is very much, and thrillingly, “Grenache” – juicy, bouncy, strawberry fruit qualities in the nose and mouth, zipped up by notably bright acidity, a mild tug of tannin and just a smidgen of leafy green herbiness.

2014 Neyers Vineyards, Rossi Ranch Sonoma Valley Grenache ($35) – This was the only barrel sample included in this tasting (owner Bruce Neyers explaining that a bottle of their sold-out 2013 bottling was simply unavailable).  But I was determined to have some kind representation from Neyers; whose formidably talented winemaker, Tadeo Borchardt, has had phenomenal success with fruit from the Biodynamic® farmed Rossi Ranch, tucked away on hillsides not far from Jack London State Historic Park in Sonoma Valley.  This came across as the Grenache with the most intense expression of black-oriented fruit (plum, blackberry); and also as the one wine that could most accurately be described as “opulent,” or voluminous – zesty yet round, fleshy, layered sensations; tightly wound and compact with unresolved tannin, while finishing with a surprisingly sleek sense of grace and texturing.

Winemaker Chris Pittenger in his high elevation Skinner estate (Fair Play, El Dorado)

2012 Skinner Vineyards, Estate Grown El Dorado Grenache (about $30) – The Skinner estate plantings sit on a sandy loam saddle, some 2,700-ft. high in El Dorado’s Fair Play AVA.  This wine is effusive with bright, high-toned strawberry perfumes, complimented by the slightest herbal underpinnings; its medium body buoyed by fresh acidity, lending mouth-watering sensations.

2013 Skinner Vineyards, El Dorado Grenache ($26) – In this blend of estate and non-estate plantings, the nose projects more forward strawberryish qualities with scrubby, sage-like earth notes; and on the palate, the softness of the varietal, sweetened by restrained French oak, finishing soft, easy, ingratiatingly fresh and savory.

2012 Testa Ranch, Mendocino County Grenache ($30) – Grower/winemaker Maria Martison tends to this hidden treasure of a vineyard that has been in her family since 1912.  Employing straightforward, small batch, hand punched macro-bin fermentation, she exacts classically fragrant, flowery red berry/cherry, almost pomegranate-like perfumes and flavors in her Grenache; wrapped in a soft, elongated, easy-going medium body that seem to caress the palate.  Everything that we crave in pure (at long last) Grenache!

Testa Ranch owner/winemaker Maria Martison

Can we talk more?

By and large, all of these Grenache bottlings were sourced from vines growing in moderately warm Mediterranean climates.  Do not pay attention to yabberings about necessity of “cold climate.”  Grenache loves sun, while basking in a fairly wide range of topographies.

Where the wines in our tasting differed was in elevation (the Skinner, Baiocchi, Big Basin, Epoch, and A Tribute to Grace's Shake Ridge Ranch and Santa Barbara Highlands Vineyard planted on the highest elevation sites), and soil (higher pH/calcareous soils in the Epoch, Beckmen, Harrison Clarke and Big Basin plantings).  These were nice, but wines grown in less alkaline soil on sub-400-ft. sites (i.e. McCay, Bokisch, Testa, Neyers' Rossi Ranch, and A Tribute to Grace's Besson Vineyard) seemed no less complex and attractive.

If anything, factors such as winemaking and picking decisions were also significant.  For instance, mildly green notes of pyrazine (which I love) indicative of earlier picking – presumably to achieve moderated natural alcohol and crisper acidity – were found in wines as varied as the Bokisch (grown on low-lying hillsides of rocky sandy clay loam), the Skinners (sandy loams at mountain-high altitude), Big Basin (2,200-ft. hillsides with veins of limestone), the Beckmen and Harrison Clarke bottlings (sparse, rocky limestone on hillsides topping out at about 1,200-ft.). 

In terms of style, Bokisch, A Tribute to Grace, and Testa Ranch all seemed to fall into the lighter, reddish berry perfumed spectrum of the varietal by design – a winemaker’s sense of restraint – despite coming from widely varying regions (Lodi’s Clements Hills, Santa Barbara Highlands, Amador County, Santa Clara, and Inland Mendocino).  Winemaking always has as much impact as terroir on finished product.

Skinner Vineyards in El Dorado's Fair Play AVA, on elevations reaching 2,700-ft.

It is interesting to note that with the exception of the Bokisch and Testa, all the wines were crafted by vintners devoted to native yeast fermentation and other methods associated with minimalist winemaking.  This was particularly telling in the comparison of the two Lodi grown wines – the native yeast fermented McCay showing rawer earth and spicy notes, and the inoculated Bokisch focusing on a purer red fruit expression.

Yet the wines falling on the fuller bodied end of the scale also varied.  The Baiocchi came across as successfully well balanced, while achieving a classic red fruit varietal fragrance, even in a riper, weightier style (alcohol hitting 14.9%).  The Neyers was among the fuller bodied wines, while hitting darker fruit notes – no doubt reflective of the classic red volcanic soil of Sonoma Valley.  The Epoch was downright thick, as opulent as the Neyers – you could almost feel the sweet kiss of sun on these shallow, rocky, calcareous slopes – and even spicier than the Neyers and Baiocchi.

Speaking of which, the spice factor:  we found the most intense peppery qualities in the McCay, Harrison Clarkes and Epoch Grenaches.  Again, these spice bombs come from a wide range of regions:  McCay grown in Lodi’s zero-elevation sandy loam; Harrison Clarke on a gentle slope of finely ground limestone hovering around 1,000-ft.; the Epoch on a steeper, mountainous, craggy site climbing above 1,200-ft.  What they do have in common is native yeast fermentation and squarely Mediterranean climate – chew on that.

If you enjoy complexity, Grenache is as much your grape as any other.  In the hands of crafty winemakers such as the aforementioned, any wine lover with a penchant for classic qualities like elegance and subtlety is bound to be thrilled.  I know I am.

Shake Ridge Ranch's owner/grower extraordinaire, Ann Kraemer

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Cooper Vineyards Barbera: The dollar that changed a region

Cooper Vineyards' Dick Cooper among his perfectly sculpted, head trained Barbera

Part 2 of my telling of Amador County’s heritage, in collaboration with the organizers of the upcoming Amador Four Fires (please see Part 1 – The Original Grandpère Vineyard: Powerful Women, Grapes and Wines)

DickCooper, whose family originally arrived in the Sierra Foothills in 1919, is generally considered Amador County’s “Godfather of Barbera.”  Zinfandel might be Amador’s heritage grape, but it is a grape that does well in other parts of California.  Barbera, on the other hand, makes a red wine that many of today’s wine lovers believe grows better in Amador County than just about anywhere else in the world – even as well as the Piedmont region in Italy, where the grape originated.

That makes Mr. Cooper’s story an important one indeed; and we’re fortunate that, although he recently has had to slow down his storied career just a little bit, he now has more time to tell his tale.

According to Mr. Cooper, “In the late 1970s we had an abundance of pasture land, 35 acres of prunes, and walnuts trees on the family property where Cooper Vineyards is now located.  I wanted to put in a vineyard, but my Dad (Henry “Hank” Cooper) didn’t want anything to do with grapes.  That’s because he’d been burned a few years earlier, and he was especially done with Zinfandel. 

“He and my Uncle Ken Deaver had gone together on a 40-acre planting of Zinfandel, which the government was buying up during the war (WW II) to turn into medicinal alcohol, and was used in hospitals.  They were making good money then – $125 a ton – but after the war the price dropped to $35 a ton.  There wasn’t anywhere else to take the grapes except to some brokers in Sacramento, and down the road at D’Agostini Winery – and they weren’t offering more than $35 either.  Dad said, ‘I’ll help you with 5 acres of grapes, but no more than that.’  He felt we were diversified enough, with the prunes, walnuts and sheep. 

“Now, my parents loved to entertain.  They always had great parties at the house, inviting the best people from near and far.  Around that time they had Darrell Corti over.  He was a wine merchant from Sacramento who had influenced a number of wineries in the Foothills.”

That fateful dollar bill

Dad asked Darrell, ‘If we get back into grapes, what varieties should we plant?’  Darrell said, ‘Barbera and Dolcetto.’  Having never heard of those grapes, Dad asked Darrell if he could write those down for him.  Because no one could rustle up a piece a paper right away, Darrell just took a dollar bill from his wallet, wrote down Barbera and Dolcetto, and handed it to Dad. 

“Since it was my project, I went out to find cuttings of those grapes to plant.  I couldn’t find any Dolcetto, but I found Barbera from one of our neighbors, Gary Gott at Montevina.  So that was how we started with our first 5 acres of Barbera, in the late ‘70s.  It grew pretty well, but in the beginning there was no demand for it – it got to the point where it was being used primarily to blend, mostly in White Zinfandel, even though you’re not supposed to do that. 

“But later, winemakers like Scott Harvey, Jeff Runquist, Bill Easton at Terre Rouge, and a few more wineries in El Dorado were taking the fruit and making some pretty remarkable wines.  The grape sort of took on a life of its own, and the entire region has become known for it.  From our first 5 acres we’ve grown to about 100 acres – mostly Barbera, although we grow 16 other varieties on our ranch.”

The excellence of Mr. Cooper’s Barbera, not to mention his renown as a grape grower, took off.  Besides expanding his own vineyards, he has since designed, planted and managed at least another dozen vineyards in Amador and El Dorado County. 

Long before Mr. Cooper’s forays, the Barbera grape had always been a favorite among growers and winemakers of Italian descent in San Joaquin Valley and Sonoma County; regions that still account for most of the 7,000 or so acres planted in the state.  Historically, Barbera was a major component (along with Zinfandel and Carignan) in blends like E. & J.Gallo’s Hearty Burgundy. 

Yet the Sierra Foothills Viticultural Region has recently become the area most closely identified with Barbera.  Although plantings in these higher elevations hover around a more modest 300 acres, there are more producers of Barbera in the Sierra Foothills than anywhere else outside of Italy.  And since 2011, thousands of wine lovers have been attending the annual, sold-out Barbera Festival, where over 80 producers from throughout California (plus a few from Italy) gather in June for an all-Barbera/all-the-time celebration.  Shenandoah Valley has become the New World epicenter of Barbera happenings.

Dick Cooper tells his tale (over a glass of Cooper Vineyards Barbera)

According to Amador County Wine Grape Growers Association spokesman David Logan (whose own Logan's Rock Wall Vineyard in Shenandoah Valley was designed and planted by Dick Cooper – including some of that elusive Dolcetto!), “Dick Cooper’s ranch has been the home of the Barbera Festival for several years (in 2015 the festival takes place at Terra d’Oro/MontevinaWinery).  Cooper grown Barbera produced by about a half-dozen wineries have been responsible for almost all the top Gold or ‘Best of Show’ medals at L.A. County Fair, California State Fair, the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, and several other competitions in recent years.”

Yet the very best may very well be Mr. Cooper’s own bottling:  his current release, the 2012 Cooper Vineyards Amador County Barbera is thick, layered, velvety and fluid – chiseled with every bit of the naturally zesty, savory, mouth filling, blackberryish flavors you expect in the varietal.

“Truth be told,” says Mr. Cooper, “the whole Barbera thing came almost as an accident – a name of a grape jotted down on a dollar bill.  It took many more years to actually learn how to grow the stuff – you can’t grow Barbera like Zinfandel or anything else.” 

All of Cooper’s Barbera plantings are head trained and vertically spur pruned.  He has tried trellised systems on his sandy-clay loam hillsides – a perfect combination of porosity and water retention, which vines love – but discarded the approach after learning that the best quality still comes from the free-standing vines.  Mr. Cooper’s Barbera plants are primarily FPS Clone 06 (from U.C. Davis’ Foundation Plant Services) grafted onto St. George rootstock – plant material sometimes called the “Cooper clone Barbera,” out of respect for its “Godfather.”

Still, unlike Zinfandel, says Mr. Cooper, “You need to leave more spurs per vine on Barbera to get a little more shade, and you learn to drop seconds (i.e. late blooming clusters).  Barbera likes a little sun after veraison (i.e. when berries turn from green to black), but before veraison it’s a disaster.  It’s also susceptible to powdery mildew, so you have to be vigilant with the sprays.

Recently planted Black St. Peter clone Zinfandel in Cooper Vineyards

“We go for Barbera that’s a little more fragrant and fruit-forward – it always has more than enough acid and body.  Not to be critical, but we feel this makes a better wine than the harsh, under-ripe styles you often get from Italy.  I love it when Italian winemakers come and visit, walk around the vineyard and ask us how we do it.  They may be the ones who started it, but now they learn from us!

“If anything, we’ve learned to be patient with the grape.  It usually takes a while before its acids, which are notoriously high, start to go down.  If you have to wait until sugars climb to 28° Brix, which you have to balance out in a winery (usually by adding a little water to lower alcohol levels to a more ideal 14% range), this is preferable to making a wine that’s hard to drink or weak in flavor.

“When we decided to produce our own wine, we planned our winery and tasting room for about 2,500 cases.  We’ve been so successful, though, that it’s grown to 10,000 cases, and we’re now taking more (about 45%) of our own fruit, and selling to fewer of those top winemakers.

“But I think we’ve reached capacity.  I've had some recent health issues, so I can’t spend nearly as much time out on the tractor as I’d like to.  But I have vineyard foremen who have been with me for 12, 16 years.  The vineyard is in good hands – they know what they’re doing, maybe even better than me.  And my four daughters are all involved in the operations. 

“Our winemaker (Cooper Vineyards’ Michael Roser) is doing a great job, and he’d love for me to plow up a little more of the landscape to make room for more tanks and barrels.  But I think I like the free space around the property looking the way it is.

“That dollar bill Mr. Corti had written on – we misplaced for a little while, but my daughter Chrissy recently went looking for it, and she found it.  It’s now hanging up behind our tasting room bar – a constant reminder of how it all got started!”

The Original Grandpère Vineyard: Powerful Women, Grapes and Wines

Terri Harvey among the ancient, revered Zinfandel in her Original Grandpere Vineyard

This is Part 1 of my telling of Amador County’s heritage done for the organizers of the upcoming Amador Four Fires; a culinary and wine celebration taking place in Plymouth’s Amador County Fairgounds on May 2, 2015.  Amador County’s heritage is all about the fascinating history of its vineyards and wines, woven with stories of the colorful, hard-scrabble people who made it happen.  A few of the brighter threads:

Farmers, dreamers, risk takers... 

Scrawled on a chalkboard in the recently opened Prospect Cellars on Plymouth’s Main St., you can see an homage to the families, farmers, vets, county fairs, traditions, sunsets, rain, FFA, 4H pigs, dance partners, dreamers, risk takers, and all the other things that make Amador Amador.

And so naturally, in the small-town setting of Amador County, things that happened over 150 years ago are as fresh in people’s minds as last week’s events.  Prospect Cellars proprietor Jamie Colburn-Lubenko, the former Executive Director of Amador Vintners Association, calls herself a “Plymouth girl” through and through. 

Ms. Colburn-Lubenko can talk first-hand about Shenandoah Valley’s 10-acre Zinfandel planting known as the Original Grandpère Vineyard – the oldest and most revered of California’s Old Vine Zinfandels – because, to her, it’s family history.

“What everyone knows is that there is a grant deed in Amador County records that shows a vineyard planted there in 1869,” says Colburn-Lubenko, “and that the original vines are still there.  This makes it the oldest documented Zinfandel vineyard in the state.

Plymouth girl:  Prospect Cellars' Jamie Colburn-Lubenko

“What fewer people know,” she continues, “is that it was a woman named Mahala Teter Upton – my husband Ronn’s great-great-grandmother – who originally took care of that vineyard, with the help of her 8-year old son Rueben.  

“Mahala first came to Shenandoah Valley with her husband John Dale in 1863 with seven children in tow – all the way from Missouri in a slow, covered wagon.  How they accomplished that, when I could barely contain my kids for two hours in a car, I have no idea.  I suppose if anyone got out of hand they could say, ‘You can get out and walk.’

“Like most Amador County settlers, Mahala’s family came to mine but stayed to farm.  According to family lore, in 1870 John Dale just up and died, probably from a stroke, while changing a neighbor’s wagon wheel.  By then they had a fairly large homestead (600 acres, according to Sherry A. Monahan’s California Vines,Wines & Pioneers), and Mahala had just given birth to their tenth child.  But work had to go on.  Mahala went ahead and took care of her vineyard, which was good enough to survive to this day.” 

Woman under the influence of rickety old vines

In the aforementioned Original Grandpère Vineyard – that is, what remains of Mahala Teter Upton’s original Zinfandel vines in Amador County’s Shenandoah Valley AVA – you will see curving tracks of a tractor wheels between the rows of spindly, gnarly limbed, head trained, spur pruned old plants; many with trunks split in two, their cores long rotted away, standing 8 by 8-feet across along the site’s sloping, northwards facing hill.

Terri Harvey

Here is where the plot thickens, although we need to get down to the roux of the matter to give it a decent accounting... 

For over 70 years Mahala Teter Upton’s original Zinfandel planting continued to serve her family and numerous descendants well.  Grapes were sold to locals and, after the start of Prohibition (1920), mostly to home winemakers in the Midwest or on the East Coast.  During the 1930s the vineyard was sold to the Steiner family, who held on to it until 1970, when Walt Steiner sold it to its longtime caretaker, John Downing.

By then the vineyard had dwindled from 16 to 10 acres.  In 1979 a talented Sierra Foothills raised but Germany-trained winemaker named Scott Harvey began to purchase Zinfandel from John and Virginia Downing.  At the time, the vineyard’s condition had also hit a low poiint.  Ready to retire, the Downings offered to sell to Mr. Harvey – by then married to a local farmer’s daughter, Terri Harvey – in 1982. 

The Harveys could not afford to buy the vineyard outright.  So they signed a 5-year lease to revive the planting – taking a saw to all the dead or gangly wood keeping the vineyard from producing top quality grapes – while fixing up the old, raggedy home on-property (built during the 1880s).  They were finally able to take full possession of the property in 1988.

The Harveys would work together as a husband-wife team until their divorce in 1996.  Scott was the winemaker; but from the very beginning, in 1982, most of the vineyard work fell to Terri Harvey, since she was the one with the farmer’s hands and disposition.  According to Ms. Harvey, “I had been working in Shenandoah Valley vineyards since I was 11 years old, getting wealthy at $1.65 an hour.”

Close-up of ancient Original Grandpere Vineyard Zinfandel

While surveying her domain this past April 2015, Ms. Harvey told us, “This is not like most vineyards, where you can run a tractor between the vines in a nice, straight line.  The vines were never big, but the spurs will stick out into the rows.  In the old days the 8-ft. spacing probably wasn’t much of a problem, because you did most things by hand or with a horse.  It makes you sick when you accidentally break off an arm; or sometimes, when you hit one, the whole vine comes down.  There aren’t enough of them left as it is.”

Yet all things considered, at 146 years of age Ms. Harvey’s vineyard is in remarkable shape.  Just over 80% of the remaining vines are the original ones planted by Mahala Teter Upton and her son Rueben.  In most California vineyards over 100 years old, retention of 50% to 70% of the original vines is considered a good percentage. 

Over the years Ms. Harvey has been replanting “dead” spots with new vines, utilizing cuttings from the original vines to maintain a clonal purity.  The new plantings are grafted onto phylloxera-resistant rootstock, since the infamous root louse that devastated well over 99% of the vineyards in California and around the world during the late nineteenth century still remains a threat to natural (i.e. “own-rooted”) vines.  All of the 1869 vines in the Original Grandpère Vineyard still grow on their own roots.

“We have phylloxera here, but it doesn’t get carried away because this vineyard happens to sit on the sandiest soil in Amador County,” says Ms. Harvey, in reference to the mixture of finely decomposed granite (i.e. sand) and loose clay loam on her slopes.  To hedge her bets, Harvey uses equipment exclusive to the vineyard, and rarely allows outsiders to tromp through, to minimize the possibility of pests, microscopic or otherwise, carried in from other vineyards. 

“But it’s mostly because we are in a sandier spot of the Foothills that these old vines have been able to survive,” she tells us, “whereas plants in surrounding vineyards have not.”  There are, incidentally, a few old stands of own-rooted Mission – an even sturdier type of Vitis vinifera – dating back from the 1850s and 1860s in Shenandoah Valley, although it was Zinfandel that the early miners-turned-farmers preferred.

Despite the other ever-present danger of “tractor blight,” the natural wild grasses that grow around Grandpère’s vines need constant mowing and discing because the ancient plants are low-yielding enough – in an average year, producing tiny, fist-sized clusters (clusters on young Zinfandel vines are easily three times that), barely adding up to 1 to 1.5-tons per acre – without having to compete with grasses for water and nutrients on this 1,300-ft. elevation hillside.

Chalkboard in Prospect Cellars

Yet it is also because these ancient vines have been dry land farmed all their lives (it is only the young, new plantings that ever see irrigation) that they have been able to survive nearly 150 years of cycles – periods of drought, excess rain, cold vintages, hot vintages.  Sandy soil forces deep rooting, and deep roots contribute to healthy, productive plants – a symbiosis you see in other regions (such as Lodi and Contra Costa) replete with sandy soils and ancient vines.

Says Kevin O’Neil, the cellarmaster of Vino Noceto, which produces an “OGP” Zinfandel each year from the vineyard:  “In the hottest, dryest years, when all the surrounding vineyards look like they’re shriveling up, Grandpère’s vines always looks fresh because their roots are so well established.  I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them have roots stretched all the way over to Deaver’s Pond across the road.”

Ms. Harvey tells us, “You’ve probably heard of vineyards where one person claims to know each and every vine, like people.  I actually do, mostly because I don’t trust anyone else to touch these vines.  I prune each plant myself – I think you have to have a feel for how each one wants to grow, be thinned, suckered or picked.  I used to tell everyone that working this vineyard myself keeps me out of the bars, which would be true if not for the fact that I don’t go to bars.”

In the late 1960s and 1970s, some of Amador County’s old vine Zinfandel growths began to attract a lot of attention when wineries like Sutter Home, Montevina and Carneros Creek began to wow California wine lovers with the typically perfumed, finely etched and spicy qualities of the fruit. 

Despite the ancient eminence of Mahala Teter Upton’s planting, the vineyard had absolutely no identity until the 1980s.  This would not happen until Scott Harvey began to fashion wines from it under his Santino Winery label; and then a little later, for a short time (1993-1995) with a partner (Robert Smerling) at Renwood Winery.  The latter relationship would end in a litigious fashion, almost as bitterly as the divorce between the two Harveys around the same time. 

It is Mr. Harvey, however, who gets credit for naming the vineyard “Grandpère” (there were also “Grandmère” Zinfandels, produced from younger neighboring vineyards).  Today, the confusing thing for both consumers and the wine trade is that there is also a Renwood Grandpère Vineyard Zinfandel, made from a vineyard planted by Mr. Harvey for Renwood during the early 1990s from cuttings taken from the original 1869 planting, grafted onto phylloxera-resistant rootstocks. 

Vino Noceto winemaker Rusty Folena

Although Mr. Harvey was the one who put Grandpère on the map, his former partner at Renwood was the one with the foresight – some say duplicitous, others say smart – to trademark the name, and be able to exert said rights following Mr. Harvey’s split with Renwood Winery.

“We were stupid,” says Terri Harvey.  “We should have trademarked the name years before, and then Scott and I were going through our own problems.  I wanted to buy Scott out and keep the vineyard – at the very least, to keep the girls (the Harveys have three daughters, now grown and happily successful) in their own home. 

“Eventually everyone came to a compromise,” she tells us.  “I kept the property.  Smerling kept the rights to the Grandpère name, but allowed us to sell our grapes as Original Grandpère.  And Scott – he was fed up with everything; the suits, counter-suits, some pretty wild accusations.”  Mr. Harvey would move to Napa Valley, where he would help to launch Folie à Deux Winery into national prominence.

Just to get it all straight:  Zinfandels from Mahala Teter Upton’s own-rooted 1869 planting are currently bottled as Original Grandpère Vineyard.  Today, these wines are produced by just four wineries – Andis Wines (located nearby on Shenandoah Rd.), MacchiaWines (based in Lodi), Vino Noceto (as OGV Zinfandel), and Scott Harvey Wines (who calls it Vineyard 1869). 

Since Terri Harvey refuses to sell grapes to Renwood Winery, the Renwood Grandpère Vineyard Zinfandel is made from those younger grafted vines that went into the ground in the 1990s with the use of cuttings from the original vineyard.

Because, as she puts it, “You cannot make a living from an old 1-ton-an-acre vineyard,” Terri Harvey and her business partner, grape grower Pat Rohan, now manage some 29 other vineyards (totaling about 550 acres) in Amador County. 

Most recently, Scott Harvey has successfully developed two other brands, Scott Harvey Wines and Jana Wines, in partnership with his second spouse Jana Littman, working out of Napa Valley.  But after a 20-year absence from the Foothills, Mr. Harvey has recently christened new tasting rooms in both Sutter Creek and Plymouth (with signs on Shenandoah Rd. saying, “Scott Harvey is back!”).

That’s the history – what about the wine?  From the beginning, Zinfandels from the Original Grandpère Vineyard have never been known for sheer size, power or strength; but rather, for a lanky, sometimes even lean, sinewy length of flavors, mixing bright, floral fruit with mildly earthy, loamy, occasionally crushed or green leafy notes.  You don’t buy an Original Grandpère to be bowled over – you buy it to be buoyed or enlightened.

The 2011 Vino Noceto OGP (The Original Grandpère Vineyard) Zinfandel shows exactly that, but with a beautifully fresh intensity of flowery perfume – wrapped around a bright core of raspberry/blackberry fruit – and long silky, balanced, zesty qualities shoring up its modestly weighted (14.1% alcohol), medium-full body.  This wine is a limber lover, not a lumbering fighter. 

Vino Noceto winemaker Rusty Folena, who first began working with the vineyard as Scott Harvey’s assistant at Santino in 1983, describes the Original Grandpère Vineyard Zinfandels as “classic Amador... never over-the-top.”  Through year after year of vintage variation, according to Folena, the vineyard “always has a mind of its own... clusters are tiny – they can fit in the palm of your hand – and the small size gives the wines their distinct consistency of fruit and acid balance.”

Folena adds, “We pick for ripe flavor, and so sugars can vary year to year, from 24° to 27° Brix.  Complexity can come in different ways.  We destem and break berries without mashing them, and we do a submerged cap fermentation to get a slow, low, gentle extraction, no punch-downs or pump-overs” – a gentle approach that further enhances the Original Grandpère’s characteristic delicacy. 

“The fact that the vineyard faces mostly north has probably always contributed to its subtle character, different than anything else in Shenandoah Valley,” says Folena.  “Sometimes we’ll get a good second crop (less ripe fruit from late flowering clusters), which we’ll pick for more acidity.

“And like other vineyards in the area, Grandpère does get a little bit of red leaf (leafroll virus is typical of Zinfandel clonal material planted in Amador County), which can give different degrees of ripeness in a single vine” – the latter issue, something Ms. Harvey has been able to offset somewhat with usage of KDL® (a foliar macronutrient) and other measures to extend photosynthesis and more efficient fruit maturation longer into the season.

According to Ms. Harvey, living with rickety old vines like Original Grandpère Vineyard is like “making peace with Murphy’s Law... you expect things to go wrong at any time, but every year it’s probably the age of the vines that ultimately pulls you through.  You cannot be broken when you’re already almost dead!”

Close-up of 146-year old Original Grandpere Zinfandel in sandy clay loam soil