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!”


Patrick said…
A fascinating post. Thank you Randy!!!
vinburd said…
Thanks for the article and thanks to Dick Cooper. Another example of how California has its own terroir that extends the appeal of Euro vines, and we still have a lot to learn about what our vineyards are capable of.
Tim Hailey said…
Knowing Dick Cooper personally, he never ceases to amaze me in this knowledge and skill at growing the best grapes in the region and truly being the Godfather of Barbera.

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Randy Caparoso:
"I fought against the bottle," as Leonard Cohen wrote, "but I had to do it drunk"... specializing in wine as a restaurateur, retailer, wine judge, journalist, frequent flyer and mental traveler. But to me, wine is a food like a rose is a rose. So why all the fuss? Currently: Editor-at-Large/Bottom Line Columnist, The SOMM Journal; Contributing Editor, The Tasting Panel. Awards: Sante's Wine & Food Professional of the Year (1998); Restaurant Wine's Wine Marketer of the Year (1992 & 1999); Academy of Wine Communications (commendation) for Excellence in Wine Writing and Encouragement of Higher Industry Standards; Electoral College Member, Vintners Hall of Fame at the Culinary Institute of America, Greystone.