Thursday, March 12, 2009

Making Gold in Old California

I have been in the Zinfandel Capital of the World this week for the Lodi International Wine Awards and the Sommelier Journal Terroir Experience. Both required a lot of tasting, and in a few days I’ve had several hundred wines pass my lips.

If you are looking to do some California wine tourism while taking in some of the Old California Sierra beauty, this is a nice alternative to the North Coast. There’s a lot to love about Napa and Sonoma and the whole North Coast, so this isn’t a slam to those friends over there.

I remember as a youngun’ taking my Fiat 124 Sport Coupe up into the little towns of the foothills, Ione, Plymouth, Murphys, Sutter Creek, Jackson; usually on our way to Yosemite. I loved the pioneer feel to the place back then, in the early 1970’s. Well, there still is an unfettered and unspoiled way about the place. The wines are in transition. The farther you get away from highway 99, higher up on the foothills, I found winemakers who had some calling to make wine from that certain place.

One fellow, Brian Fitzpatrick, a burly fellow with a healthy girth and a Grizzly Adams beard, talked about the calling he had, from very early on, to grow his grapes organically. Brian wasn’t playing at being green because it was the trendy thing to do. Brian is not a trendy guy. But talking to him an afternoon ago, I wanted to plan a vacation to come back and stay awhile at his little B&B in Fairplay. Read all about him here.

His wines were styled for my tastes, even his unlikely Pinot Noir and Merlot. I think something happens when you decide you like a person. Their wines then become an extension of them and are ushered in by a genuine liking for the person. Brian’s wines were like that. I felt like I was talking to a college roommate.

I stayed with Brenda and Dave Akin in Lodi, the night before the competition. Dave is a walking encyclopedia of the California wine business. I haven’t talked to someone as knowledgeable of the history since Bob Pellegrini. And they were there, when the history was being carved out. Dave was talking about how his Tannat has a p.h. issue in the winemaking process. Anyone who has ever had a Tannat knows it can be a tannic pest. Dave is on a quest to calm the beast. Kudos’ to Dave, he is only one of a small handful of people who have ever heard of an ancient Central Valley dessert wine which went by the name of Kosrof Anoush.

Leon Sobon of Shenandoah Vineyards and Sobon Estate is another piece of what some day will be the beginnings of modern Sierra wine history. I heard someone remark that Leon was a hippie who moved from the Bay Area to set up his wine lab in the hills. Leon was a Senior Scientist with Lockheed Research lab. Mad scientist maybe, hippie, umm, I don’t think so. Genuinely nice person making interesting wines that reflect the place and the personality of the individuals who are re-settling this piece of the West in a carbon neutral setting.

Chaim Gur-Arieh and his wife Elisheva established an outpost for wine and art with their C.G. Di Arie Winery on the border of the Eldorado and Amador counties. Chaim and Elisheva have a great life and love story, they could have set up shop in Napa, easily. But they committed their wine working life to the Sierra foothills. One of my favorite wines was a Primitivo.

There are more stories, but these four really touched the soul of this slave to the wine god. Note that these are four mature fellows; they've had time to experience life, to decide what the like and don't like, to develop their palate sense. These are four fellows who have searched for the philosopher's stone.

Is there terroir in the wines of the Sierras? Some think not. From the little I saw, there was more composing than conducting. But this is a wine region that although it is one of the oldest wine producing areas of California, it’s really in its infancy. Like Dave Akin said, “This area is like Napa was thirty years ago. People are friendly, the wines are getting better and we’re having a great time of it.” Remembering back in my early days, driving the Falcon “family wagon” up and down Hwy 29 in the latter 1970’s, I grokked what Dave was talking about.

Is there gold in them thar hills? Is there terroir? Are there wines that reflect California and the region in a timeless and classic style found in no other place? To address those questions, Marco Capelli, winemaker for Miraflores, went into the cellar and tapped a barrel of Angelica.

Yes sir, he tapped into Old California, the West of my youth, a wine that put California on the winemaking map. Dark, deep, sunny, unctuous, god-awful sweet and sexy. And man, it was just like when I first kissed my girlfriend in the back of the movie house, when we were fourteen and so very young and in love.

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