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Terra d’Oro Hosts Barbera Festival

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By Michael Eady

The rustic Amador County foothills winery grounds of Terra D’Oro Winery was the setting for the Amador Vintners Association’s recent salute to the Barbera grape varietal.

The Barbera grape, native to northwest Italy, has enjoyed a surge of popularity in the U.S. in recent years. What once served as vino tavola for peasants long ago has grown significantly in stature. Part of the process is the endless search by American consumers for the “latest thing.” It is serving Barbera wines well at this moment in time. Not that there is anything wrong with that. It is the way under-appreciated things eventually receive their deserved recognition. It is also helpful that the Barbera grape grows well in Amador County.

Barbera Fest 2019 1 1 Picmonkey

Barbera is a relatively light-bodied, high-acid profile grape. Traditionally, in America it had more utility as a blending grape, but like other varietals of similar ilk—cabernet franc and merlot, to name a couple—it finally earned its due as a primary varietal. And as Jimmy Durante was often noted to exclaim: “Now everybody’s tryin’ ta get into the act.” Ha Cha Cha.

Amador County, and the entire Sierra foothill region for that matter, has evolved into a destination wine region as the number of wineries in the Sierra foothills has grown exponentially over the past 20 years. Back in the day, one could take a spin around the Steiner Road loop above Plymouth and call it a day. No more. It has proven adept as an area that successfully grows Italian wine varietals. Zinfandel once dominated the region and although still the flagship grape varietal, it has yielded to newly popular varietals, barbera being a significant addition.  

The Barbera Wine Festival, itself, was wide in breadth and deep in scope. The marquee element was, of course, the eponymous wine but featured bluegrass music, many craft booths and a plethora of food booths offering up local victuals from the ever-improving cuisine scene of Amador County (but that is another story). It has been observed, notably by wine writer and podcaster Rick Kushman, that after a long day of wine tasting, nothing tastes better than a cold beer. Ergo, Amador Brewing from nearby Plymouth was on hand to fill that niche.

In all, there were approximately 70 wineries represented. Not all were from Amador County. Unti came from Dry Creek Valley near Healdsburg in Sonoma County. Closer to home, though not technically from Amador County, were a few from Lodi (Prie and Oak Farm) in San Joaquin County. From neighboring El Dorado County, Boeger Winery was present.

Nor was the event focused solely on Barbera wines. I enjoyed a tidy little Vermentino from Monte Volpe in Mendocino County. 

It was pleasing to see that many of the wineries were being a bit adventurous with white and rosé (or rosato) versions available. Villa Toscano boasted a delightful white version that had been aged in stainless steel.

As noted, the profusion of new wineries in the area leaves one at a loss to know where to go first. As tempting as it may seem, tasting all the wines from 70 or so wineries is not advisable. Thus, name recognition counts. The longest lines all day were for Rombauer Winery. Rombauer, the manufacturer of one of Napa Valley’s more well-known chardonnays, has purchased the old Renwood Winery (a sad passing indeed). Their barbera was predictably well-made and predictably expensive ($38).

Another winery that lived up to its reputation was Dobra Zemlja. Known for their very big, very high-octane wines, they did not disappoint, serving up a heavy, jammy, 17.2% ABV offering. As always, Dobra gets the job done.

It is noteworthy, if not surprising, that the increased esteem that Barbera wine now holds goes hand in hand with price points also higher than they used to be. This is not a coincidence. The wines were priced predominantly in the low-to-mid $20 range. A few were priced in the $30 range (these tended to be the reserves). The best value found was a rosato from Bray Vineyards, priced at $15.  

That Barbera wine has achieved a festival of its own speaks to the versatility and appeal of what was, until recently, an under-appreciated grape. It is of medium-light body, has a bright feel and high-acid flavor profile. It goes well with a wide variety of foods. It makes a fine rosé and blends well. I found several blends that were outstanding. It has proven worthy of the distinction.  The wallflower has joined the homecoming court.  

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