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Robt Morse with wine thief PicmonkeyRob draws a barrel sample

by Dan Clarke

Robert Morse has been growing good grapes. With a lighter crop load he figures he can produce really extraordinary grapes and elevate his wines to reserve quality. It's the only way he can compete successfully with larger operations at lower elevations, he explains.

Fifteen years ago Morse purchased 80 acres of land he believed could produce quality wine. His Il Gioiello property is in Amador County at 2200-feet elevation and very near to the El Dorado County line. There he grows most of the grapes for both the Morse Wines and Il Gioiello labels. He is surrounded by the Fiddletown, Fairplay and Shenandoah Valley AVAs. “Soil-wise we're more like Fairplay,” says Morse. “Weather-wise we're more like Fiddletown.” In explaining the soils on his property, he echoes the words of Anne Kraemer of Shake Ridge Vineyards, who said this part of Amador County is “geologic chaos.” Sierra Series II Loam might be the most identifiable component, but Morse adds that his vineyards include “soapstone, shales, schist and more of a volcanic soil where the Cabernet Franc is planted.”

Robert Morse grew up the son of a fireman in Moraga, California. His ancestry is German and Scottish, but Morse explains that his pals next door were Italian and that their parents kept two jugs in their refrigerator. One was Kool-Aid, the other presumably red wine. It is possible he quenched his thirst with the latter. In any case, the young Morse developed an early appreciation of wine and food. During college he worked in restaurant kitchens and after graduating from the University of Oregon he became a home winemaker. Working as an executive in the semiconductor industry (Intel, Integrated Device Technology and Cypress Semiconductor) led to travel opportunities. Some of these were necessitated by job assignments. In Livermore and later in Monterey County, he was able to pursue his wine-making hobby while meeting growers in those areas. Along the way he even planted some small vineyards of his own.

As his passion developed for all things food and wine, he traveled frequently on his own and found Italy and the south of France particularly intriguing. “When I was 39-years old, I was deciding what I wanted to do with (the rest of) my life,” Morse explains. “It had to have to do with wine.” He says he took some wine-related classes at UC Davis and “read everything I could get my hands on.” Napa and Sonoma were becoming more devoted to specializing in just four varieties; Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. He had made those wines as a hobbyist and considering continuing in that direction. “But I decided I didn't want to do those (varietals) anymore,” he says. For someone who wanted to pursue the Italian and Rhône Valley varieties he'd grown fond of there seemed to be only two options: Paso Robles and the Sierra Foothills. Morse says he eliminated Paso Robles, “because I don't like the wind and I don't like barren, rolling hills.”

Robt Morse kneeling with vine PicmonkeyChecking drip irrigation

With fond memories of childhood trips to Calaveras County, he found a similarity in the more northly growing regions of Amador and El Dorado. And, these areas in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas were showing potential for top-quality winegrowing. However, Morse found the Foothill wine quality to be spotty. “Reasonably capitalized operations that were not overreaching generally made good wine. Under capitalized wineries made (inferior) wine,” he explains. Two people in Amador County who were making wine of a style Morse liked were Jim Gullet of Vino Noceto and Bill Easton of Terre Rouge. He remembers touring his property with Gullet before starting to plant. “What (wine) do you really want to make well?” he recalls Gullet asking him. “World-class Petite Sirah,” came his response. “Well, plant on the hill right over there,” said the Vino Noceto proprietor. Morse dutifully did as told. That decision seemed validated in 2012 when the Orange County Fair and Orange County Wine Society presented Morse their “highest possible award” for his 2008 Evans Hill Vineyard Petite Sirah.

It's not just Petite Sirah that Morse put in. Currently he grows 13 varietals, three of which have two different clones. In all there are 16 vineyards on the 20-acres of land planted thus far. Nearly all of these varieties are reds, save for one Rhône white (Viognier). Others with French heritage include Syrah, Mouvèdre and Grenache.

Italian varietals on the property include Barbera, Aglianico, Sangiovese (Brunello and Romagnolo clones), Montepulciano and Primitivo.

Also planted are Cabernet Franc and Zinfandel, that most Californian of grapes that is a staple in these Foothills. The Zin cuttings were taken from Sonoma's famed Monte Rosso Vineyard. Morse also makes a Muscat Blanc from grapes grown on a neighboring property and sources Merlot from Livermore.

Robt Morse with OC award PicmonkeyWith Orange County's "highest possible award"

Though being acknowledged for producing good quality (Wine Spectator noted a very high ratio of scores to price), Morse was not satisfied. “It's the semiconductor environment,” he says. “Never stand still—always be improving.” In 2011 he began dropping fruit in his Mouvèdre, Petite Sirah and Syrah vineyards. Reducing crop levels from five tons per acres to two or two-and-a-half tons per acre made a big difference in wine quality. The following year he similarly reduced crop for his Zinfandel and Barbera. “The dropping of fruit was the renaissance for us,” he says. “It took us seven years (of harvests) to figure it out.” Both that lowering of the crop level and spending a lot on cooperage are key. In a perfect world Morse would age his wines only French oak, but he has evolved a cost-effective alternative by moving to extra fine-grained oak barrels from Missouri. These provide the subtle and nuanced influences of French oak at a reasonable cost.

For 12 years Robert Morse played the dual roles of vineyard owner/winemaker and semiconductor industry executive. Three years ago he decided to devote all his time to his vineyards and winery. After a man walks away from a well-paying industry, he usually has some reflections on how to make the most of his new life. One of the ways is to use his work to help causes he deems worthy. The “HorsePlay” project is a step in that direction. It's a special bottling of wine—a blend of his estate Mouvèdre, Montepulcianno and Barbera. Proceeds from the sale of HorsePlay benefit Return to Freedom, a 300-acre sanctuary for wild horses and burros on the Central Coast. Morse was an accomplished junior golfer and would like to eventually create something similar to HorsePlay to help introduce the game of golf to youngsters whose circumstances wouldn't otherwise allow their participation.

There's another Morse who may eventually join the operation. Robert's son, Evan Scott Morse, just graduated high school in the Bay Area. A proud dad believes the well-spoken young man might have a future as a writer. That his son is already enrolled in two fall semester viticulture classes at Las Positas Community College in Livermore is also a source of pride. Evan's plan is to complete a four-year degree in Viticulture and Enology at Fresno State before working with his father at Il Gioiello. He'll be joining an operation that seems bound for success. The latest evidence that Il Gioiello is on the right path is the Best of Show accolade at the 26th District Fair Judging held at the Amador County Fairgrounds in Plymouth on June 7th. The competition judges wines from grapes grown not just in Amador County, but the entire Sierra Foothills. Robert Morse says that the winning 2011 Mouvèdre is the first example of a wine made after his move to rigorous thinning and a higher percentage of new oak. “I was feeling good about it and had good comments from others in the industry,” he said when hearing the news. “This is wonderful.”

Editor's note: Check out the Resource Directory of Taste California Travel if you're thinking of visiting this beautiful part of California. In the Gold Country listings you'll find links to the websites of all the wineries, as well as links to Lodging and Dining options.

Saturday, 21 June 2014 13:17

Barbera Fans Gather at Cooper Ranch

Bella Luna Table at Barbera Fest 2014 PicmonkeyLadies at right poured from the Bella Luna table

by Jen and Gary Sleppy

We enjoy Barberas and know them to be food-friendly wines. Over the years we've encountered this variety mostly one bottle at a time. At Saturday's fourth annual Barbera Festival in Amador County we had opportunity to taste examples from 74 California wineries, as well as a few from Italian producers. Of course, trying to sample all of these in one afternoon would difficult, if not impossible.

The Barbera grape is native to the Piedmont of northwestern Italy, but it's been grown in California since the 1880s. Its wine exhibits flavors ranging from bright red fruits like cherries and raspberries to darker fruits such as blueberries and blackberries. Not excessively tannic, Barbera is very appealing in its youth and doesn't require long aging, though examples from older vintages are said to be surprisingly attractive.

Site of the Barbera Festival is the Cooper Ranch on Shenandoah School Road just a little east of the town of Plymouth. Even though the event is held outdoors, admission is limited and each year the event sells out weeks in advance. Parking is easy and wineries poured from tables located under walnut trees so the crowd was spread out and tasters could enjoy wines in the shade on this warm afternoon. Our visit wasn't anything like the mob scenes we've encountered at some other tastings. Things seemed well-organized. People working on the day (we presume many of them were volunteers) were friendly and helpful.

Though the festival is held in Amador, vintners from other parts of the state also brought Barberas from their own regions. As Sacramentans, we're been fairly familiar with the nearby Sierra Foothills, so we looked forward to trying the efforts of more distant wineries. In all we tasted about 30-35 wines. Our favorite this day was the 2011 Barbera from Bella Luna Winery in the Paso Robles area of California's Central Coast. We thought it had an intriguing “earthy” quality and bright, but not excessive, acidity.

Many of the wineries in the area have planted Barbera vines with “the Cooper clone” which traces its history to the vineyards surrounding the festival grounds. The resultant grapes are thicker skinned and more heat-tolerant. They produce wines that are deep, juicy and tend to show big blueberry flavors. A wine we particularly liked was from nearby Helwig Winery, whose 2012 Barbera was a blend of fruit sourced from the Cooper Vineyard and also from their own estate vineyard. Its flavors were rich and showed good acid. We found it “filling,” and very satisfying.

Barbera Fest 2014 Crowd Shot PicmonkeyWalnut orchard provided shady settingThere was a booth pouring several examples of Italian Barbera. These showed bright fruit and had the acidity that makes for a wine that will be good served with food. Some of the wines we encountered Saturday from the California producers also exhibited these qualities, but some did not. One Amador example was way too alcoholic and lost the charm of this variety. Others may not have had excessive alcohol, but produced wines in a big, ripe style that seemed inconsistent with the bright personality that we think is the hallmark of good Barbera (or at least the Barberas we like).

Fleur De Lys Winery from the Fairplay area (southern El Dorado County) poured a 2008 vintage that was well-blanced and showed good acidity that we really liked. Apparently, they make Barbera on an intermittent basis and suggested they'd soon release their 2011 vintage. Karmere Vineyards and Winery is just up the road from the Cooper Ranch and they described their 2010 “Julie Ann” Barbera as being in the “Asti style.” It was still a little green and tannic, but showed a complexity with leathery notes and a somewhat oily texture. Westwood Family Cellars grows grapes in Placer County and offered three vintages. The 2009 showed bright, black cherry fruit, yet had a delicate, soft finish. Fruit in the 2010 seemed more like black currants and the 2011 had some cola-like aspects when we tasted it. Wilderotter is another Shenandoah Valley winery, whose wine we thought worthwhile. Their 2011 estate Barbera was full of bright cherry flavors and was right in the style we prefer.

While we made a diligent effort to try a wide variety of the Barberas being poured at the festival, the reality is that we got to fewer than half of them. Probably there would be some others that we would have also liked. Other tasters might have found a whole different list of favorites. As with most grape varieties, there is no "one style that fits all" for Barbera.

If you go:  Since the event sells out early, getting tickets ahead of time is a must (www.barberafestival.com). There's some live music, but it's mostly for the background. People come for more for the experience of tasting a wide variety Barbera styles. Food is available from several vendors, though at additional cost. We enjoyed a golden beet salad from Andrae's Bakery and were intrigued by the “Duck Dog” offered by Taste Restaurant. We settled on Taste's Salmon Niçoise, another salad but a good choice on a warm day. Seating is limited. We took a couple of breaks sitting on the lawn, but we noticed some people had brought their own folding chairs. If next June is a little long to wait to taste Barberas, many of the wineries in Amador and El Dorado Counties would be happy to pour examples in their tasting rooms. Links to the websites of those wineries, as well as links to Lodging and Dining options, can be found in the Gold Country listings of Taste California Travel's Resource Directory.

Duck Rillettes with glasses PicmonkeyDuck rillettes with several wines

by Dan Clarke

Barbera is finally getting its due. Though its ancestral home is northern Italy, the grape has been grown in California since the 19th Century. It hasn't enjoyed the prestige and popularity of other red wines produced here, but what's happening in Amador County is beginning to change that.

This foothill wine region 40 miles east of Sacramento has long enjoyed a reputation for quality Zinfandel. In more recent years it has also been garnering notice for wines made from grapes native to France's Rhone Valley. And now the focus shifts to another worthy wine variety.

Saturday marked the fourth annual Barbera Festival. Wineries from all over the state came to Amador County's Shenandoah Valley to pour their Barberas. Tickets were priced at $50 and the event sold out months in adcance. Is the festival acknowledging the surging popularity of this variety or creating it? Probably it's a bit of both.

Montevina and Terra d'Oro chose to celebrate their anniversary a couple of days before this year's festival at Taste Restaurant in Plymouth, where Darrell Corti led a retrospective tasting of their 1980 through 2012 Barberas.

Plymouth is more hamlet than metropolis, but it's the closest town to the Shenandoah Valley and most of the wineries in the county. And, it has an extraordinary restaurant. Our evening began with a reception in the park across the street from Taste. There we sampled the current vintage of Terra d'Oro Barbera (2012) before adjourning to the restaurant for subsequent courses.

Jeff Meyers at Barbera Dinner PicmonkeyJeff Meyers

Actually, Terra d'Oro and Montevina wines are both products from the same winery. Montevina was established in Amador's Shenandoah Valley over 40 years ago and added the Terra d'Oro line in 1993. Since 1988 the Montevina property and both labels have been owned by Trinchero Family Estates. Cary Gott made the first wines at Montevina, but Jeff Meyers began his own winemaking career there in 1981 and never left. He now carries the title of Vice President and General Manager and his influence is still felt, though Chris Leamy has been the winemaker of record since the 2003 vintage. Darrell Corti commented such continuity is unusual. “Winemakers are like chefs,” he said. “They're vagrants.”

Montevina Barberas from the 1980 and 1990 vintages were poured with Chef Mark Berkner's first course, a roasted beet salad with sage, tat soi and hazelnut. The '80 Montevina Special Selection Barbera was a Cary Gott wine. The '90 Montevina was made by Jeff Meyers. While our tasting was not a contest, it was inevitable that we would prefer some wines over others. At my table several liked the '80. In the mid-1980s I spent a lot of time in this region when I was developing The Foothill Wine Press and am sure I would have tasted and enjoyed the 1980 vintage in that era. But not tonight. Though both wines were still drinkable, I much preferred the younger one. Darrell said “It's difficult to criticize an old wine for being old,” and I agree but thought the '90 was entirely more pleasant

Three vintages of Terra d'Oro Barbera ('93, '97, '99) were paired with duck rilettes served with dried local cherries. All three wines showed a little sediment by the time the glasses were removed, but they seemed remarkably vital otherwise. The '97 stood out immediately. It seemed lush—maybe even voluptuous. The '99 was subtler, but seemed full of promise as it opened up a bit. California's 1997 grape harvest was very big one, but also of excellent quality. Asked about the alcohol level in the '97, Jeff said it was really high—probably a bit over 15%. The wine was big and showy . . . and way better than I would have thought a 15% alcohol wine would be 17 years on. Had we not been moving on to subsequent courses and vintages—a surfeit of riches—I would have loved to spend more time with the '99.

Lamb Meatball at Barbera DinnerLamb meatball - simple, yet exquisite

Two examples of the 1998 vintage were served with the next course, a single lamb meatball, served on local white polenta with tomato cumin. Both these wines were Barbera, but bearing different labels and made in different styles. Jeff Meyers recalled that in California the 1998 vintage was the coldest (and wettest) in 30 years. “The '98s were panned by a lot of people,” he said, explaining that vintners in many parts of the state opted to pick early. “But we picked five weeks late this vintage. We let it get ripe. We waited and got the benefit of five extra weeks of 'hang-time'.”

The Montevina, poured from a 750ml bottle, was somewhat lighter bodied, but showed bright fruit characteristics. The Terra d'Oro, poured from a magnum, seemed darker, riper and richer and had been more aggressively oaked. Both were made from the same vineyards on a property just a few miles northeast of the restaurant. And both were splendid wines. Darrell likened the Terra d'Oro to a “minor Burgundy,” adding that it “smelled a little like a mature Pinot Noir.” The accompanying lamb meatball dish was the kind of rare experience that makes one very thankful he chose to be a wine and food writer.

Chris Leamy and Darrell Corti  PicmonkeyChris Leamy and Darrell Corti

The first two of the evening's wines made by Chris Leamy were the 2003 Montevina and 2003 Terra d'Oro. “We kept loving (the vintage) as we bottled it,” remembered Chris. “For some reason this vintage is aging superbly. It's all about balance.” The Montevina seemed more focused on the ripe, fresh cherry-like fruit; the Terra d'Oro was deeper, darker and richer.” They were paired with braised goat, served with mushroom, black truffle and a mirepoix gateau. If it is possible for each of two very different styles to go perfectly with a food course, then this would have been that time.

These wines from the 2003 vintage were still so young and vibrant, yet they were 11 years old. It was a congenial group of tasters/diners and by this time in the evening opinions were flowing from us, as well as from Darrell and our two winemakers. Picking up on a wine-ageing comment voiced from a table behind me, Chris opined, “I think well-made Barbera is going to age much better than any California Cabernet Sauvignon.” Clarifying that California Cabs racking up high scores on release, but stumbling badly after three years were what he meant, Chris heard murmurs of agreement from some. This Cabernet issue could have become an interesting tangent, but we had more Barbera to consider.

Two more wines from the same vintage made their appearance when 2007 Montevina and Terra d'Oro were poured with local strawberries served with crystalized fennel, honey and goat cheese. Once again, the Montevina wine showcased fresh, ripe fruit; its Terra d'Oro counterpart was deeper and richer tasting. Chris told us that the Montevina wine was finished with a screw cap, rather than the traditional cork and that he preferred it with the strawberry course. Me, too.

Mark Berkner at Barbera DinnerChef Mark Berkner

Chris suggested—perhaps only half-jokingly—that he'd like to see all of us again in 2024 so that we could re-taste this screw-topped '07 Montevina a decade later. Getting into the spirit, Jeff suggested a reprise next year. The evening had been instructive—we'd been tasting history and getting a rare insight into how one winery had evolved their treatment of a single grape variety. Counting the crostini served at the reception in the park, there were seven courses created by the Mark Berkner to pair with these wines. A tasting menu of small plates served with several wine courses is not all that unusual, but one designed to complement 11 variations on the same varietal theme is rare. The food was superb. Actually, there was one last pairing on the evening. Mark's menu concluded with poached apricots served with biscotti made with local almonds. This accompanied the 2013 Terra d'Oro Moscato, which Chris quipped “is our white Barbera.”

Darrell Corti could accurately be described as a Sacramento grocer and wine merchant, but that definition is woefully incomplete. Darrell has an international reputation and knows the major players. And they know him. During our evening at Taste, he related an anecdote about Piero Antinori's visit to California in 1976. Antinori, whose family has been in the wine business for eight centuries, had come to check out California and had asked Darrell to show him around. They visited wineries in Monterey, Napa and Sonoma Counties. Approaching the end of their tour, the group went to dinner at the Mark West Springs Inn. After arriving at the restaurant Darrell remembered he had a bottle of wine in the trunk of his car—a 1974 Barbera from Montevina, the very first vintage from the vines planted three years earlier. "I asked if they would like to taste it, since I had been given it the Sunday before by Cary Gott who had just bottled it," he recalled.  "Of course they would like to taste it. Both Tachis and Piero liked the wine, said it was good and Tachis in particular liked the double course of frog's legs he enjoyed.

"The next morning when I called to pick them up, Piero came down first from the hotel and said that Tachis was out of sorts. I asked why. He seemed to enjoy himself, the dinner, the wines. Piero said: 'After you left last night, Tachis told me he had expected to come to California and taste cabernets better than ours (in Italy.) He did not expect to taste better Barbera.' "

A few days after the dinner, Darrel gave us a bit more background on the Antinori visit and on Dr. Tachis. "Giacomo Tachis is probably Italy's most important winemaker of the 20th century," said Corti. "He is Piemontese and his family used to send him wine from Piemonte. I consider him the Patron of Barbera in Amador because of his reaction to the 1974 Barbera from Montevina. It gave credence to the quality of Amador Barbera. In those days in the 1970s, Barbera in Italy was a sea of thin, high acid, pretty nasty wine, which mainly was due to over produced vineyards and fit only for distillation, which is what happened to the majority of the production. Tachis's reaction was a reference to this fact. He and Piero Antinori were the first Italians to taste Amador Barbera, now forty years ago."

Editor's note: Those planning to visit Amador wine country should check out the Gold Country listings at Taste California Travel's Resource Directory. They're a great source of links to the websites of Wineries, as well as Lodging and Dining options.

Monday, 09 June 2014 17:03

Mouvèdre Takes Best of Show at Amador


Robt Morse with wine thief PicmonkeyRobert Morse draws a barrel sample of his 2013 ZinfandelTASTE News Service June 9, 2014 – Amador County may be known for its Zinfandel, but it was a Mouvèdre, that took top honors at the Amador County Fair judging on Saturday. When notified that the 2011 Morse Wines Mouvèdre was named Best of Show, winemaker Robert Morse said, “This is wonderful. I was feeling good about (this wine) and have had good comments from others in the industry.” Morse produces wines from a diverse array of grape varietals under both the Morse Wines and Il Gioiello labels. Most of these are estate grown on his Il Gioiello property at 2200-foot elevation in Amador County.

The Morse Wines Mouvèdre was from the 2011 vintage, the first harvest after the owner chose to reduce crop levels to two to two-and-a-half tons of fruit per acre and begin a more an aggressive oak aging program. Both steps were expensive, but the results seem to have justified the decision.

Entries for this competition are not limited to just Amador County. Wines made from any Sierra Foothill grapes, wherever they may be vinified, are eligible to participate. Another Rhône variety wine amplified the Gallic flavor of this year's competition as a non-vintage Viognier from El Dorado County's Saluti Cellars was deemed Best White Wine. Best Dessert Wine of the contest was the 2013 “Impetuous,” a late-harvest Viognier from Tumbas Vineyard made by Scott Mahon of Legendre Cellars in Amador. Best Blush Wine was the 2013 Rose Blend from Helwig Vineyards and Winery, also an Amador entity.

Amador Judging  June 7 2014 PicmonkeyAmador judges includedTed Rieger (at left) of Vineyard and Winery Management magazine

In a contest within the contest, there were several awards for specific Amador-only categories. In this section the Best Amador Zinfandel was a 2011 effort from Drytown Cellars. A Viognier from Karmere Winery was chosen Best Amador Rhône, Best Amador Italian was the 2012 Feist Barbera and Best Amador Iberian was the 2013 Verdelho (a white grape native to Portugal), also made by Drytown Cellars.

Editor's note: Wineries in the Sierra Foothills tend to be small and offer a very personal experience for their visitors. If you're considering learning more about this colorful wine region, check out the Gold Country listings in Taste California Travel's Resource Directory. There you will find links not only to the websites of all the wineries, but also links to many Lodging and Dining options.   

Tuesday, 04 March 2014 15:17

Revisiting Some Familiar Wine Territory

by Dan Clarke


Saturday I took a drive up to Amador County to check out Behind the Cellar Door, a two-day event that offers more than just the usual wine tasting opportunities. Most of the 39 participating members of Amador Vintners put out some food for this occasion and many have live music. Educational opportunities are offered, too. Visitors can experience unfinished wines poured from the barrel, see how vines are pruned or maybe watch a barrel-making exhibition.

My friend Ray agreed to ride along. He likes Zinfandels, but hasn't spent much time in this nearby area that is known for them. Amador is a big county and there a few scattered wineries elsewhere, but most of the action is in the Shenandoah Valley, just east of the little town of Plymouth. After picking up our wristbands and glasses at the Visitors Center, we continued up Shenandoah Road and made our first stop at Bray Vineyards, where we tasted both wine and “Eric's famous meatballs with raspberry and roasted chipotle sauce with polenta.” It was delightful and the raspberries in the sauce really complemented the flavors of the Zinfandels.

Turley tasting bar PicmonkeyTasting bar at Turley was busy

Across the road is the new Turley Wine Cellars tasting room. When old friends Buck and Karly Cobb retired, they sold their winery to Larry Turley, who had created a great reputation at his Napa Valley winery, Frog's Leap. Turley had already been sourcing grapes from Amador County and apparently now has access to the great vineyards that had supplied Karly Wines. We tasted three Zins, two of them composed of fruit from vineyards in diverse parts of the state and one from nearby--the Bell Vineyard. Of these three, both of us preferred the blend referred to as “The Juvenile” by the pourer. At $22 it was also the least expensive of these three. Two other vineyard-designated Zinfandels from this area are to be released soon; one from the Sadie Upton Vineyard, the other from the Cobb Vineyard.

Barjon Family PcmonkeyThe Borjon FamilyBorjon Winery, just up the road a ways, was our next stop. There we enjoyed tasting some Zinfandel and a few Spanish varieties, bottled under their sister label, Los Portales. There were good Mexican snacks and I was sorry that Mariachi Mi Tierra wasn't scheduled to perform until Sunday. The Barjon family has deep knowledge of the vineyards in the area and has built a handsome winery of their own in recent years.

With just two or three hours available, there certainly wasn't time to visit everybody—half a dozen wineries was about all that would be practical. We took the left turn onto Steiner Road and passed the familiar driveways of Renwood (nee Santino), Shenandoah Vineyards and Amador Foothill Winery, continuing on to Driven Cellars where we enjoyed a couple of tastes of their wine, as well as some small but very tasty roast beef sandwiches-- “sliders” in the current parlance. There was a man playing his gently-amplified 12-string guitar. He was no doubt a very capable musician, but I was hoping for something livelier. I think since leaving Barjon I was lamenting that the mariachis were not playing until Sunday. That and the fact that there didn't seem to be any Tequila to taste.

We exited Driven and made a sharp right turn into the drive to neighboring Dobra Zemlja. I'd met the owner, Milan Matulich, years ago. I liked him and enjoyed hearing his plans for developing his small-production family winery, but at the time found his wines higher in alcohol than suited my taste. Our printed guide to the weekend's event indicated there would be daily seminars on brandy making at this location. That could have been worthwhile, but our visit was brief. We enjoyed our encounter with Dutch Stamppot and grilled sausage and tasted a couple of wines. Bottled in a one liter jug was a blended red wine identified as Milan's Ruz, priced at $20. A blend of Grenache, Syrah and Zinfandel, it was peppery and more complex than I'd have thought, given the price. I loved it. This was my discovery of the day.

Bocce at Il Gioiello PicmonkeyBocce court at Il GioielloFor a year or so I've been receiving the newsletter from Il Gioiello Winery and Morse Wines. The concept of this dual operation is intriguing and I enjoy the editorial. At last summer's Barbera festival held at Cooper Vineyards, I met the owner, Robert Morse, and planned to visit his property one day. The map showed it had a Fiddletown address, but was more easterly than these Amador wineries we'd visited thus far. Finding Il Gioiello shouldn't have been a problem. There are many more wineries up here than when I began the Foothill Wine Press 30 years ago, but roads follow the same paths laid out by prospectors in the Gold Rush of 1849. I'd driven many miles in this country, so I shouldn't have had much trouble. And I had a navigator. Ray spent time in the back seat of a Cessna 172 as a forward observer in Viet Nam. Reading maps of Amador County should be a simpler job than that. We headed up the hill from Fiddletown. We saw fewer and fewer vineyards as the land was getting more forested. Our ears began to pop as we continued to climb the winding road. We hadn't yet encountered snow, but Ray began to talk about taking at least one ski trip this season if we got another good storm. When our road came to the intersection with Highway 88, we realized we had bungled things. We could have found the Kirkwood ski area from that point, but not our winery. Chastened, we turned around and headed for the barn.

I was still looking for a winery with lively music, so when we saw that Serra Fina Cellars was featuring Geoff Miller Country Blues, we decided to stop in. It was a few miles west of Plymouth on Latrobe Road and it was on the way home. The music was good, the view better than expected. We sampled several offerings at this relatively new winery. The woman pouring didn't know very much about the Sera Fina wines, nor much about wine in general, but she was pleasant. A Vigonier was palatable, as was a rosé. Unfortunately, several others we tasted were not.

While we encountered a few bad wines on Saturday, we found more good ones. People were cordial and it was good for two old pals to get out of town on this mini road trip. There's unfinished business, though. That visit to Il Gioiello has to be the first stop on my next visit to Amador wine country. If I omit the detour that took us halfway to Nevada, it should be less than an hour's drive from Sacramento.

Editor's note: If you're planning to visit wineries in this beautiful and fast-developing wine region, you should check out the Gold Country listings in Taste California Travel's Resource Directory. There you will find links to the wineries throughout the Sierra Foothills, as well as links to the sites of Lodging and Dining options.

Friday, 15 November 2013 16:25

November 15, 2013 Wine Pick of the Week


Sobon Estate Syrah Picmonkey

 2011 Syrah


Producer: Sobon Estate

Appellation: Amador County

Alcohol: 13.8%

Sugested Retail: $16


“It wasn't that many years ago that Syrah, the predominant grape of France's northern Rhône Valley, was the up-and-coming variety in California. New plantings went in, notably on the Central Coast and in the Sierra Foothills. For reasons nobody seems to have figured out, America's wine-drinking public hasn't embraced the variety to the degree expected. That's a puzzler, because California produces some very high quality Syrahs.

“This week's Pick, the 2011 Amador County Syrah from Sobon Estate, is a wonderful wine regardless of price. That it is well under twenty bucks, makes it also a bargain. It's a big wine, lush but not 'over the top.' The current vintage is 84% Syrah, 12% Petite Sirah and 4% Primitivo.

“This Syrah shows aromas of blueberry and plum. There's also some ground white pepper in the background and maybe a hint of that bacon-like character that creative reviewers sometimes describe as 'feral.' The first taste fills the mouth--it's rich and velvety and reprises those blueberry/plum qualities evident in the nose. The fruit is substantial, but the wine would be one-dimensional if that's all there was. Fortunately, there's much more.

“Those subtler aspects that make good Syrah so appealing become more apparent on second and third tastes and as the wine opens up in the glass. The white pepper background, maybe just a hint of brown spices and some of the 'roasted meat' character are all there, but in a understated way. Overall, this was a very satisfying bottle of wine.”

Food Affinity: “We encountered the 2011 Sobon Estate Syrah at a restaurant when we ordered it with a pizza. While that wasn't a bad pairing, this Amador County wine would be better accompaniment to many of the hearty dishes appropriate for brisk fall and winter evenings. Grilled fennel sausages might work. Considering this variety's geographic origins, how about boeuf en daube, a deeply flavorful French version of beef stew, or maybe a cassoulet?"

Thursday, 06 June 2013 19:25

Cooper Mouvèdre Wows Judges.


Cooper Ranch Mouvedre and Winemaker PicmonkeyWinemaker Michael Roser proudly displays his winning Mouvèdre. Photo by Jeri SwifCooper Vineyards' 2010 Mouvèdre was chosen Best Red Wine, as well as Best of Show by judges for the Amador County Fair. The 2013 edition of this annual competition was held at the Fairgrounds in Plymouth on the first day of June.

Also honored was Amador Foothill Winery, whose 2012 Sauvignon Blanc was named Best White Wine of the annual competition.

Other wines singled out for recognition include the Best Blush Wine (2012 Barbera Rose from Solune Winegrowers), Best Amador County Rhone (2010 Petite Sirah “Bodacious” from Macchia Wines), Best Amador County Italian (2010 Primitivo “Reszerve” from Sobon Wine Company), Best Amador Zinfandel (2010 Zinfandel “Old Vine” from Bella Grace Vineyards) and Best Dessert Wine (2011 Black Muscat from Shenandoah Vineyards).

Editor's note: Though vineyards and winemaking in Amador County date back to Civil War days, the region has really been taking off lately. The diversity of wines produced and the quality of winemaking has never been higher. Prospective visitors to this area will find links to websites of all of the wineries, as well as Lodging and Dining options, in Taste California Travel's Resource Directory.


ScottandJanaHarveyatSutterCreekTastingRoom PicmonkeyScott and Jana at tasting room on Sutter Creek's Main Street.

How did Winemaker Scott Harvey help transform an historical Gold Rush town known as the “Jewel of the Mother Lode” to a charming wine center?

Six years ago, Scott and his wife Jana envisioned a tasting venue where people could both dine and book lodging within walking distance of the tasting room. Sutter Creek, the most picturesque town in Gold Country, would be the ideal showcase for Amador County wine and provide just the place for responsible wine tasting—where people enjoy a flight of wine and stroll to dinner and back to the hotel. Scott and Jana took the leap in early 2007, joining just one other tasting room in town—Sutter Creek Wine Tasting.

Later in the year, Pat Crosby, former City Councilman of Sutter Creek, a registered California Landmark, approached winemaker Scott Harvey with a proposition. “Can you help develop Sutter Creek into a wine lover’s destination?” Scott approached the city with a tasting room prospectus at Pat’s behest.

Scott had already built his reputation as a winemaker, creating Amador Wines for Santino Winery, which he later developed into Renwood, and had a strong affiliation with Amador County wines. “What better place for people to appreciate the Barbera, Zinfandel, and Syrah that make the mountain region of Amador County so unique than right near the vineyards of the Shenandoah Valley?”

Scott Harvey was instrumental in contacting other wineries to open a satellite in the town Sunset Magazine calls “The Jewel of the Sierra.” By 2013, additional wineries on Main St. include Cinque, Bella Grace, Andis, Yorba with Baiocchi and Sutter Ridge opening this summer . The group of tasting rooms is now known as Wine on Main.

Today, the Scott Harvey Wines Tasting Room is ranked the #1 attraction in Sutter Creek by Trip Advisor, lauded by reviewers for the friendly and knowledgeable tasting room staff, and wide variety of celebrated wines, from Amador County Zinfandel to Napa Valley Cabernet, to a favorite among visitors, Scott Harvey’s port-style wine, Forte.

Scott and Jana have now enhanced their Sutter Creek Tasting room experience. A newly expanded and welcoming back patio that opened June 1st features comfortable tables and chairs. Flowers and greenery have been freshly planted by Scott’s daughter, Michelle, giving tasters a delightful respite for their personalized tasting experience, or to enjoy a glass of one of Scott Harvey’s award-winning selection of over 15 wines.

“We believe we have the best tasting room visitors in California,” said Tasting Room Manager Muffin Simpson. “We love making the tasting room experience fun and enjoy introducing guests to varietals they might not have tasted before, such as Scott’s J&S Reserve Barbera, winner of Gold at the California State Fair, and dessert wines such as our Riesling-based Ice-style Wine, Angel Eis.”

About Scott Harvey Wines:

Established in 2004, Scott Harvey Wines features Amador County Barberas, Zinfandels and Syrahs, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel, along with a variety of one-of-a-kind white and red wine blends. Creator of “niche wines that over deliver,” Scott Harvey, owner and winemaker, has been making wines for over 30 years. The company has tasting rooms in both St. Helena and Sutter Creek.

Editor's note: Visitors to California's Gold Country can find links to many Lodging and Dining options, as well as links to all of the Sierra Foothill wineries in Taste California Travel's Resource Directory.


from TASTE News Service

Scott Harvey in front of Vineyard Picmonkey"balance is critical . . . " --Scott HarveyLower alcohol wine represents Napa Valley winemaker Scott Harvey’s commitment to making wine that is drinkable, enjoyable, and enhances good food. At last, new tastes in wine are catching up to Scott Harvey’s training.

The winemaker is not alone in his views about the superiority of lower alcohol wines. According to Richard Halstead, CEO of global market research Wine Intelligence, “Alcoholic strength of wine is an issue that consumers take seriously across the world." According to Drinks International, "there has been widespread criticism of 15.5% alcohol blockbusters and requests for winemakers to aim lower."

Trained in Germany in the Old World style, Scott believes that balance is critical to good wine making results. In a recent interview with Dan Berger, writer for the Sonoma County, California – based newspaper and online site, Press Democrat, the writer explored the winemaker’s perspective on the place of alcohol level in wine making. “Balance is the key to all great wines, said Scott Harvey. “I prefer to make my Napa Valley Cabernets come in at 13.5%.” Many Napa Valley cult wines come in with labels from 14.5% to 15.5% “although from the way they taste, they could well be at least 1.5% higher.” said Scott.

“I pick wine grapes when the grapes still taste like Cabernet grapes or Zinfandel grapes—rather than like raisins. Most winemakers are afraid to pick this early, but I listen to the grapes.” Scott picks Cabernet grapes at the moment when they are red fruits, not black fruits, turning into raisins. It’s what Scott calls “The Perfect Moment” in his video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Br9H29iYsC8

A lower alcohol wine can be an award-winning wine. For example, Jana Cathedral Napa Valley 2006 ($65) has an alcohol level of 13.5%. This limited production Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is the winner of a double Gold Medal at the America Fine Wine Competition. “I made this wine in the European style with low pH and low alcohol, so it pairs very well with an elegant and rich meal,” Scott explained. “I named it for Cathedral Rock in Sedona, Arizona, where I proposed marriage to Jana.”

Another Scott Harvey award-winner, with a 13.5% alcohol level, is Scott Harvey 2009 J&S Reserve Barbera, which was singled out at the California State Fair with a Gold Medal - 94 Points. “The rich full flavors express both the varietal and the terroir of Amador County,” explains Scott. “This Barbera is a blend of the Spinetta Vineyard and Vineyard 1869 of the Shenandoah Valley of Amador County, California.”

Lower alcohol and more balanced results have been more achievable with the more recent cool vintage releases of 2010 and 2011. “It’s the lower temperature vintages that produce less sugar, and with less sugar comes lower alcohol," said Scott.

Scott Harvey Signs Bottle PicmonkeySigning a medal winnerOn the white side, Scott is known for his European Style Riesling, which previously has had alcohol levels as low as 9.5%. Scott will have a new release of his Mendocino Riesling in June. He is also a celebrated wine blender, originally known as the creator behind the popular Ménage à Trois. Most recently, Scott brings his blending skills to his latest award-winning white wine blend, Primero Beso (First Kiss.)

The World Wine Championships, run by Beverage Testing Institute, has just awarded 91 points (rated Exceptional) to Scott’s Primero Beso 2011 White Blend, ($18), with a 12.5% alcohol by volume. The judges rated the blend for its “pale golden yellow color. Aromas of dark fig-date bread and honey with a soft, dry-yet-fruity light-to-medium body and a tangy apple, peach, starfruit and lemon tart accented finish. Very refreshing and lively as a sipper or to pair with spicy Mexican foods.” 4/13/13

About Scott Harvey WinesHandcrafted wines from Napa Valley and Amador County, Scott Harvey Wines produces wines under three labels: Scott Harvey Wines, Jana Winery and InZinerator. Established in 2004, Scott Harvey Wines features Vineyard 1869 Zinfandel, Napa Valley Cathedral Cabernet Sauvignon, Amador County Barberas, Zinfandels and Syrahs along with a variety of one-of-a-kind white and red wine blends. Creator of “niche wines that over deliver,” Scott Harvey, owner and winemaker, has been making quality wines for over 30 years.

Editor's note: Planning a visit to the Napa Valley? You'll find links to the websites of hundreds of Lodging and Dining options there, as well as links to all of Napa's wineries at Taste California Travel's Resource Directory.

Sunday, 06 January 2013 02:07

March 4-5, 2017 Behind the Cellar Door

Region: Gold Country     City: Plymouth     Contact: https://amadorwine.com 


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