After a few days in Yosemite at the Ahwahnee Hotel, I said to my wife, “Ahwahnee go to wine country.” Well, I would have said that, but I was near a cliff and stupid jokes like that can lead to one getting gently shoved off into space, creating the fleeting beauty of HoseMaster Falls. We drove to Jackson from the Ahwahnee, a few hours from Yosemite, through a gentle snow, and spent a few days exploring the wineries of Amador and El Dorado Counties. That was ten years ago. Since then, I’ve wanted to return a dozen times, but have never gathered enough momentum.
We tasted first with Bill Easton at Terre Rouge. It seemed to me that Bill was raising the bar for quality back then, in that neighborhood, the Sierra Foothills; and I’d met him several times when he was in Los Angeles promoting his wines. After tasting through his impressive wines (his “Ascent” Syrah is often one of the best Syrahs in the state), I asked Bill what new wineries in the area were also making great wines. It was on his advice that we headed over to Fair Play, and Cedarville Vineyard. We showed up unannounced, after managing to find the place somehow (GPS in those days stood for Grab a Passing Stranger—which worked better, by the way), and Jonathan Lachs and Susan Marks, the owners/winemakers, couldn’t have been more cordial. We crashed a tasting they were doing for some other folks, well, hijacked is a better verb, and, as Bill had promised, came away very impressed. Cedarville is a great winery to visit, by the way, if you’re ever in Fair Play. They have a nifty little wine cave, sort of where Barbie might make wine, or keep her captive Kens until they grow genitalia.
We also tasted at a few miserable places. I learned early on in my sommelier days to never present my business card in a strange tasting room. It’s better to pay a tasting fee than to have an optimistic winemaker calling you every week to see if you’d like any of his “neutral propane tank-aged Sauvignon Blanc” for your by-the-glass list. Hell, all the best fire breathers use it. For every Terre Rouge and Cedarville Vineyard, there was a winery that made you wonder how they ever sold a bottle. And it’s always a wondrous experience in a tasting room to sample a wine on the 15th of the month, and notice that the number on the back of the bottle, which proclaims the date the bottle was opened, clearly says “9.” Oh, it’s always better after six days! Like oysters.
All of this mindless rambling because the good folks marketing the wines of El Dorado County offered to send me a sampler of wines called “Taste at a Higher Level.” From the title, I was pretty sure they’d been talking to the panel members I’d been judging with at wine competitions. I hear that a lot. Or were they referring to V.A.? Oh, I was badly confused. But I accepted shipment, curious to see how things were shaping up in El Dorado County. It ended up being quite interesting.
The shipment contained eleven wines, only two of which were white—a Chardonnay and a Rhône White blend. This made me wonder. Don’t we tend to judge most wine regions based on the quality of their red wines? This implies, it seems to me, that red wines are superior to whites. It’s a kind of wine racism. Where else but a tasting room can you walk in and loudly proclaim, “I don’t like whites,” and not get beat up? Sure, Napa Valley has some fine white wines, but who cares? Am I wrong in thinking white Burgundy takes a backseat to red, with the exception of Chablis? Outside of Chateau d’Yquem, who forges white wines? Yes, it’s always been a red wine world, but why? It’s hard for me to see that red wines are superior, though even my own collection is heavily red wine.
In wine terms, we judge Germany great for the greatness of its whites. Man, that’s almost too ironic. Same for Alsace, and Austria. We line up for Pinot Noir tastings, but Chardonnay draws the wine crowd equivalent of a Latoya Jackson concert. Yet served in black glasses and at the same temperature, we struggle to tell Pinot Noir and Chardonnay apart. Why is Pinot Noir so much more revered?
When vintages are discussed, it’s about Cabernet, Pinot Noir, or Zinfandel, never Sauvignon Blanc. Is there a reason? Is red wine better than white wine? I don’t think so. But I’m certain my viewpoint is the minority viewpoint. It almost always is.
The first wine I opened from El Dorado County was the Lava Cap Winery 2011 Chardonnay “Battonage.” I remember Lava Cap when it was Lava Beanie, a long time ago. They’re one of the steadier producers in El Dorado County. I can’t remember the last time I tasted a Chardonnay from them, but this beauty completely surprised me. I confess, I came to it with low expectations, the words “battonage” and “Chardonnay” on a wine label reminiscent of “hall” and “oates” on a record label—a serious risk of it being treacly and stupid. But the Lava Cap was splendid. Yes, it had the creamy, leesy character one would expect, but with a brightness and liveliness that completely carried it through to the long finish. Certainly not a profound Chardonnay, and not a source of your precious and presumptuous minerality, but the spiced apple and pear flavors, its preciseness and clean lines, its undeniable richness, make it worth all of its eighteen dollar price tag. It killed it with the baked corvina (the fish, not the grape) we had for dinner that night, the voluptuousness of the Chardonnay really highlighting the sweetness of the fish.
The other white wine in the shipment was the compelling Skinner Vineyards 2010 “Seven Generations,” a blend of Marsanne, Roussanne, Viognier, Picpoul Blanc, and Grenache Blanc. More blancs than a vasectomy. I first encountered Skinner Vineyards at a Rhône Rangers tasting a couple of years ago. I tasted through their lineup of Rhône varieties and was amazed. Each wine, from the Viognier, to the Grenache, to the Mourvèdre, and all the others, hit the varietal nail on the head. Believe me, that’s a rare occurrence, and speaks to a winemaker who has a sure grasp of the varieties and the talent to display them. Chris Pittenger is the guy, and he has a terrific touch. I immediately bought a bunch of Skinner wines, and they are fantastic bargains. The “Seven Generations” is really lovely, with an aroma focused on lemons and Key limes, but has a lot of floral notes as well. I’d draw a picture of it, in the manner of my friend Lily-Elaine Hawk Wakawaka, but it would look like those rubber things you put in your bathtub so you don’t slip. I can see mistaking this wine for a nice white Rhône, maybe from St. Joseph or Crozes-Hermitage—it doesn’t have the physique of white Hermitage. The texture is, appropriately, on the oily side, but there’s no shortage of freshness, and the wine is impeccably balanced. Here is white wine that is so expertly blended it compels you to raise your glass to your nose to inhale it over and over again. What style this wine has!
So those were the two whites. But you don’t care. You want to hear about the reds. The nine red wines were all over the place in quality, something of a shambles. But it did remind me of my wine tasting trip to El Dorado, and the juxtaposition of a terrific winery like Cedarville Vineyards with the kind of winery right down the road where the wines have more chemical problems than Major League Baseball. There are some amazing wines coming out of the Sierra Foothills, and the region has immeasurable promise. But there are still a lot of weak links. But, hell, what do I know?
Let’s start with a wine I despised. I know, I shouldn’t write about wines I hate. The wines I dislike the most are not bad wines. Bad wines are interesting, like really bad movies, or really bad wine blogs. You almost can’t believe your senses. They get a reaction, and they can even teach you something. So it’s not flatout terrible wines that get me. The wines that drive me nuts I call stupid wines. Wines that are so dull and devoid of genuine character they remind you of Ryan Seacrest. The Boeger 2011 Cabernet Franc actually ticked me off. I took one sniff, and then one tentative taste, and said to my wife, “I hate this wine.” Why? It has no charm, it has no personality, it has no Cabernet Franc-ness, it has no reason to exist except to get you drunk cheaply. Drinking it is like spending an evening watching BookSpan TV. Just shoot me.
I can’t say I had much love for the Perry Creek “Altitude 2401” 2009 Zinfandel either. In this case, though, it’s just not my style. I had mixed feelings about this Zin. I appreciate its generous fruit, ripe and unpolished, and reminiscent of the kinds of Zin that once were ubiquitous in those parts. But I was bothered by the blast of heat at the finish, the Zin’s overall gawkiness. It may one day come around. That wouldn’t surprise me. Well, actually, given the ripeness, it would surprise me quite a bit. But it’s not impossible. However, Perry Creek is a solid producer, and has a consistent style, so, in that perspective, this is perfectly fine Zin, true to what they do.
I was also nonplussed by the Illuminaire Winery 2010 Malbec. I don’t know this winery, but their 2010 Malbec didn’t make me want to seek their other wines out. My impression of this wine is that it’s a Malbec that was squeezed and extracted and nipple-clamped within an inch of its life. You know those wines you finish because you’re too lazy to get off your butt and open a different bottle? Yeah, here’s one. I’m guessing this isn’t the best wine in the Illuminaire portfolio. And I’m not sure I even want Malbec from El Dorado County. Not now, anyway.
Synapse Wines has a pretty good reputation for Syrah, and the shipment included the Synapse Wines 2007 Hangman’s Syrah. I have to admit, a winery selling a wine from 2007 isn’t usually a good sign, but you never know. It’s Syrah after all, a harder sell than Anthony Weiner for Mayor. Now there’s a guy who should get rid of his “sin apps.” “Hangman’s” is also named for Weiner. No, it’s not, it’s named after Placerville, where the winery is located, once known as Hangtown for its enlightened criminal code. This is very chewy, very black fruit, very intense Syrah, but it’s not especially noteworthy. I’ve reviewed a lot of great Syrah here, from Gramercy Cellars to MacLaren to Stolpman, and the Synapse isn’t in their league by any measure. Oh, it’s Syrah, and it’s huge, and it’s extracted, but it’s far too over-the-top for my taste. And it feels like it’s already slipping away into raisiny, clunky Syrahdom.
Narrow Gate Vineyards is new to me. The Narrow Gate Vineyards 2008 “Dunamis,” a mix of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre, was good. I liked the wine’s harmony, and it’s very well-made. It seems to want to be Chateauneuf-du-Pape, at least that’s what the structure and the blend imply. It’s not that. It has a very large frame, and a very broad kind of aromatics that speak of leather and smoke and oak, all of which serve to conceal the underlying fruit, which is mostly red fruit, plum and strawberry. It slowly opens up, but even the second day the fruit seemed secondary to everything else. The “Dunamis” had enough interesting and delicious about it, that it won me over. I’m not sure it succeeded with my wife. That was a rather useless tasting note, but I’m trying to leave you with the same mixed emotions I had when I drank it.
I thought the Madroňa Vineyards 2009 "Quintet" (all five Bordeaux varieties, with Merlot leading the way at 51%) was really elegant and restrained. Everything about this wine appealed to me. It has subtlety, complexity, beauty, restraint, judicious and seamless oak, and a long, beckoning finish. Now, it’s not some big damn Napa Valley red that’s going to get 95 points from some nitwit in a fright wig. But the classic black currant, tea, vanillin, spice rack character pushed all my Bordeaux buttons. You know, it might actually fit in a lineup of 2009 Cru Bourgeois Bordeaux, and do swimmingly. This was one of the wines that gave me the most pure, simple enjoyment. I was very impressed. "Quintet" achieved what any wine should; it made me want to taste the rest of Madroňa Vineyards' lineup.
And now we come to Cedarville Vineyard, which was represented by two wines, the Cedarville Vineyard 2010 Grenache, and the Cedarville Vineyard 2010 Zinfandel. I have a fondness for Cedarville’s wines. These folks are great growers, talented winemakers, and the prices for their wines are ridiculously fair. If they haven’t taken a vow of poverty, it would be news to me. I’d describe their style as bold, on the bigger side of every variety, wines that are never shy, but wines that hold up to all that size and bombast. The 2010 Grenache is ripe and chewy, rather than lean and pretty. Notice I don’t say overripe. It gets to plum and cherry flavors, nice and spicy, and is a good example of the deep, dark, red fruit richness that is Grenache. It’s not shy on backbone either—Cedarville’s wines don’t tend to be. If you’re a fan of the wines of Gigondas, as I am, here’s a wine that feels like one, one from a warmer vintage. It’s probably sold out by now, but just get on Cedarville’s mailing list, their wines are a steal.
The Cedarville Vineyard 2010 Zinfandel is a Zin I can highly recommend. I just like this wine because it tastes like Sierra Foothills Zin. Red fruit, raspberries mostly, a spicy rim, cinnamon I’d say, a lusciousness that good Zin can deliver (Samantha would call it “sweet,” and as long as that is a positive term, I’m fine with that), and plenty of backbone to stand up to the lamb we drank it alongside. I love Zinfandel with lamb, and I insist you try it (yeah, I know I’m a Wooly Bully, Wooly Bully, Wooly Bully…watch me now, hey!). There isn’t a lot of Estate Bottled Zinfandel this good for $22. Get on the Cedarville Mailing List. Now.
And while you’re at it, get on Skinner’s Mailing List too. I’ll FINALLY end with the Skinner Vineyards 2010 Eighteen Sixty-One, a blend of Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah and Counoise. What I like about Skinner’s wines is their purity, how the flavors pop on your palate, and how elegant and polished they are. Grenache seems to love El Dorado County, and may ultimately be the variety that distinguishes it. At least judging by Cedarville and Skinner. Here it gives beautiful aromatics, the underlying pretty red aromas that are accentuate the savoriness of the Mourvèdre and make the wine ethereally powerful and pretty. It’s medium-bodied, and it’s wonderfully complex (throw in lavender and forest floor and Mourvèdre’s exotic spiciness), and it improved in the glass every ten minutes. A lot going on here, and the price tag is a mere $30. If this were Pinot Noir, it would be $60. And it’s every bit as elegant and beautiful.
So there you have it. El Dorado County. The good, the bad, and the ugly. I’m due for a visit, but now it will have to be anonymously. Which, as the HoseMaster, I’m getting used to.