Saturday, November 5, 2011

2011 was Challenging Year for Petite Sirah:El Portal Vineyard, CALAVERAS COUNTY, Harvest Report

Mark Skenfield, Viticulturist with Vinescapes Vineyard Management, sends this Harvest Report from one of the vineyards under his management, the El Portal vineyard in Murphys.  Grapes from this vineyard are used to produce the wines for Newsome-Harlow Winery of Murphys in Calaveras County, CA

The El Portal vineyard in Murphys, Calaveras County, has 3 separate blocks of Petite Sirah planted specifically for Newsome-Harlow Winery.  The vineyard is organically farmed by Mark Skenfield of Vinescapes Vineyard Management with meticulous attention to all viticultural practices.  Through pruning designed for low yields, careful selection of shoots, agressive fruit thinning and specialized fertilization, El Portal produces pristine, intensely colored Petite Sirah ear-marked for a premium bottle of wine.

Varieties like Petite Sirah, which love warm weather for ripening, had a challenging year this year.  2011 started out cool and didn't reach typical summer temperatures as often as previous years.  This caused increased issues for disease, irregular fruit set and ripening and stretched the harvest season much later than growers like.  Vineyard managers had to earn their pay this year.

The grapes that were lucky enough to come off the vine early in the harvest, looked less stressed than normal and developed complexity without reaching excessive sugar levels.  Later ripening varieties, like Petite Sirah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Zinfandel had to ride out some heavy rains and some extended hang-time before being harvested.  Sometimes the looming potential for rot forced the wineries hand to bring the fruit in a little earlier than they normally would like.  Other times, the berries didn't look as pristine as they normally would.  Sugar levels in these varieties didn't reach the heights they normally achieve, but the fruit came in with mature characteristics - minimal "green" qualities with lots of complexity. 

Ultimately, the fact that grapes were often picked with lower than typical sugar levels actually can benefit wines by holding the alcohols levels down and helping fermentations complete efficiently.  If vineyard managers were diligent and tended carefully to the challenges presented from the 2011 growing season, winemakers still had quality fruit to work with to create solid, albeit uncharacteristic foothill wines. 

More about Newsome-Harlow, from their website:

Scott and Melanie Klann created their own label, Newsome-Harlow, in 2000 with a couple of partners and a small batch of wines crafted from premium Calaveras County grapes. Scott's original partner and life long friend, Mark Skenfield, was one of those who started the winery. The name Newsome Harlow is the combination of the maiden names of Scott and his original partner, Mark Skenfield, a long time Calaveras resident and vineyard manager.

Their first vintage — a mere 150 cases — was sold exclusively to those on the winery’s mailing list. Ten years later, Newsome-Harlow is recognized as having some of the best wines in Calaveras, and produces 3,200 cases of Syrah, Petite Sirah, Sauvignon Blanc and five signature Zinfandels that sell out each year.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Yields lower but good brix and balance: CALAVERAS COUNTY HARVEST REPORT from IRONSTONE VINEYARDS

This report from Ironstone Vineyards, Calaveras County:

At Ironstone Vineyards, last week we picked our Syrah.  The grapes came in very late for us and were down about 20% from normal yields, but the good news is that they came in at 24.6 brix and had a beautiful balance.  Director of Winemaking, Steve Millier stated that the grapes looked “awesome”. 

Ironstone Winemaker, Steve Millier checking out
the Reserve Chardonnay before harvest.
We also harvested our Cabernet Franc, which came in at 24.6 brix as well and had really nice fruit and intense color, so we expect to repeat the quality we have been seeing in our Reserve Cabernet Franc wines! 

This week, we are picking our Merlot, followed by Cabernet Sauvignon and we will finish with Petite Verdot and Malbec.  This year, we had quite a few new vineyards to harvest and were very happy with the quality level of fruit that came from them.  It goes to show the importance of topography and how incredible the Sierra Foothills is for high quality wine grapes! 

At Ironstone in Murphys, we harvested Tempranillo, Petite Sirah, Verdelho, Viognier, Muscat Canelli, Chardonnay, Symphony, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Verdot and Malbec-that is great diversity!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Amador Winery Damas Vineyards HARVEST REPORT: Quality excellent, but light yields

Mara Feeney, harvest coordinator at Damas Vineyards in Fiddletown, Amador County, sends this report on their harvest:

In a big year, we can harvest 9 tons of Zinfandel from our hand-tended 2-acre vineyard in Fiddletown, so we were expecting about 6 tons this year. We got 4.   

The rain did soften up the grapes, forcing us to let them hang longer for our latest harvest ever, but in the end the quality seemed excellent. We typically produce big, bold Zinfandels, but think this year will bring a more elegant, smoother Zin more in the style of European wines. It will be a nice change of pace, and a year to remember.

About Damas Vineyards, from their website:

DAMAS Vineyard was planted in 1998 at approximately 2000 foot elevation, in Amador County, in the Sierra Nevada foothills of California. The vineyard has 1,250 Zinfandel vines and occupies an area of about two acres. The vineyard slope is shaped like an amphitheater, facing southwest, in the relatively tiny Fiddletown appellation.

Our grapes are head-pruned (the historic Amador way). We practice integrated pest management, which means pesticide use is minimal. We have a big composting operation and mulch our pruned canes each year to replenish the soil in the vineyard.

A famous winemaker once told us that, in his experience, the best wine grapes come from the vineyards that have the most footprints of the owners in them. Our vineyard is full of our footprints, as well as those of our city friends who love to break away from their professional jobs to get their hands dirty and get intimate with these beautiful vines. We prune, sucker, tie, cane-thin, canopy thin, cluster thin and harvest all by hand--striving for high quality, happy and healthy wine grapes. No wonder our wine has won a medals in competitions ranging from the Amador County Fair to the San Francisco International Wine Competition, an annual blind tasting of thousands of wines from all over the world. Our Zinfandel has also been selected for several prestigious wine clubs, including the NapaStyle and KQED Wine Clubs

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Fruit Quality Good with Balanced Wines, Lower Sugar Levels - FairPlay/El Dorado SKINNER VINEYARDS reports on HARVEST

Ryan Skinner, General Manager of Skinner Vineyards, Fair Play, Eldorado County, gathered this information from winemaker Chris Pittenger:

Winemaker Chris Pittenger, left,
Ryan Skinner, GM, right
"The Never Ending Harvest continues...

The stories of doom and gloom for Harvest 2011 have been as rampant as bunch rot, and I’m sure that most of us are tired of hearing about it by now.

While we are not immune to the forces of Mother Nature, the story at Skinner Vineyards is different from most that we've been hearing, thus perhaps worth sharing.

We have fared well as it relates to rot, but our two estate vineyards took the brunt of harsh late winter conditions in April, May, and June. For example, on May 16th alone, we had snow, rain, hail, lightning, heavy winds, frost and sunshine at our 2700’ hillside vineyard in Fair Play – all within a 12-hour period. Our steep slopes usually protect us from frost conditions, but continuously cold and wet weather throughout spring resulted in a very poor fruit set in many of our blocks. This, coupled with the one of the coolest growing seasons on record, resulted in very low yields and an extremely late harvest. 

However, not all is doom and gloom at Skinner.  Aside from the reduced yields, the fruit quality that we are seeing in the winery has been surprisingly good. Our growers and vineyard crews have worked diligently to drop unevenly ripened fruit and the occasional rot. While it is too early to tell how things will end up, we are seeing balanced wines at lower sugar levels, much like 2010.

Our first picks occurred on October 1st, which was the same day as 2010 (another late harvest). A surprise rain event greeted us shortly afterwards and put harvest on hold until October 15th. Since then, fruit has been coming in at a steady pace over the last two weeks with a mix of Syrah, Grenache, Viognier, Marsanne, Roussanne, and Grenache Blanc. We still have a little Syrah and Mourvedre hanging out which we anticipate picking within the first week or two of November – weather permitting of course." ~ author, Chris Pittenger.

More about Skinner Vineyards (from their website and press materials)

In 1852, an ambitious young Scottish immigrant named James Skinner came west to Foster's Bar Northwest of Coloma in search of gold and opportunity for his family.  A successful miner he also discovered the unvarnished beauty of the Sierra Foothills - along with an ideal climate in which to grow Rhóne varietals. He purchased land West of Placerville in Rescue along the old Pony Express Trail in the mid 1850s.  He planted vines, and by 1861 Skinner established one of the first commercial wineries in California, a family business that thrived until the early 1900s. 
One hundred and fifty years and seven generations later, Mike and Carey Skinner have set out to bring Skinner wines back to the Sierra Foothills.  With their inaugural wine release in 2007, the Skinner family have now restored a legacy that is a much a part of the family history as it is of the history of gold-rush California.      
Skinner Vineyards and Winery is committed to producing exceptional wines that reflect the unique spirit of the Sierra Foothills, using the same Rhône varietals that were grown by our family more than 150 years ago. Our red Rhône varietals include Syrah, Grenache, Mourvédre, Petite Syrah, Carignane and Counoise and Petite Bouchette while the white Rhône varietals are comprised of Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc and Picpoul Blanc. At less than 2,500 cases currently produced per year, our wines are handcrafted and artfully vinted by veteran and well respected winemaker, Chris Pittenger.
The Skinner family's two estate vineyards are located within a short drive from the original 1861 Skinner Winery. The largest vineyard is in the Fair Play appellation, which boasts the highest average elevation of any AVA in California.  At 2,300 to 2,740 feet, Stoney Creek Vineyard includes 20 acres planted and is the site of our ridge top winery and tasting room.  With its view of the majestic foothill and Sierra landscape, crowned by the often snow-capped  Pyramid Peak, the site offers a stunning venue to enjoy Skinner wines.. In the El Dorado appellation, White Oaks Flat Vineyard sits at 1,400 feet and includes 13 acres planted. At both sites, the warm days and cool nights, along with high altitudes, combine to create natural acidity and highly-concentrated, complex wines.
Skinner Vineyards and Winery encourages you to visit the most breath-taking tasting room in all of the Sierra Foothills. 

Sitting atop our vineyards at 2,500 feet, you can take in 360 degree vistas of the Foothills and unimpeded views across the Sierra all the way to Pyramid Peak in Tahoe. Our 3,000 square feet of patio space provides ample seating allowing you to enjoy the cooling effect of waterfalls in the summer or warmth of fireplaces in the winter.  With furnishings and design that evoke our heritage tracing back to 1861, including a recreation of the stone cellar from the original winery, our tasting room is truly a special place to enjoy our wines.

Monday, October 31, 2011

"It may be the best Zinfandel year in recent memory!!!" Leon Sobon exults in his Amador County HARVEST REPORT

Leon Sobon sends this harvest report for Shenandoah Vineyards and Sobon Estate.  Both are located near Plymouth, CA, in Amador County.  Leon founded the business in 1977 and is widely recognized as a leader in the Sierra Foothills wine industry.

"The grapes are ripening well, and we should finish Nov. 3 or 4th.  Sugars are not high, but balance and flavors are excellent.

It may be the best Zinfandel year in recent memory!!!

Alcohols will be under or near 14%. The Zin crop is averaging ~40% of normal, with some of our best vineyards 25% of normal.  Because of the small crop and loose bunches, bunch rot did not develop after the rains. 

We just picked Barbera with a normal crop and excellent numbers.  Sangiovese was harvested on the weekend, and is in good condition, and that crop was about 25% above normal.

The weather at bloom time this spring seemed to be the determining factor. 

Cabernet is the only grape still hanging right now, and we are not sure what day we will pick.

More about Shenandoah Vineyards & Sobon Estate Wines (from the website):

Shenandoah Vineyards and Sobon Estate are family-owned wineries with a 32-year reputation for producing the best possible wines using low-yield viticulture and minimum intervention wine making techniques.

Sobon Family Wines emphasize high fruit and low tannins, and are made with our own sustainably-grown grapes. They reflect the unique Shenandoah Valley terroir, resulting in a richness and intensity rarely seen elsewhere. Award-winning Sobon wines are distributed nationally. Both wineries are open daily for wine tasting in the picturesque Amador County near Plymouth, CA.

Shenandoah Vineyards

Leon and Shirley Sobon founded Shenandoah Vineyards in 1977. They were one of the first four wineries in Amador County's now well known Shenandoah Valley appellation.
From the first offering of 1,200 cases, the winery has continued to thrive, adjusting the portfolio of wines over the years. It is now producing about 25,000 cases per year. Demand continues to grow as a result of skilled winemaking, marketing, financial planning, and strong family commitments to quality and service. Today, we continue to use estate grown grapes from our sustainably-farmed vineyards.Sobon Estate

The Sobon Estate winery started in 1989 when Leon and Shirley Sobon bought each other a second winery for their 30th wedding anniversary present. They purchased the historic D'Agostini Winery, one of the oldest in the state. This winery has been designataed as California State Historic Landmark #762.
This site was chosen not only for its historical winery, but also for its vineyards and vineyard land. The old vine Zinfandel was retained, and the other vineyards replanted with the best varieties and clones. The Sobon Estate label launched the estate line of wines for the Sobon Family -- the best wines from their own grapes. These include Rhone varietals, vineyard designated Zinfandels, and tasting room-only dessert wines.

Visit them at 14430 Shenandoah Road, Plymouth, CA  95669.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Amador County Harvest Report from Vino Noceto

This HARVEST UPDATE Q&A with the Winemaker, Cellarmaster, and Vineyard Manager at Vino Noceto, on  Shenandoah Road in Plymouth (Amador County) is courtesy of Anna King, PR & Marketing Director at Vino Noceto:

Last week Anna interviewed Winemaker Rusty Folena,  Cellarmaster Kevin O'Neil, and Vineyard Manager Dave Brown about this harvest.  “Despite all the negative press the weather has gotten this growing season, it looks like they have a pretty good feeling about the 2011 vintage for Vino Noceto,” said Anna.

Q  Anna: So everyone is talking about the weather throughout California this growing season. How did Vino Noceto do? How are our grapes?   

Rusty: This growing season started off wet and cool with snow falling on the vineyard as late as the end of June. The vineyard saw 35"-40" of rain in some spots this growing season. Last year we had 22". We spent a lot of extra money farming this year because of the rain.
Q Anna: That's a lot more rain? How does that affect the grapes?  

 Rusty: Everyone has rot this year. Sangiovese holds up to rain okay, but even it is starting to get some botrytis. I would say we had about 1% rot this harvest. We have to pick it out at the grape bins or at the sorting table or even in the hopper. Our leafers in the field do a good job of pulling it out. Some always gets through but it gives it character. 
 Q Anna: I still see some grapes on the vines. How is picking going?  

 Dave: Right now we probably have 80% of the vineyard picked. It basically happened in two days. We went from 10% harvested to 80% in three days. Dos Oakies will be the last block to be picked this year.   

Q  Anna: How do you decide when to pick? How did we manage to steer clear of the yield issues everyone has been worried about? 

Rusty: My job is to decide when to pick, what to do with it, and how we are going to do it. There is no canned recipe. It's about knowing the vineyard and analyzing it. We can be prepared a little but sometimes there's a curveball.   

Dave: Yield for us is normal this year. A few blocks were a little off but nothing bad.

Rusty: The yield will all average out. However, our yield is good probably because of the sole fact that we allowed the vines to be a mess. The proper canes were not producing fruit, and we allowed a lot of other shoots to grow and produce the grapes for that spur. Pruning this coming year will be a nightmare.

Dave: If we had pulled off all the suckers this year during pruning we would have had 2/3 less crop. 

Q Anna: So what do you three do during this time of year? We are always hearing loud noises from down at the winery...

Kevin: Harvest starts three to four weeks before picking with sampling, measuring the brix, sugar content, acid, and PH levels. We spend a lot of time recording. If everything goes right the sugar and PH go up and acid drops; at that point it's time to pick. If you have sugar flat-lining, acid dropping and pH going up, that's a sign of vineyard rot. In theory we are trying to pick before that happens. 

Dave: I hire the crews, supervise the picking and make sure all the equipment is working. I am another set of eyes. If I see a problem in the vineyard I let Rusty know. My job is basically providing a quality fruit for the winery. If I don't do my job the place rots.  

 Q Anna: Frivolo is released soon! What's the story with that?   

Kevin: Right now most of our daily work routine is dealing with the Muscat.

Rusty: The sweet white wine is the hardest. It takes a long time to get samples out of the pressurized tanks, and we have to run samples constantly. We establish a pattern of how the brix and alcohol are changing by measuring every day. We also have to be physically there to stop fermentation when it needs it, even if it is in the middle of the night. There are no do-overs.

Kevin: It ferments slow and cold to preserve the fruit. It's just more labor intensive. We have one more tank of that to go then we are done with this year's Frivolo.

Q  Anna: People love that Frivolo though! It's worth the work. What are some of the big decisions you make during harvest?  

 Rusty: The biggest decision is when to start harvest and picking because you can't put them back. There are different signs of ripening. Levels and measurements but there is also the colors of the seeds and way the grapes taste. If they don't taste good they are probably not going to make very good wine.

More about Vino Noceto from their website

California Sangiovese Specialist !
Vino Noceto is a family-run vineyard and winery founded in 1987 by Suzy and Jim Gullett in Shenandoah Valley, Plymouth, California. They are Sangiovese specialists, currently producing over 9,000 cases annually of Sangiovese from estate and nearby small vineyards. They additionally produce a wonderful floral Moscato called "Frivolo", as well as Barbera, and Zinfandel, and have twenty-four acres of producing Sangiovese and one acre of Syrah.
A pioneer in the renaissance of this noble Tuscan varietal, they now produce eight different Sangiovese wines (Chianti, Brunello, and Super Tuscan styles).

Beginning with their first, 1990 vintage, Noceto wines have been 100% Sangiovese, targeted at a Chianti Classico style. This style emphasizes the delicate and complex fruitiness of the Sangiovese grape. More recently, the Riserva Sangiovese has sometimes been blended with a small amount of Barbera or Syrah.
The Sierra Foothill soil and climate has enabled Vino Noceto to display these unique attributes while achieving a medium or slightly fuller wine. Neutral and large format oak aging allows a slow, gentle maturing of the young wine and adds a little spice to an already intriguing wine.
The last key step is bottle aging – at Vino Noceto, we endeavor to bottle the wine at least six months before release. At this point its various flavor components are coming together, leading to a distinctive red wine which complements a wide range of foods and represents good value for the consumer.

Vino Noceto has grown steadily from its first vintage of 110 cases to over 9,000 cases production, including 3,500 cases of Normale Sangiovese, 1,700 cases of Riserva Sangiovese and block-designated wines, 1,000 cases of Sangiovese table wine, 1,600 cases of a frizzante Moscato Bianco (Frivolo), 400 cases of Rosato, and three grappas made for us by St. George Spirits (Sangiovese, OGP Zinfandel and Moscato). With the 2002 vintage, they added a Linsteadt Barbera and Zinfandel from the Original Grandpere Vineyard. Renwood/Santino made the first five vintages, Amador Foothill Winery the next two, Folie à Deux Winery the next two, and the winemaking operation moved in-house with the 1999 harvest. Vino Noceto's winemaker is Rusty Folena, formerly of Renwood/Santino Winery, assisted by Stacey Gregersen, consulting winemaker.

El Dorado Wineries and Big Band Jazz: Charity Event at Lake Tahoe

The autumn colors at Sugar Pine Point State park are spectacular right now, so don’t be shy: go. Pack a picnic, take a bottle of wine and some of those great plastic wine glasses, a blanket, and enjoy. If you need some wine suggestions, look for some of the wines noted below. They were contributed to a tasting event in late August, when the park featured a night of Big Band Jazz and wines from a number of El Dorado wineries. If you can’t find those wines in your nearby wine shop, remember that El Dorado wineries are a mere daytrip away from Tahoe in the Sierra Foothills.

Lava Cap, located near Placerville, contributed a 2009 Reserve Chardonnay. This lovely rich and creamy chardonnay has aroma of toasty oak, apple and vanilla. The velvet mouth feel comes from Burgundy aging techniques and barrel fermentation in separate lots which were then blended. Winemaker Tom Jones handcrafts this wine. It’s won several awards. 14.9 per cent alcohol, $18 bottle.

The 2010 Sauvignon Blanc from Boeger Winery, near Placerville, is an estate wine produced from grapes in their own vineyards. It is a crisp Sauvignon Blanc with a lingering finish and yet is delicate on the palate. Aroma of grapefruit, peach and nectarine. 14.5 per cent alcohol. $14 bottle.

Latcham’s El Dorado Gold Rush White is a nicely blended table wine that hails from their winery in the Fair Play/Mt Aukum area of El Dorado County. This is a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, and Pinot Blanc that has both a refreshing crisp fruit flavor and a hint of sweetness. $12.50 bottle.

Jazz Band at Twilight, Lake Tahoe
shoreline at Sugar Pine Point State Park 

Holly’s Hill 2009 Patriarche Blanc is a blend of 50% Roussane, 25% Grenache, and 25% Viognier. “A beautiful floral perfume of orange zest with lemon/lime and melon. In the mouth the wine has a great viscous mouthfeel with a long finish,” notes the winemaker. Holly’s Hill Winery, located just south of Placerville at 2700 feet elevation in the Pleasant Valley region, is a small family winery that produces only Rhone varietals. $25 bottle.

Mount Aukum Winery, located in Somerset, contributed its Petite Syrah 2007 Fair Play. With grapes grown in its own 2615-foot elevation vineyards as well as grapes sourced from other vineyards nearby, winemaker Michel Prod’hon is a great fan of Rhone varietals. This Petite Syrah has aroma of vanilla and exotic spices. “This wine is rich and bold with flavors of blackberry, pepper, and hint of toasted nuts. Drink it now with a hearty meal, or lay it down for several years and let the tannins soften,” says the winemaker’s notes It has won many gold medals, including one in the 2011 San Francisco Chronicle winetasting. 15.5 per cent alcohol, $35 bottle.

Perry Creek, located in the Fair Play AVA of El Dorado county, contributed its 2008 Zinfandel, the Zinman. “ZINMAN is one of Perry Creek’s most recognized and highly successful signature series wines. It is rated among the top 15 best-value Zinfandels by Wine Spectator in 2010 and its popularity continues to grow year by year. What makes it so special is the unique combination of spice and elegance in its flavors which stems from being produced in one of the best vineyards in the El Dorado County AVA,” notes the website. 14.9 per cent alcohol, $14 bottle. More information at

These civic-minded wineries contributed other wines from their production; all were outstanding Sierra Foothill wines. The Big Band event was a fundraiser to benefit the West Shore Association. In addition to the wineries, other contributors to this event were the California State Parks, the North Lake Tahoe Resort Association, and the Tahoe City Public Utilities District.

copyright 2011 Barbara Keck

Barbara writes the Wine Adventures column about the wine business for The Tahoe Weekly newspaper.   She is currently gathering information for iphone app on  Sierra Foothills Wineries, to be available in late Spring 2012 through the Sutro World offerings on itunes/Apple app store.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Sierra Foothills Wineries Harvest Reports - Building Recognition for the Region

Many thanks to Lew Perdue's Wine Industry Insight "News Fetch", and to "DailyNewsLinks" editors for keeping the industry posted on what is happening in the wine harvest.  Their attention to the postings on Sierra Foothills wineries have garnered lots of interest.

There have been more than 7000 pages views on this blog alone for these harvest reports, and countless click-throughs to the websites of the wineries who sent along their reports.

This is all good recognition for Sierra Foothill wineries, which include almost 250 wineries in the region as I define it:  8 California counties on the western side of the Sierra Nevada, and one county on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada range (Washoe County-Nevada).   That's a lot of territory, hundreds of micro-climates, and lots of fervent grapegrowers and winemakers toiling in these high elevation locales which comprise this wine region.

The remarks have been varied, from grousing that fruit is not yet ripe enough to pick, to sharing tips on how to dry clusters after the rains,  to glorying in the floral aroma that's come from the Muscat already. 

My fav photo to date:
the night harvest at Naggiar/Nevada County
Hats off to the wineries who participated in this info-blitz to date, noted below.  Click on the county-highlight to read what's happened in that county.

And check back, as there will be more news to come!  

Amador County: 
Amador County WineGrape Growers
Cooper Vineyards
Scott Harvey
Terre Rouge and Easton Wines

Calaveras County:
Frogs Tooth Vineyards
Leaping Horse Vineyards
Roland Rosario
Tanner Vineyards

El Dorado County:
Crystal Basin
C. G. DiArie
Lava Cap
DK Cellars (coming)

Nevada County:
Naggiar Vineyards
Nevada City Winery
Pilot Peak
Szabo Vineyards

Placer County:
Green Family Winery

Yuba County:
Clos Saron

Nevada: Washoe County
University of Nevada in Reno vineyards & winery

Missing are reports from Mariposa and Tuolumne Counties, but I hope we see some!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

What I Don't Know About Malbec

This blog-post title is a bit deceiving, because I do know a fair amount about Malbec.  Primarily this knowledge has been gained by tasting, and I enjoy this rich and wonderful wine.

But What I Don't Know About Malbec is going to be a diminishing amount of non-knowlege because... I am going to Argentina in March 2012 to taste, learn, and write about Malbec.

In the summer of 2010, at the Wine Blogger's Conference in Walla Walla, I spent the better part of a sultry summer evening working on an essay that I submitted to WineBow.  As the writer of a wine column in a California newspaper, and a frequent blogger about wine and the wine business, I asked this impertinent question in my essay:  "Mal who?"     It's actually a good question, because a lot of wine drinkers are unfamiliar with the nuances of this grape and the wines made from it.  That needs to be changed, and now I get to help in that mission.

Every wine writer can benefit from more knowledge, and courtesy of WineBow, I'll be on-the-spot in March 2012 in order to learn all I can, and write about the wine and the experience.

So, look for more on this topic in blogposts to come.  Salut!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Bill Easton, Amador Winegrower, is Positive about Harvest – Refutes Recent Publicity

Bill Easton is winemaker and  winegrower at DOMAINE DE LA TERRE ROUGE, and TERRE ROUGE and EASTON Wines, Fiddletown/Amador County.  Bill is an experienced and acknowledged expert in high elevation grapegrowing,  and he took exception to the information posted on KTXL/Fox 40 News in a story headlined “Wet Weather Hurts Wine” with a simple “It is best not to generalize” comment.  He then provided this updated Harvest Report, which is very positive for Sierra Foothill/Amador County wineries:
The rain has been bad and crop size, mainly with Zinfandel, have been down. Overall other crops have been very good looking. There has been little, if any, bunch rot or sour rot, in the Zinfandel we have harvested this year.
Certain varieties like Roussanne, that do not like moisture at all are struggling against all kinds of disease pressure.
If you were "on" your sprays,  the grapes with high acid and low pH seem to be holding up well. We have some vineyards that have been showing botrytis pressure and we are spraying them with Seranade (organic). Powdery mildew can be controlled with oils (organic) and Kaligreen (organic).
Wines could have beautiful balance this year and not be "over-the-top". Syrah has been stunning. Sauvignon Blanc is perfect.
We need no more wet weather and warmer days and nights. Indian summer please.
It is best not to generalize.

More About  DOMAINE DE LA TERRE ROUGE, and TERRE ROUGE and EASTON Wines, from their website:

Syrah at over
3000 feet elevation
"TERRE ROUGE and EASTON Wines is located in California on the West Slope of the Sierra Nevada in Amador County's Shenandoah Valley. Our wines are made from vineyards in four Sierra Foothill counties: Placer, El Dorado, Amador, Calaveras, and the Clements Hills appellation. We farm our vineyards sustainably and our winery derives most of its electrical power from solar panels located on the roof of the main winery building.

TERRE ROUGE means "Red Earth". This vermillion-colored soil is one of the hallmarks of our region. Our vineyards are in soils that are largely granite and volcanic-based. The TERRE ROUGE portfolio is composed of wines made from Rhône varietals grown in the rugged and varying terroirs of this region: Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne. High elevation sites up to 3200’ contribute to the complexity of our wines.

Our winemaker, Bill Easton puts his family name, EASTON, on our non-Rhône varietals wines. The wines are crafted from varietals that have traditionally worked the best in Amador County and the Sierra Foothills: ancient and old-vine Zinfandel, Barbera, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Sauvignon Blanc. Under the Easton label we also bottle small selections of varietals new to the Sierra Foothills: Grenache Blanc, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc.

The style of our red wines emphasizes deep color, balanced flavors, full middle palate, and a long finish, with power and finesse. They gain complexity with age. Our whites are aromatic, flavorful with nice texture, and balanced with good acidity. They also show an amazing mineral sense that is derived from our stony mountain soils.

We make over twenty different wines, many of which are very small production (300-500 cases). Each is unique and site-specific with a sense of place (terroir) all of their own. Our goal for the last 20 years has always been to make the finest wines possible that can be placed on a table with the best wines of the world."

Wine Touring in the Sierra Foothills: Avanguardia, Nevada City: "Hedonic Wines"

The winding road to Avanguardia
Bitney Springs Road, 
bridge over Deer Creek, 
Newtown Road, to
Jones Bar Road, look for the sign – takes you to an in-winery tasting room that is charmingly set in the midst of cases of wine, bottling machines and winemaking equipment.   The sign that finally points in the direction of this purpose-built winery near Nevada City could say “varietal-free zone ahead” and that would tip you off that you are in for an other-worldly wine tasting experience.

Rob Chrisman is dedicated to making wines that provide a maximum sensory pleasure to the wine drinker.  He refers to his style of winemaking as “hedonic blending”.  Rob has a healthy disregard for the traditional California approach to winemaking, and is carving out a brave new world with his wines.  His scrumptious wines have fanciful names, and are handcrafted with an avant-garde flair, You are in for a new taste experience! 

Rob’s path to his winemaking philosophy began when he was a computer programmer in Los Angeles.   Like many of us, he began his wine drinking career by trying to get bottles of wine on the cheap, and he refined his palate that way.  In 1977, he visited the Foundation Plant Materials Service group at University of California – Davis.  This independent arm of the university protects, preserves and distributes disease-free plant material, particularly grapes.  From the list of 60 or 80 wine varieties available, Rob selected 29 varieties for his experimental vineyard in Tulare.

After many years as a grape grower of the experimental kind, and an avid home winemaker, Rob moved his family to Nevada County in 1990.  He had a hunch he could grow grapes quite well on his site at 2500-foot elevation.

“I believed that Sierra Foothill wines could be as good as those from any area, and we planted vines in 2000 and 2001 on 3 ½ acres here.”  Now, Avanguardia Wines blends over twenty Italian, Russian, French and University of California-created crosses grown in its estate vineyards.  “Many of the grape varieties have been imported by the University especially for us and are available nowhere else, outside of Europe.”  To his own estate-grown grapes, he adds other Sierra Foothills fruit.  He started to produce cutting-edge blends, and they’ve found a loyal following.

“I call my winery a varietal-free zone because we don’t produce traditional chardonnay, zinfandel and so on.  Although several of my wines could be considered varietals because they contain enough of one varietal to be termed that, instead we chose to give them fanciful names,” he said.

Rob sincerely believes that blending is the way to go to get the best quality, tastiest wines.  “I do non-traditional blending, what I call “hedonic blending”, because I am looking for the maximum sensory pleasure out of the wine.  I want to produce wines that are extremely food friendly.”  His wines are not high alcohol, nor are they fruit-bombs.  Subtle oak and good acidity are key.   He produces 1000 cases of wine each year, and 90% of the grapes in those wines come from his estate vineyards in Nevada County.

 A chat about the names of his wines is informative and entertaining.  Premiato means “prizewinner”.   Sanginet is a 14th century archaic name for Sangiovese.  Ampio means ample, generous;  Cristallo means crystal.   Selvatico is actually an adjective about an Italian wine characteristic that is used to describe a wild berry or undomesticated flavor.  Due Fiori…two flowers.

Looking for a daytrip to nearby wine county? Head to Avanguardia’s winery at 13028 Jones Bar Road, Nevada City, CA  95959, open Saturday and Sunday 12-5. There’s also a tasting room in Grass Valley at 209 W. Main Street that’s open daily 12-5.  More information?

Copyright 2011 Barbara Keck

Barbara Keck is now working on iPhone and Droid apps on Wineries of the Sierra Foothills

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Floral notes in Muscat from Calaveras County: Harvest report from Ironstone Vineyards

Steve Millier, winemaker at Ironstone Vineyards, Murphys/Calaveras County sends these notes:

On October 11, we picked our Sierra Foothills (Calaveras County) Muscat Canelli.  The grapes are tested at 26.8 brix and show distinctive floral notes.  The 2011 vintage Muscat Canelli when bottled will be our second release of the Ironstone Reserve Muscat Canelli.  These are limited release wines that are exceptional, exciting and just enjoyable!

The rain on October 10 has slowed production, but we anticipate continuing to pick our Estate vineyards.  After the Muscat Canelli, we will move back to another Chardonnay vineyard followed by Tempranillo.

~See previous Ironstone and other Calaveras County Harvest reports at

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

"My Fruit not Ready to be Picked" - El Dorado Harvest Report from C.G. Di Arie, Mount Aukum

Chaim Gur-Arieh,  Ph.D., winemaker and proprietor of C.G. Di Arie Vineyard and Winery in the Mount Aukum part of El Dorado County, Sierra Foothills region of California, sends these interesting notes:

As of October 10, 2011, our harvesting for 2011 is delayed.  I see my neighbors in the valley picking their vineyards and feel envious.   Are their fruits riper than mine?  All I know my fruit is not ready to be picked.  The skins are leathery and astringent, the flesh gelatinous, the seeds not completely brown and the flavors not intense enough for my taste. 

Therefore I decided not to rush into harvesting before it rained last Wednesday.   By not harvesting, at least the Zinfandel and Primitivo, I was taking a calculated risk that I might lose the crop to bunch rot.  Bunch rot is caused by a fungus called Botrytis Cinerea.  Zinfandel and Primitivo that have large tight clusters and thin skins are most susceptible to get bunch rot after a rain.  During the rain, water penetrates into the clusters and stays there without getting a chance to evaporate.  The cooler temperature causes the thin skins to blister and the water around them provides the ideal conditions for this fungus to grow, flourish and destroy the grapes.  

To protect my crop, before the rains came I sent my crew to remove the leaves and branches that were shading the “afternoon sun” side of my Zinfandel and Primitivo vineyard blocks.  This opened up the canopy so that when the wind and sunshine returned to the vineyard the clusters had a chance to dry out.  After the rain I sent my two tractors towing two large sprayers that were blowing air directly onto the clusters of the Zinfandel and Primitivo to ensure that they were completely dry.

On the morning of October 10, I went back to inspect my vineyards and was very happy to see that we were able to avoid this disaster.  Unfortunately, I cannot be so joyous since the rain is back again in full force.  Tomorrow when the sun shines again we will repeat blowing off the moisture with the help of the sprayers and hopefully this will be the last time it rains before harvest.

This report will not be complete without telling you my evaluation of each variety that I did last week before the rains started:

Barbera:  Brix – 24.5; pH – 3.1.   The flavors are developing magnificently and it seems like this vineyard which is on its 5th leaf will deliver a star wine.  I am expecting to get 4 tons from this block this year.  Last year we only had 1 ton.  I am waiting for the pH to raise to 3.3-3.4 and hope that this will happen the week of October 17.

Cabernet Franc:  Brix: 22.6, pH: 3.39; fairly large crop, flavors developing  very well – bell pepper flavor is almost not evident.  Considering that Cabernet Franc was one of the last to change color, it made very rapid progress.  I predict harvest to be around October 20.

Cabernet Sauvignon:  The star of this year’s harvest; Brix – 23.5; pH – 3.2; relatively large crop with at least one cluster per shoot – which is excellent for a vineyard that is on its 5th leaf.  The fruit is ripening very graciously with no evidence of bell pepper flavors.   This vintage will deserve using these grapes for a standalone Cabernet Sauvignon varietal wine.  Harvest week of October 17.

Petite Sirah:  This block has a bumper crop.  I did not take any samples to run through the lab since the grapes are lagging behind in ripeness.  I will revisit this block the end of this week.  Harvest may be in November.

Primitivo:  Brix – 20.4, pH – 3.33; more shot berries than the Zin; thin crop and irregular ripening.  Harvest estimated week of October 24.

Syrah:  Brix – 22.0, pH – 3.25; very good crop, flavors are coming up, berries are softening and seeds are getting completely brown – an indication of ripeness.  Might be the first variety to be harvested the week of October 17

Zinfandel:   Brix: 19.5, pH 3.20; good crop with some shot berries damaged from the frost, irregular ripeness – some with intense flavors and others lacking flavor.  Needs two weeks of warm weather with harvest the week of October 24.

Tempranillo:  Brix – 21.5; pH – 3.65.  These grapes have the highest pH while being the most astringent.  I expect a lower yield than last year and hope that the astringency will mellow before harvest which I expect it to be the week of October 24.

Touriga:  Brix – 19.8; pH – 3.34.  The flavors are developing well, we just need some warm weather to raise the sugar levels up.  The vines are carrying a nice crop and if the weather will cooperate I hope we can harvest this block the week of October 24.

As I am writing this newsletter, the last chapter of “Harvest 2011” has not been told yet.  As the saying goes “being a winemaker is not for the faint hearted and making good wine is not by accident”.  Cheers! "

More about C. G. Di Arie Vineyard & Winery, from their blog

Founded:            2001

Owners:             Chaim Gur-Arieh, Winemaker
                          Elisheva Gur-Arieh, Brand Manager

The Vineyard and Terrior
A 209 acre estate of rolling hills, well drained, moderately deep soil. Surface soil
consist of  decomposed granite and coarse sandy loam.  47 acres are planted to
vines, at altitude of 1,700 ft. on hillside, using sustainable farming practices.
Varieties planted include:  Grenache, Touriga Nacional, Tempranillo, Cabernet Franc, Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon,  Syrah (3 clones), Barbera, Primitivo, Zinfandel.

The Winery:12,000sq.ft. cutting edge facility, on a hillside with spectacular views of the nearby vineyards and the Sierra Foothills. Using the natural terrain, the winery was constructed on 2 plateaus, with “gravity -feed” design as part of the winemaking process. The facility features 2 art galleries and built to enable the winery to maximize production up to 13,000 /cs. a year.

Winemaking Philosophy:Chaim believes in a winemaking process that maximizes the potential of the grapes: harvesting when the fruit is completely ripe, hand sorting and handling the grapes gently at winery to avoid maceration of the skins and breaking of the seeds and using the oak barrels for flavor enhancement and not as a focus.

The Technology:Chaim invented (patent pending) the “Dual Compartment Submerged Cap Fermentation Tank”  that keeps the cap  submerged during the entire fermentation process, thus creating fully extracted and concentrated wines with robust fruit, soft tannins, elegance, balance and complexity.

From their website:  VINEYARD & VITICULTURE

 Welcome  to C.G. Di Arie Vineyard and Winery in El Dorado County CaliforniaWith 40 acres already planted and plans to cultivate 20 more over the next five years, the Gur-Ariehs have crafted a promising vineyard that is already producing great fruit.

Planted at an elevation of 1,700 feet with Zinfandel, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Primitivo, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc; one of the main goals of the vineyard is to develop consistency of fruit from vine to vine. With subtle variations from red, granitic rocky loam, to sandy loam, the soil at C. G. Di Arie is ideal, offering good root penetration to the vines.

Rootstocks have been selected for their ability to withstand disease, and paired with Zinfandel clones from Howell Mountain, as well as Syrah clones from France and Australia. C.G. Di Arie’s vineyard crew is under clear instruction to limit yields by dropping a large amount of fruit to concentrate flavors in the remaining grapes. Green and out-of-sequence clusters are dropped in an attempt to remove the harsh flavor of green tannins derived from the seeds and skins of immature grapes. When necessary, the vineyard is harvested multiple times to ensure consistent quality and maturity.

At the beginning of each growing season, Chaim and Elisheva sit down with their growers to discuss which viticultural practices will work best. Chaim and Elisheva have set a two-acre vineyard block aside from “The Original Grandpère Vineyard” in the Shenandoah Valley. Established over 140 years ago, this vineyard is the oldest living Zinfandel vineyard in America and has produced numerous award-winning wines. “The Original Grandpère Vineyard” is used primarily for C.G. Di Arie’s Southern Exposure Zinfandel.

 Founded on a commitment to the finest viticultural practices, C.G. Di Arie is prepared to take the next step in its evolution. Having created an original and engaging palette of flavors from its estate and partner vineyards, C.G. Di Arie is poised to make world-class Zinfandel and Syrah in the Sierra Foothills.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Yuba County Harvest Report - Clos Saron: Good quantities and Quality

Gideon Bienstock, winemaker at Clos Saron (Oregon House, Yuba County, Sierra Foothills region) sends his harvest report update:

At Clos Saron, we finished picking our Pinot Noir and Syrah October 3, just before the storm. Quantities were good, as our 1999 planting keep maturing and producing more, now reaching one ton per acre (!!).

Quality was good with two issues: larger grapes (from heavy rains all through the spring and early summer) in the Syrah, showing as less concentrated than usual (some may view this as a plus); in the Pinot, there was considerable shrivelling - not as bad as last year, but bad enough. Perhaps 10% of the crop had to be cleaned out of the raisins while picking. Average sugars were low (which is the way we like it), around 22.5-23 brix. Acidity was excellent in the Pinot and good in the syrah.

We are no longer farming the sites we used to lease, so for the next few years, until our own new plantings come to age, we will be sourcing fruit outside of our area. All of our whites were purchased this year, as well as some Cinsault.

(Gideon clarified that he sources his "outside fruit" from Yuba County, mostly the North Yuba AVA)

More about Clos Saron (from their website)

"A cool microclimate in the Oregon House Valley: forty five hundred vines planted on a gentle, well-drained, north-east facing slope. Red loam and clay topsoil on decomposed granite and volcanic ash subsoil, sprinkled with fragments of granite rocks, basalt, and quartz. The virgin soil is pure, uncontaminated, alive with microorganisms and earthworms.

The Sierra Nevada Foothills are not the first to spring to mind when thinking about Pinot Noir in California, and yet this site provides an ideal microclimate and soil combination for its demanding nature. The soil – poor in organic matter and rich in minerals – has a unique combination of volcanic, clay, and alluvial elements, providing a rare equilibrium of water retention and good drainage. Our growing season is neither too dry nor too wet, neither too hot nor too cold. Bud break in late-March to mid-April, bloom in late-May to mid-June, harvest in early-September to mid-October.

Our Vineyard is like a Nature Reserve
Age-old Burgundy traditions are implemented in our young, virgin soil:
  • Densely planted vines (3‘x6’).
  • Vine-vigor and crop level kept to a minimum by dry farming and precision pruning.
  • Vinifera vines are grown on their own roots (this area is free of phylloxera).
  • The long-term well-being of the soil and the vines is ensured by a sustainable approach to viticulture combining organic and Bio-dynamic principles.
  • A well-balanced, symbiotic micro-cosmos is established in our farm, including humans, animals, trees, vines, and all other living organisms.
  • Our vineyard is like a natural reserve: free of herbicides, insecticides, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers. To control mildew, we spray elemental sulfur two to three times per season (compared to 8-15 times of powerful “high-tech” fungicides in conventional viticulture).
We tend to every vine numerous times during the season, making sure every shoot bears only what it can ripen fully. The small size of the vineyard allows us to harvest only perfectly ripe grapes, in consecutive passes through the vines.

The Essence in the Bottle

Our goal is to produce enjoyable, well–balanced wines, expressive of their distinctive terroir.

Our primary interest in Pinot Noir is due to its unique ability to capture the essence of its place of origin. “Traditionalists” in Burgundy will tell you that a good Pinot expresses its varietal, whereas a great one expresses its terroir... You will certainly find our Pinots distinctly different from their Russian River, Central Coast, and Oregon relatives, while being as true to their varietal as any.

Our other blends and varietal wines are made from grapes grown in nearby vineyards. Saron and I are closely involved with all the viticultural aspects of producing these grapes, to make sure they match our demanding standards: organic farming practices, very low yields (1-1.4 tons/acre for reds, 1.5-2 tons/acre for whites), hand harvesting. In the winery, they get the same red-carpet treatment we give to our estate-grown fruit."

Amador Harvest Notes: "After the rain, better chance for great wines"

Scott Harvey sends along this note:

"Went through all the remaining vineyards I work with in the Sierra Foothills on October 9 to assess picking times and the effect of the rain.  Saw no mold growth.  Luckily we had a drying wind after the rain that dried everything out. 

Dick Cooper in
his vineyard
Dick Cooper (Cooper Vineyards, Plymouth) was dealing with some splitting berry problems with Petit Syrah. 

The sugars have dropped and the skins are softer giving the grapes more flavor at lower sugar levels which will lead to more balanced wines with lower alcohols and more flavors. 

All in all I feel the wines after this rain have a better chance to be great than those harvested before the rain."

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Sierra Foothills Harvest Reports- Calaveras, Placer, Amador


Ironstone Winery, Murphys, has this update:

Steve Millier, Ironstone's winemaker
 Last week, Steve Millier, Ironstone's winemaker, was photographed checking the Chardonnay that will go into our Ironstone Reserve Chardonnay program.  

On Monday October 3rd, Ironstone brought in our Sierra Foothills Estate Grown Viognier.  The Viognier came in at 25 brix will go into our Reserve program.  The flavors were wonderful and we are very pleased with the grapes. 

Tuesday, Oct 4th, we picked our Sierra Foothills Estate Grown Chardonnay.  Going into press the Chardonnay was at 24.2 brix and was showing intense flavors.  This was a relief to get these grapes in before the midweek rain, which caused us a delay in harvest.  We had possibly an inch of rain, but the soils in Murphys tend to dry quickly.

We picked our Muscat Canelli on October 7 & 8.


Charlie Green of Green Family Winery, Auburn (Placer County), informed me that on September 20th, he picked 45 tons of Pinot at brix of 23.7 & TA of .67 average.

NOTE:  Green Family Winery is the oldest producing winery in Placer County, with vineyards averaging 18 years old. 


Scott Harvey sent this note:

We finished the Bowman vineyard on September 28th.  We were expecting 40 tons and ended up with only 24 tons.  So, it seems that the Zinfandel in Amador county was also greatly affected, like the Napa Valley floor, by the poor set due to the cold spring.  Quality is way above average, great zinfandel flavors. 

I think this will be a vintage where the wines definitely talk to you.  Much like the great 1991 vintage in Amador County.

October 5, we harvested Zinfandel from both the Manby and Norton vineyards in the Shenandoah Valley of Amador county.