Sunday, July 24, 2011

Barbera: Food-Friendly Wine from the Sierra Foothills

Dick Cooper, "The Godfather of Barbera", who hosted
the Festival at his vineyard in Amador, shares a glass
of wine with Barbara Keck

 I’m fond of Barbera, and it’s not simply because it’s one wine varietal that I can pronounce easily. The Tahoe Weekly newspaper editor Katherine Hill and I went to the first-ever Barbera Festival in June in Plymouth, CA, on the grounds of Cooper Vineyards. Along with the fun music and food tents, the event was truly festive: more than 80 California wineries and a few Italian ones poured for an enthusiastic crowd of 1500.

Barbera originated in the Piemonte region of northern Italy. It was first imported into California in 1884 and the Italian Swiss Colony Winery used Barbera for several of its table wines. After prohibition, a wine labeled as Barbera was produced by Louis Martini in 1954. Today about 7000 acres are planted in California and Barbera is produced by nearly 200 California wineries.

The wineries of the Sierra Foothills are producing great Barbera, and it is a food-friendly wine that you will enjoy. It is characterized by structured acidity, smooth tannins, dark pigments, bright fruit flavor (spice and chocolate too), and it ages nicely – if only you don’t drink all of this scrumptious wine right away!

To my palate, here are some of the best and most interesting Barberas and Barbera-blends sampled at the festival:

Andis Wines
Andis Wines (Plymouth, Amador County, CA) poured its 2009 Andis Barbera. I found it rich and deep, aroma of plum predominating and taste of raspberry, black cherry, and cranberry with a lingering finishing of black cherry and a bit of spiciness. Grapes were sourced from the upper reaches of a hillside vineyard in Amador County’s Shenandoah Valley region. 15.5 percent alcohol. $24 the bottle.

Pilot Peak at Barbera Festival
The 2008 Barbera from Pilot Peak Winery (Penn Valley, Nevada County, CA) is a medium-bodied wine with a smoothness in the mouth. It has the classic Barbera crisp fruit flavor of cherry and raspberry. Nice and balanced, it has a lingering finish. Fruit for this wine came from Placer County’s Duarte Vineyards. 13.7 percent alcohol. $25 the bottle.

Avio Vineyards (Sutter Creek, Amador County, CA) offered its yummy 2008 Barbera for tasting. Aroma of black fruit such as blueberry and blackberry, maybe a hint of mint. On the palate, a delightful juiciness. Stefano and Lisa Watson, owners, say that this wine is “our favorite anytime, any meal, going to the neighbors after a long workday wine It’s rich without being aggressive, our Barbera is simply delicious with your favorite comfort (or take out) foods."  14.7 percent alcohol. $28 the bottle.

The 2008 Estate Barbera from Lava Cap (Placerville, El Dorado County) is a classic, and, I confess, the Barbera that I tasted last summer that made me a Barbera convert. Winemaker Tom Jones offers these notes: “Lava Cap Barbera Reserve has a complex aroma of dark red cherry fruit, spicy with foresty herbs and a dash of licorice. The velvety taste of strawberry and plum are complimented by the white pepper finish.”. Grapes are sourced from their steep, west facing vineyard and to augment the depth and complexity of flavors, Tom added 8% Petite Sirah, 10% Sangiovese and 6% Zinfandel Reserve. 14.7 percent alcohol. $20 the bottle. They also offered samples of the 2009 Barbera, a very-berry yummy wine that is being bottled soon.

Other tasty Barberas we tried:

Boitano Family Wines (Mokelumne Hill, Calaveras County) - a wonderful 2006 Barbera that won a “Best of Show” at the 2008 Amador County Fair.

Borjon Winery (Plymouth, Amador County) - a 2007 Barbera with 5% Zin blended in

Easton Wines (Plymouth, Amador County) – a delightful Barbera with grapes sourced from the Cooper Ranch

Latcham Vineyards & Granite Spring Winery (Somerset, El Dorado County) the 2008 Special Reserve Barbera

I look forward to the next festival!  Many thanks to Cooper Vineyards for hosting!
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© 2011 Barbara Keck

For more information on dining and the wide range of activities around Lake Tahoe, see the online version of The Tahoe Weekly. This article appeared in my column "Wine Adventures" in July 2011.

Book in Process: "Mountain High Wine: The Sierra and Its Foothills".

Friday, July 22, 2011

Sierra Foothill Wines: a Great Feature at Charity Event in Reno

Photo Courtesy of Atlantic Casino
 There are more than 7600 bonded wineries in the USA, and more than 3300 in California alone. So it is no surprise that I run into many wines from wineries that are new to me. I have to give credit to the organizers of the recent Toast and Taste of Summer event held at the Atlantis Casino Report Spa in Reno for finding 58 very compelling wineries to include in this interesting tasting event.

The function was a fundraiser for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and featured gourmet food pairings from 17 restaurants including Lake Tahoe’s Sunnyside Resort, Wild River Grille, and Wolfdale’s, and also the new Campo soon to open in downtown Reno under the guidance of Mark Estee, executive chef at Moody’s in Truckee.

Among the wines I tasted was the Mt. Vernon Vineyard, Auburn (Placer County, Sierra Foothills,  Cuvee Blanc, a 50/50 blend of Viognier and Roussane. This wine, just released, was cold fermented with its own indigenous wild yeast for 32 days. This is a field blend created by winemaker Ryan Taylor. Aroma of honeysuckle, a crispness and a creamy finish characterized this wine. Only 240 cases made. 13.9% alcohol, $25/bottle.

Frogs Tooth Vineyards, Murphys (Calaveras County, Sierra Foothills), poured their flagship wine, the 2009 Pinot Grigio. It’s a perfect summer wine: it is delicate and fragrant, a bit floral, a flavor of lemon, and is a nice rich, round full-bodied white wine. 14.5% alcohol. $16/bottle.

The Atlantis Casino Resort Spa is located at 3800 S. Virginia St. Reno, NV 89502. It features the Atlantis Steakhouse, an upscale dining restaurant with a wonderful wine list. Open Wednesday to Sunday, 5PM to 10PM. Reservations call 775.824.4430

The Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International is dedicated to finding a cure for type 1 diabetes and its complications. For more information, go to

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© 2011 Barbara Keck

For more information on dining and the wide range of activities around Lake Tahoe, see the online version of The Tahoe Weekly. This article appeared in my column "Wine Adventures" in July 2011.

Book in Process: "Mountain High Wine: The Sierra and Its Foothills".

Tuesday, July 19, 2011


A recent press release lauds wines from Amador County grapes:
Wines made from Amador County grapes brought home 25 Gold Medals, including 8 Double Golds and 5 Best of California awards, from the 2011 California State Fair Wine Competition.

 “This year’s 2011 competition should go down as a proud moment for all the wineries in the Sierra Foothills Appellation,” said G.M. “Pooch” Pucilowski, Head Judge of the California State Fair Wine Competition.

 Eight wines from the Amador appellations (including Amador County, Shenandoah Valley, and Fiddletown) brought home Double Gold medals, while another 17 took Gold medals.

 Of 27 Best of California varietal wines, 5 were made from Amador grapes. Amador County grew the best Barbera, Primitivo, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, and Other Red (Touriga).

 Here is another interesting observation.  While Napa earned 23 Gold Medaled red wines, Sonoma earned 19, and South Central Coast (Paso Robles and Santa Barbara) earned 12.  Amador County brought home 25 Gold Medals!

 Less than 1% of the state’s wine grape acreage lies in Amador County. Why the disproportionately strong showing by Amador wines? “Footprints in the vineyard” said Dick Martella, president of the Amador County Wine Grape Growers Association, referring to the fact that Amador County vineyards are mostly small fields tended by their owners.

 Comments from judges reflect the quality of this year’s wine competition entries.  Peter Gamble, Wine Maker and Wine Consultant from Ontario, Canada stated firmly, “In over 25 years of my judging wines from around the world, the greatest single flight of wines I've ever had was at this year's California State Fair; over thirty of fifty wines presented in the regional finals were at the 'spectacular' level. Amazing!”

 The California State Fair Wine Competition has been judging California wines since 1854. This year 2,646 wines were tasted in the traditional blind wine judging method in which wines are sorted by varietal and divided up among the 72 judges. The judges know the type of wine, but they are not told the prices of the wines, the appellation, or the winery.

 Amador County is one of California’s historic grape growing regions and is home to the oldest still-producing Zinfandel vineyards. More recently, Amador County has become known for producing some of the state’s best Italian and Rhone varietals and in June, 2011 nearly 2000 Barbera aficionados converged in Amador for California’s first ever Barbera Festival.

 Fittingly, an Amador County (Fiddletown AVA) wine won Best Zinfandel and an Amador County wine won Best Barbera at the huge 2011 San Francisco International Wine Competition.

 For further information go to or call 209-231-4318.


(Barbara Keck is currently writing a book, Mountain High Wines: The Sierra and Its Foothills, which will include stories of pioneering winemakers in Amador County, historical anecdotes, and pairing recipes. Email her at if you wish to be notified when the book publishes.  It will publish in both e-book and print formats. Barbara is the wine columnist for The Tahoe Weekly newspaper.)