The Sierras' Rhône Warriors
These intrepid producers are making reputations for themselves and their region, one of California’s most diverse.
It’s been referred to as the Liquid Gold Rush. Sierra Foothills producers are crafting Syrah, Viognier and other red and white Rhône-inspired offerings that are capturing the attention of California wine devotees for their complexity, ageability and downright deliciousness.
The rise of Rhône varieties in California’s massive Sierra Foothills appellation is largely due to the hard work and wine mastery of two people—call them the twin fathers of the movement.
The historical father is John MacCready, a Ph.D. in electrical engineering and, at the time, a professor at California State University, Sacramento. MacCready was looking for a creative outlet and investment opportunity when he started planting wine grapes in El Dorado County in 1972, starting with Cabernet Sauvignon. But research and personal experience told him that the climate and soil conditions in the Sierra Foothills were remarkably similar to the Northern Rhône. In 1979, he planted Syrah at his Sierra Vista Vineyards and Winery.
The spiritual father is Bill Easton, who set up roots in the Shenandoah Valley in the early 1980s to establish Domaine de la Terre Rouge (now called Terre Rouge & Easton Wines).
“Anecdotal evidence, winemaking experience and other stories about the Foothills convinced me that my Rhône Ranger quest would evolve here,” Easton says. His first wine, modestly labeled California Red Table Wine, was a blend from 1985 and 1986.
At 160 miles long and 40 to 50 miles wide, the Sierra Foothills American Viticultural Area (AVA) covers 2.6 million acres spread across eight counties: Amador, Calaveras, El Dorado, Mariposa, Nevada, Placer, Tuolumne and Yuba, with the Sierra Crest to the east. It’s one of California’s largest and most diverse appellations.
“What I’ve learned in the last 25 years is you can grow practically any grape variety here well,” Easton says, “if you choose the proper site.”
For winemakers looking to the Rhône for inspiration, that means seeking out higher elevations that offer cooler temperatures and decomposed red granite soils.
These four Foothills-based winemakers are taming Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne grapes—taking potentially jammy, overripe monsters and turning them into sublimely aromatic and intricate descendants of their best French forebears.
Terre Rouge & Easton Wines, Shenandoah Valley
Bill Easton began putting down roots in Fiddletown in the early 1980s, fascinated by the town’s microclimate and rich, old-vine Zins. At the time, the only Rhône-styled wine being made in the region was Sierra Vista’s Syrah, which Easton had been selling at his Bay Area wine shop.
“What got me interested in Rhône varieties initially in the Sierra Foothills was that synergy of soil and climate from my experiences in Europe,” Easton says. “I was looking for granite and volcanic-based soils coupled with a nice climate.”
Some 25 years later, in addition to eight Syrahs, Terre Rouge produces single-varietal bottlings of Mourvèdre, Roussanne and Viognier; a Marsanne-Roussanne-Viognier blend called Enigma; a red Rhône blend named Tête-à-Tête; L’Autre, a Grenache-Mourvèdre-Syrah Rhône blend; a Muscat-à-Petits Grains dessert wine and an occasional eau-devie and oxidized style of Roussanne called Rox.
Easton has been moving to cooler sites, which has often meant to higher elevations. But he also plants in canyons, where the nights are colder and the soils warm up late.
“The style of wine I want to make is less of a jammy, overextracted style,” he says. “I want to make wines that have a better sense of fruit and acid and balance, and it seems we can achieve that if we grow things in cooler sites.”
That also means spreading himself around, working with vineyards in four different counties, Placer and El Dorado to the north, Amador and the Oso Loco Vineyard near Calaveras County.
“At 3,000 feet [above sea level], the differential temperature changes are pronounced, sometimes 40 to 50 degrees between day and night,” Easton says. “High-elevation Syrah tends to be more elegant, racier. The terroir here is expressive at lower potential alcohol levels and the wines have aromatics and flavors that go beyond the simple Syrah fruit bomb.”
His case is most convincingly made via Terre Rouge’s Ascent Syrah. With fruit sourced from several of his vineyard sites—the blend changes every year—it’s arguably the most highly regarded wine ever made in the region, a Syrah of intense complexity, fine tannins and craftsman-like structure.
94 Domaine de la Terre Rouge 2008 Ascent Syrah (Sierra Foothills).
A superstructured, incredibly textured Syrah from the Sierra Foothills, this is Bill Easton’s best-of-the-best lots, aptly named Ascent, that he puts out every year to showcase his deft handling of age-worthy Syrah. This one will continue to develop its earthy, dusty, bacon fat and cigar box qualities over time. —V.B.
abv: 14.5% Price: $80
Shake Ridge Vineyard/Yorba Wines, Sutter Creek
Ann Kraemer grew up on a Southern Californian orange grove, one of eight siblings. She studied pomology at Davis, and at one point was director of fruits and nuts for the California Farm Bureau Federation, which was located in Berkeley at the time.
After an internship at Sterling Vineyards, she worked in a variety of roles—from sugar tester to pest management foreman to vineyard manager—at a handful of top Napa wineries before getting the itch to have a vineyard of her own.
She searched throughout Northern California for the right spot, eventually settling in 2001 on an undeveloped-but-cleared expanse along a ridge from 1,650–1,810 feet above sea level, overlooking the town of Sutter Creek.
Shake Ridge Vineyard has since become one of the most famous vineyards in the Foothills, with 46 acres planted. Though its name has adorned many fine Zinfandels, it’s the Rhône grapes that are increasingly coveted by producers like Favia and Keplinger Wines.
At first, Kraemer reveled in “not having a neighbor to look over the fence and say, ‘What are you doing?’” But she admits that she overestimated how hot it would get at that elevation.
“It turned out it’s not so hot,” she says. “The nighttime cools down really well.” Even on days that hit 100 degrees, the nights can plummet down into the 50s.“I just had to make some guesses—educated guesses, but still guesses—of what should go where,” Kraemer says.
Roughly half of her vineyard remains Zinfandel, but the next serious chunk is all Rhône—Syrah, Grenache, Viognier and Mourvèdre. She uses bits of all of them for her own brand, Yorba Wines, made by Winemaker Ken Bernards of Ancien.
She’s placed Grenache and Mourvèdre in the warmer swales of her vineyard, while employing Syrah and Viognier in cooler areas to better preserve their pretty aromatics. Kraemer has been very pleasantly surprised by her Viognier, much of which goes to Favia for its stellar Suize offering.
“I didn’t think we could do a pretty, acid-structured Viognier with personality here,” Kraemer says. “Putting it in the coolest spot gave it a special chance.”
Working with several clones of Syrah, she’s able to offer her winemaking clients a slew of attractive characteristics—meaty or spicy, bright or dark berry flavors, blueberry-toned or cardamom-accented..
“You would think this climate is more Southern Rhône,” she says. “This is where the Syrah is the big surprise. Time and again, I’ll taste it with people and they’ll say it’s closer to a Northern Rhône.”
The Winemakers of Shake Ridge Vineyard
Ann Kraemer of Shake Ridge Vineyard is a beloved and respected figure in the wine world, sought after by many up-and-coming Napa Valley winemakers who are producing notable wines from her fruit. Here are three small brands creating standout bottlings.
Winemaker Andy Erickson and viticulturalist Annie Favia may be young, but they’re already Napa Valley royalty. Erickson has worked with the likes of Dalla Valle, Arietta, Ovid, Harlan, Screaming Eagle and Favia (with David Abreu Vineyard Management), to help make some of the region’s most impressive offerings. Together, the two make four Amador County wines for their own brand, Favia, all of which are produced with Shake Ridge fruit.
Favia Quarzo Syrah—named after the quartz crystals found in Kraemer’s soils—is a wine the duo has been making since 2004. The 2009 vintage is a blend of four clones of Syrah from different blocks on Shake Ridge. Favia’s 2009 Rompecabezas, Spanish for jigsaw puzzle, is also in its fifth vintage, and is made with a blend of 43% Grenache, 37% Mourvèdre and 20% Syrah.
But it’s Favia’s 2009 Suize Viognier that really steals the spotlight. Erickson and Favia named the wine after the famous Marie Suize, a prospector who tirelessly searched for gold in Sutter Creek during the 1849 Gold Rush. Suize’s determination reminds them, they say, of Kraemer. An incredible liquid ambassador for the Sierra Foothills and Shake Ridge Vineyard, Favia’s 2009 Suize Viognier is arguably the best Viognier in California right now. Only 50 cases of this beautiful, lilting wine, layered with Meyer lemon and minerality, were made available.
Helen Keplinger is the winemaker for Napa’s famed Bryant Family Vineyard, where Cabernet Sauvignon is king, but she also maintains her own small brand, Keplinger Wines. Here, she devotes all her time to Rhône varieties.
With a blend of Grenache, Mourvèdre and Syrah sourced from Shake Ridge’s rock-filled slopes, Keplinger produces Lithic (2009 is the current vintage). She combines the fruit in small, cofermented wine lots.
Keplinger fell in love with Grenache and Syrah while visiting the Rhône in 2004, and started looking for Rhône-minded vineyards in California shortly thereafter. Her good friend Andy Erickson of Favia suggested she turn to Kraemer for the varieties when she expressed interest in launching her own label.
“The soils at Shake Ridge are amazing,” Keplinger says. “Ann’s vineyard is [composed of] really ancient volcanic material that sloughed down and pushed back up in the formation of the Sierra Nevada and so it’s red, which all winemakers love.”
Keplinger also appreciates Shake Ridge’s rocky terrain—a mix of quartz, basalt, soapstone and shale—the high elevation, dry air and good wind circulation. But it’s Kraemer’s meticulous farming techniques that make Shake Ridge her first choice.
“She’s such an incredible farmer. She’s farming sustainably, there’s minimal irrigation, the berries are small and the flavors are really intense,” says Keplinger. “Her grapes come in and they are pristine, they are perfect,” Keplinger says.
The two started working together for Keplinger’s 2007 Sumo—a Petite Sirah cofermented with Viognier and Syrah, which Keplinger nicknamed “velvet sledgehammer.”
Mike Drash has been making wine in Napa and Sonoma for nearly 20 years. He started his career working at DeLoach and Jordan before becoming assistant winemaker at Far Niente. He later landed the head winemaker position at Luna Vineyards in 2003.
Drash bought the Napa-based Tallulah Wines from John Raytek in 2009. It was a brand he had been interested in because of his family ties to the famed Tallulah Bankhead (her mother was his great, great aunt). Upon purchasing the property, Drash was granted naming rights and 5,500 cases of wine under the Tallulah label, which included the previously bottled 2005 and 2006 vintages and the 2007, which was still in barrel. He blended and bottled the 2007 vintage, creating several wines, including the Shake Ridge Les Trois Voix, a Grenache-Syrah-Mourvèdre blend.
While there are no 2008 or 2009 vintages from the vineyard, he did buy Syrah from Kraemer in 2010.
“She’s one of the best people in the business to work with—she’s a true perfectionist,” says Drash. “Ann’s Syrah strikes this perfect balance of meatiness. It’s bacon fat with a lot of elegance, the tannins are really resolved and it has some dark berry quality to it as well.”
Drash is also sourcing Petite Sirah from Shake Ridge for the brand Aratas. He particularly appreciates the Shake Ridge rendering of the variety, because it’s dense, yet not too tannic.
“Up there the growing season is so much shorter,” he says. “But where she has the Petite Sirah, it’s able to hang out pretty late. It has a real dark core to it but with some finesse.”
92 Yorba 2007 Shake Ridge Vineyards Syrah (Amador County).
Viticulturist Ann Kraemer, who farms Shake Ridge Vineyards for many other producers, keeps some of the grapes for Yorba, her label with Winemaker Ken Bernards of Ancien. The result is an exceptionally good dark plum, black cherry and blackberry-tinged Syrah with pepper and meat throughout the deep fruit concentration of this still-tight, mountain-grown wine. Cellar another 2–5 years. Cellar Selection. —V.B.
abv: 14.8% Price: $32
La Clarine Farm, Fair Play
Hank Beckmeyer came to the Sierra Foothills after a career in Europe working for a record label. He’s quietly making a name for himself here as a leader in natural winemaking and a great experimenter through his tiny personal label, La Clarine Farm.
His eye-opening, foot-stomped Mourvèdre is a perfect case in point. It’s bright and light, and yet full of complex, moody, brooding flavors. Its fruit is from Cedarville Vineyard, and guided along in the winery by Beckmeyer’s philosophical quirks.
“What I find lacking in a lot of certain sites is acidity,” he says, “but I don’t want to add anything, I don’t want to acidify, and I don’t want 16% alcohol grapes, either.”
On his tiny 2,600-foot-high, twoacre home vineyard, Beckmeyer is growing Tannat and Grenache. He often blends the two together, liking the density and firm tannins of the Tannat in combination with Grenache’s aromatics.
In 2011, he made a Viognier-Sémillon-Marsanne blend as well as a rosé from Syrah and Mourvèdre, foot crushing the grapes before pressing. “I think it’s gentler,” he says of the old-school practice. “I don’t destem anything. With foot crushing, you don’t break the stems and it helps control the temperature a bit, and the fermentations seem to move along pretty nicely. Plus, you have this great, tactile thing—you can feel hot spots and cold spots.”
Beckmeyer also likes the way the stems seem to temper the “exuberant fruit we get up here,” he says. “It’s really easy to make fruity-fruity wines, and I think the stems help balance that out—you get an herbal element, a savory note. It seems the flavors are more in balance, overall.
“What I’m doing, I can mess up,” he concludes, “and it doesn’t really affect anybody but me.”
93 La Clarine Farm 2010 Cedarville Mourvèdre (Sierra Foothills).
An incredible (and yet affordable) example of what Mourvèdre can be in certain nooks and crannies of the Sierra Foothills and in certain hands. Winemaker/Owner Hank Beckmeyer has made a silk mountain out of a tough vintage, taking organically farmed Mourvèdre from the folks over at Cedarville and making a gorgeous, pure and rich Rhône with perfumed notes of plum, smooth spice and a good dose of earth. It’s easy on the palate, with fresh acidity and a velvety texture. Very little sulfur was used. —V.B.
abv: 14.2% Price: $22
Jonathan Lachs & Susan Marks
Cedarville Vineyard, Fair Play
Once a prosperous mining camp, Fair Play is now home to a number of wineries, including Cedarville Vineyard, named for an old ghost town nearby.
Husband-and-wife team Jonathan Lachs and Susan Marks are inspired by—and heavily invested in—Rhône varieties, particularly Viognier, Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre. They make their own small-production Cedarville label wines and sell Mourvèdre to Hank Beckmeyer at La Clarine Farm.
Graduates of University of California, Davis, Lachs and Marks had successful careers in Silicon Valley. During that time, they were regular drinkers of Kermit Lynch’s wines and eager travelers to the Rhône. Once they decided to undertake second careers in the wine business, they quickly saw the connection between the granite-based soils of Condrieu and Côte-Rôtie and those of the Sierra Foothills.
“We always kept our eye on this region because it seemed like a land of opportunity,” says Lachs. “Probably the most intensely decomposed granite soils are here.” They eventually zeroed in on the Fair Play AVA, a 6 mile-by-6 mile patch of land that averages 2,500 feet in elevation.
On their 20-acre estate, 15 of it planted, Lachs and Marks inherited what they say is some of the oldest Syrah in California, planted in 1994. “One thing that’s become very clear growing Syrah is its will to live,” says Lachs, “which is why it survives so well in harsher growing conditions.”
The dramatic slopes of Cedarville’s vineyard lend the wines more of a cool-climate signature. The wines are structured, like most of the wines of the Sierra Foothills, but tantalizingly full of spicy, meaty and smoky characteristics, too. It’s more damp forest floor, wood smoke and minerality than big black fruit; sauvage and granitic.
“Microclimates are everything here,” Marks adds. “From the top of our hill down to the very bottom, there’s as much as a 10-degree difference in temperature.”
The couple will tell you that their great experiment has been Viognier, which is planted in the coldest, rockiest block of their estate. They acknowledge that their Viognier is a geeky wine, very expressive of the site—steely, with honey on the background, bright Meyer lemon and a dusty, river-flowing-overstones kind of vibe, with no concessions to modern winemaking.
In the winery, Lachs likes to foottread his grapes once a day during fermentation to break up the berries and get a bit of extraction going.
“I used to try and make our wines taste more like wines from other areas I admire,” Lachs says. “With time, it’s become clear that site speaks so loud here, making the best expression of what we have here is now the goal.”
92 Cedarville Vineyard 2009 Estate Bottled Grenache
(El Dorado). A tremendous Grenache from the Foothills, estate grown from Beaucastel budwood and allowed to develop slowly, this wine has acres to go before it sleeps. Still dense and dark, with fruity plum and anise predominating, it’ll grow old with tenderness and grace. Cellar Selection. —V.B.
abv: 14.9% Price: $25