Monday, December 6, 2010

In Amador, Striking New Winery Turns Heads

Our destination was the foothill winery C.G. di Arie, where owners Chaim and Elisheva Gur-Arieh were introducing three new dessert wines based on traditional Portuguese grape varieties and traditions. Going and coming, however, we got distracted:

Andis Winery, Shenandoah Valley
- Midway through Amador County's Shenandoah Valley, the soaring new Andis Winery caught our eye. In an enclave where winery architecture usually runs to weathered barns, Tuscan villas and steel sheds, Andis stands out for its sheer mass and thrusting edginess. Despite its size - nearly 17,000 square feet - and its stark modern lines, the building doesn't so much dominate its surroundings as float from the low hill on which it perches, overlooking Shenandoah Road. Gnarled old head-pruned wines roll roll from its base, their black trunks contrasting with the building's blue, silver and misty-dawn color scheme. Built of prefabricated metal with spreading canopy overhangs that accentuate its proud scale, the building was designed by Sage Architecture of Sacramento to be energy efficient, low maintenance and practical in application. Early reviews haven't been kind, likening the structure to "Ford service center," "aircraft hangar" and "car wash," to judge from comments in neighboring tasting rooms. Perhaps that's to be expected in an area where winery design up to now has been modest in both size and attitude. In time, visitors and locals alike just may come to appreciate the environmental awareness and the confidence in the local wine trade that the building represents, as well as its sleek look and airy feeling.

We stepped inside to find a tasting room high and bright, with panoramic views of adjoining vineyards. The owners, Andy and Janis Friedlander (Andis, for short), weren't around, though two other key players were, winemaker Mark McKenna, who has been making wine at nearby Bray Vineyards, and tasting-room manager Ruthie McRonald, formerly of Bogle Vineyards at Clarksburg.

Construction of Andis went fast, starting in May and finishing in time for this year's harvest. But planning had been under way for years, with the first couple of vintages processed by McKenna at Bray. Andis has room to produce 20,000 cases a year, but is starting out with 6,000. They include the usual foothill suspects - zinfandel, petite sirah, barbera - made in a style relatively restrained for the area, with oak, tannin and alcohol all held in check. The most alluring wine in the inaugural lineup is an assertive, meaty and persistent grenache, its ripe fruit handled in such a way to retain a youthful buoyancy.

Andis had been open just a week and a day when we stopped by Saturday. As it gets its feet, the hours for its tasting room may change, explained McRonald, though for right now they are 10:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Friday through Monday.

- Much to our surprise, one large vineyard that Andis overlooks appears to never have been harvested this fall, as clusters of fat black grapes continue to hang heavy and exposed while leaves fall away and periodic rains arrive. This was one of two substantial vineyards we saw Saturday that hadn't been picked, and at this late date aren't likely to be. What's going on? No vintner or tasting-room personnel we ran into could say. One speculated that the owner of one of the vineyards may be planning a late-harvest wine, but that seemed more hopeful thinking than likely possibility. Others speculated that the growers never got contracts for this year's grapes, or couldn't come up with the financing to hire a harvest crew. At any rate, big vineyards unharvested well into December don't speak well of the Shenandoah Valley wine trade, but maybe they're just coincidental and fleeting blips that say more of individual fortunes or the lagging overall economy than they do of the quality of the area's grapes and wines. At any rate, an unharvested vineyard is distressing, unless, of course, the farmer is hoping to eventually make an ice wine.

- And speaking of ice wines, when we stopped by the nearby Charles Spinetta Winery we tasted the first local wine from this year's harvest. No, it actually isn't an ice wine, but close. Charles Spinetta labels it "Frost Wine." He sets aside a portion of his chenin blanc and lets it ripen as long as he can, right through a couple of nights of light frost, harvesting just before a severe freeze or the first heavy rains of autumn. His aim is to grab the grapes at prime ripeness, when they're loaded with sugar, hoping for a wine sweetly sunny. He doesn't pull it off every year. Indeed, the Charles Spinetta Winery 2010 Amador Chenin Blanc Frost Wine ($15 per 375-milliliter bottle) is the first of this style that he's made in seven years. If rains or a freeze don't get to the grapes before he does, birds are apt to. "The birds just love it," says Spinetta. What's not to like? The wine is all about spring and summer, its smell floral, its soft and sweet flavor suggesting peaches and apricots. With just 7.5 percent alcohol and 20 percent residual sugar, it's easy to sip in place of dessert after a holiday feast. If you stop by the winery, just look for the bottle with the bright Mandarin wood ducks on the label.

- At C.G. di Arie Winery we indulged our sweet tooth even more by tasting through the three new port-style wines, marketed under the label Kelson Creek, which the Gur-Ariehs bought a few years ago, in part to give themselves a more accessible tasting room in the Shenandoah Valley, in part to allow them to continue to designate their dessert wines as "Port." At any rate, while the Kelson Creek 2008 Vintage Port is intense and long ($25 per 375-milliliter bottle) and the Kelson Creek Ruby Port is fresh and spicy, with candied red fruit ($25 per 375-milliliter bottle), my favorite was the complex yet readily accessible Kelson Creek Tawny Port, all holiday spices, caramel and nuts ($30 per 375-milliliter bottle). A glass of that, a good book and a night when a blaze is permitted in the fireplace is all I need for a cold and wet winter night to pass quickly.


  1. Interesting timing for this post. We zipped up to Amador yesterday to collect some wine at Dillian and make a couple of other stops. We're up there pretty regularly, so we were astonished to see this huge building across the street from Vino Noceto. I appreciate that it isn't a Las Vegas/Hollywood version of what others seem to think a wine-tasting room should be. On the other hand it does have a ridge-line profile and is dramatically prominent. I'm pleased to hear from you, Mike, of their environmental thoughtfulness. The tasting room appeared to be packed yesterday, and we didn't stop. Having read your notes, we will next time. If their wine is great, I'm sure we'll come to love the building too.

  2. For $25 a half bottle, or $50 a bottle, I'll buy real Port, thank you very much. They can pay for their fancy building with someone else's help. Wines from Shenandoah, Lodi, the foothills in general are waaay overpriced. I thought Napa was bad. Millaire (in Murphys)was still reasonable, last time I was there.

  3. On your next trip to Amador, check out the new Amador 360 Wine & Visitor Center on the corner of Hwy 49 and Pacific St. They have some outstanding wines made from Amador grapes that you won't find in any of the local tasting rooms, and they know a lot about the history of the region. It's pretty cool!

  4. Driving home one night from Pleasant Valley thru Shenandoah Valley I was astonished to see the otherwise dark and quiet countryside lit up like a factory by the new Andis structure. Totally out of place, out of context and out of their minds with the light pollution. They really need to rethink their lighting policy.

  5. Where is Amador county? Not all of your blog readers are familiar with your region. Please be more specific.

  6. Sorry. Amador County is one of California's Mother Lode counties, also known as the "cow counties" for their longtime cattle running. All are in the foothills of the western slope of the Sierra Nevada. Amador County's Shenandoah Valley, where most of the county's wineries are concentrated, is east of Sacramento about 40 miles.