Thursday, July 29, 2010

Cabernet In Kabul

For all its troubles and challenges, Afghanistan has a long and rich history of agriculture that predates and transcends its current celebrated culivation of poppies. In the 1940s, that history drew Dr. Harold Olmo, a grape breeder at the University of California, Davis, to the country's remote reaches in search of vines from ancient vineyards. He found some, and returned to Davis with seeds and cuttings, where they were propagated in the university's vineyard. When Dr. Olmo died at 96 four years ago this month, the university reported that cuttings of grape varieties now extinct in Afghanistan had just been returned to the country, ostensibly in the hope that vineyards with those grapes again could be established. If they have, I haven't found any evidence online.

Dr. Olmo and his worthy intentions came to mind the other day as I read this intriguing article on the blog The Wine Economist. It's about the understandable difficulty of finding decent blackmarket wine in Kabul. At first, I thought it might be a put-on, but Mike Veseth, who customarily writes the blog but not this posting, assures me it's "completely legit." Veseth, who teaches international political economy at the University of Puget Sound, relied on a trusted correspondent whose identity he concealed because of the illegal activities he witnessed and reported. Veseth also has no idea of what became of the vine cuttings from UC Davis, but also hopes that someone will follow up and report on the exchange.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Eureka, I've Found A New Wine Region!

In California's redwood country, job prospects are looking good for Bigfoot. If he were to emerge from the forest he could put those big feet of his to work stomping wine grapes. While Humboldt County popularly is seen as the state's garden spot for groves of redwood and patches of marijuana, not vineyards, a wine culture nevertheless is emerging.

It's young, dating back around three decades. It's small, amounting to about 100 total acres. It's scattered, with isolated wineries stretching from Redway in the county's southern reaches to Orleans in the far north. The wine list of VI Restaurant in the Victorian Inn at Ferndale includes a couple of dozen wines from 14 Humboldt County wineries. The list shows how many miles you have to drive from the inn to get to each of the wineries - 15 to Old Growth, 37 to Fieldbrook, 61 to Briceland, 70 to Dogwood.

But the wine trade in Humboldt is growing. Membership in the Humboldt Wine Association is up to 25 wineries. And yesterday, the Humboldt County Fair held a competition for both commercial and neophyte winemakers. Some 60 commercial wines were entered. I was one of eight judges who formed two panels in C.J.'s Turf Club, right next to the fair's horse-racing track and just across the way from Bo Peep's Barn. (When the wine competition first was held four or five years ago it was during the run of the fair, but when judges complained of the intrusion of smells from livestock barns and food concessions the judging was moved up to just before the fair; this year's fair, which runs for 11 days, starts Aug. 11.)

Broadly speaking, the chardonnays were snappy with apple fruit, the pinot noirs refreshing with the flavor of plump cherries, and the sangioveses rich and complex. Complete results aren't yet available, but we did learn the identities of the wines we chose as best white and best red. They were intriguing because the grapes that went into both were grown someplace other than Humboldt County. That could have been a fluke, or it could say something of the nature of the wine trade in the county, namely that Humboldt's wineries are dependent on fruit from outside the area because the topography and climate about Eureka, while dandy for redwoods and marijuana, may be just too challenging for wine grapes. Perhaps that fog will lift as more results from the competition become available.

For the record, the best white wine was the fragrant, spicy and lean Briceland Vineyards 2009 Mendocino County Spirit Canyon Vineyard Arneis ($16), and the best red was the Moonstone Crossing Winery 2006 Amador County Wish Upon a Star ($21), a lush and robust blend of 59 percent sangiovese, 22 percent cabernet franc, 13 percent cabernet sauvignon and 6 percent aglianico. Amador County to Humboldt County. That's a long way to haul a big load of grapes. Sounds like another job for Bigfoot.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Perfect Time For Riesling

If ever there was an evening in Sacramento that cries out for a glass of riesling, this is it. The temperature in the 90s. Thunderheads rising to the east. Not a whisper of a Delta breeze from the west or the south. Sauteed chicken on focaccia for dinner, with corn on the cob to the side.

As luck would have it, a couple of days ago I'd picked up a bottle of the Chateau Ste. Michelle 2009 Columbia Valley Riesling at one of my local Safeway stores. How could I pass it up? It was $9, or $7 if you have one of those Safeway savings cards. It was from Chateau Ste. Michelle, which if I remember correctly makes more riesling than any other winery in the country; they should know what they are doing with the varietal. It was from Washington state, where riesling should be the official state wine, though the merlot and syrah lobbies would quibble with that. And it had on the back label one of those scales being promoted by the International Riesling Foundation (IRF) to let consumers know just what kind of riesling awaits them.

A brief refresher course: The IRF scale says "dry" to the far left, "sweet" to the far right. Inbetween are markers to indicate "medium dry" and "medium sweet." Riesling sales in the U.S. have labored in recent years because consumers almost invariably think the varietal is sweet, and "sweet" is out of fashion because it isn't seen as sophisticated as "dry." OK, so the IRF was created in part to help inform consumers that there are many styles of riesling, not all of which are sweet. (To learn more, go to the IRF's Web site.) At the risk of confusing matters, even rieslings that have residual sugar and thus would seem to taste sweet often don't, because their acidity is so high it counterbalances the impression of sugar.

I've no idea what the residual sugar is in the 2009 Chateau Ste. Michelle. The company's Web site is no help. While it has information of the 2008 Riesling and the 2009 Dry Riesling, nothing has been posted about the 2009 Riesling. There is, however, that scale on the back label, which claims that the wine is midway between "medium dry" and "medium sweet." After tasting the wine, I'd agree that is an accurate claim. This is a rare riesling in that it will appeal both to the consumer who has little experience with the varietal and to the collector who thinks that only the best balanced and most refined interpretations must come from Germany. It struck my palate as more dry than sweet, with a flavor suggestive of stone fruit along the lines of peaches grown in a benign climate and picked at just the right time to preserve their clarity and balance. In a word, refreshing. On an evening like tonight, you need not ask for anything more, but this wine does deliver more - freshness, balance, intrigue. It invites another pour, then another. I now wish I'd bought two bottles.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Where There's Smoke, There's Wine

About midway through a class of zinfandels at last weekend's Long Beach Grand Cru wine competition, I found myself thinking: Several of these wines sure do seem to have a lot of smoke.

Now, some smoke in some wines is seen as a good thing, especially if it's just a whiff to add complexity, and not a dense pall that obscures the fruit and other alluring characteristics. By and large, smoke in wine comes from barrels, often scorched to varying degrees of toastiness.

That could have been the case with the clearly smoky zinfandels, but maybe not. All the zinfandels in the class our panel was assigned were  from the 2008 vintage. That's the year that more wildfires than usual blazed across Northern California, occasionally smothering neighboring vineyards in smoke. At the time, growers and winemakers fretted that grapes exposed to smoke for a prolonged period might be adversely affected. Now the red wines of 2008 are being released, and their concern looks justified.

This past spring, Ben Worthen of the Wall Street Journal reported at length about measures that vintners in Mendocino County's Anderson Valley have taken to remove excessive "smoke taint" from their pinot noir, the most highly regarded varietal in the appellation. Their efforts weren't always successful, vintners conceded to Worthen. As a consequence, some vintners have taken unusual steps, such as cutting back on the amount of pinot noir they are releasing, putting it up under another label, selling it off in bulk, and reducing prices.

After the Grand Cru's coded results were released, I went back through my notes to learn the origin of the five wines I thought were excessively smoky, though none of them, frankly, had the stench of an ashtray never emptied during an all-night poker session, which the phrase "smoke taint" seems to suggest.

At any rate, two of the wines were from Mendocino County, but two also were from Lodi, which I don't recall being as inundated with smoke. Maybe a couple of winemakers in Lodi just like to load their zinfandel with a lot of toasty oak. Another was from Sonoma County. None of the wines we gave gold medals was from Mendocino County or Lodi, but two were from Sonoma County.

OK, the lesson for consumers here isn't any different than it is for any wine purchase. If at all possible, taste a wine before buying it. If that isn't possible, buy from a wine merchant whose candor and fairness you have come to respect; if a wine appears to be smokier than usual for the style, he or she will say so. And remember, 35 of the 40 wines in the zinfandel class weren't notably heavy with smoke, indicating that if there is a smoke issue with the vintage of 2008 it just might be limited to a few enclaves. There's no need to condemn an entire vintage.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Surprises At The Long Beach Grand Cru

No wine from the Sacramento region won a sweepstakes award at this past weekend's Long Beach Grand Cru, but the competition nonetheless produced some provocative results:

- Of the 21 wines nominated for the white-wine sweepstakes, eight were from the Finger Lakes district of New York State. This is a remarkable proportion, and further evidence of the growing stature of wines being made in that challenging setting. Granted, many Finger Lake wineries long have supported the Grand Cru, entering more wines than any other region outside California, which continues to dominate the entries, understandably. Given the strong showing by Finger Lakes, it was only fitting that a wine from the region, the fruity and crisp Belhurst Estate Winery 2009 Finger Lakes Dry Riesling ($19), won the white-wine sweepstakes. Belhurst, up to now recognized for its castle-like architecture, posh resort amenities and scenic setting along Seneca Lake, sent an amazing four best-of-class wines to the sweepstakes round.

- The experimentation and diversification that is taking place in California's vineyards and wineries was recognized with several relatively new varietals in the red-wine sweepstakes, including tempranillo, teroldogo and dolcetto, as well as some unusual blends. Though the Grand Cru's judges often reward novelty with a high honor, this year the red-wine sweepstakes went to a finely structured and persistent interpretation of the varietal most closely identified with California not named zinfandel. It was the Rutherford Vintners 2007 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($13). Rutherford Vintners is a brand of Classic Wines of California, based in Ceres.

- Though no Sacramento-area wine won a sweepstakes, several were considered. Terra d'Oro Winery in Amador County's Shenandoah Valley turned in the most impressive performance among local wineries with two best-of-class wines, the 2009 California Moscato ($16) and the 2007 Amador County Zinfandel ($18). Other local best-of-class winners were the Bogle Vineyards 2007 Clarksburg Petite Sirah Port ($18), and the Housley's Century Oak Winery 2008 Lodi Cabernet Sauvignon ($13).

- For all the current talk about California winemakers dialing back on the alcohol in their wines, it wasn't evident in the class of 2008 zinfandels judged by the panel on which I sat. Of the six zinfandels we gave gold medals, four came in at 15 percent alcohol or higher. From that field, the best-of-class was the Rancho Zabaco Winery 2008 Sonoma County Heritage Vines Zinfandel ($18) with 15.3 percent alcohol. The numbers may be unsettling, but I will have to say this: None of the gold-medal winners was harsh with heat; they were big wines, yet balanced. One of our gold-medal winners turned out to be a local product, the Drytown Cellars 2009 Amador County Zinfandel ($17), which weighed in at 14.2 percent alcohol, the lowest of the six. Who would ever have thought that of an Amador County zinfandel? Maybe that's where winemakers are toning down the alcohol.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Au Revoir, Le Bilig Kitchen

After a long weekend in Long Beach, I returned home to find some disquieting news in the email: Marc and Monica Deconinck are closing their acclaimed French restaurant in Auburn, Le Bilig Kitchen. They opened the tiny place on Oct. 10, 1994, and will serve their last meals July 31. For nearly 16 years, they steadily refined the unusual quarters - the restaurant shares a building with a bailbondsman - while providing diners with a generous and hearty interpretation of traditional French and modern California cuisines.

The Deconincks had been talking of taking a year's sabbatical in France. At first, they thought they might sell the restaurant, then they considered handing it over to an operator who would keep it going during their absence. In the meantime, however, their landlord decided she no longer wanted a restaurant in the building, thus helping them make up their mind to walk away from the restaurant and to get on with the next phase of their lives, says Monica Deconinck.

They leave for the tiny village of Venasque in Provence next month. They'll enroll five of their six children in school (the sixth has graduated from high school), and Marc Deconinck, who has been working on a master's degree in education with an emphasis on theology, will further his studies at the Institute of Notre Dame. "He'll be feeding the soul and not the belly," says Monica Deconinck.

But he isn't entirely abandoning the kitchen. Before the family leaves for France he will conduct cooking and gardening classes, and may oversee a special dinner or two, at their residence along Bell Road, which they are calling The Stonehouse Farm Retreat. It's adjacent to a vineyard tended by Monica Deconinck's parents.

While in France, the couple also hopes to complete a cookbook they started to write 10 years ago. For their remaining time at Le Bilig Kitchen, they will served lunch this Wednesday through Friday, dinner this Wednesday through Saturday, and then both lunch and dinner daily starting Sunday, July 25, and continuing through Saturday, July 31.

Le Bilig Kitchen is at 11570 Atwood Road, Auburn; (530) 888-1491.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Last Night's Wine

What do European winemakers know that Californians don't? The question arises because for the second night in a row, without any sort of warning, the stopper in the wine bottle when I peeled off the capsule was glass. This was an entirely different wine from the night before, from a different country and a different merchant, yet the stubby glass closure looked identical. No doubt some California winemakers have adopted the glass plug as a way around contamination problems with cork and image issues with screwcaps, but it's been months if not years since I last saw one on a California wine. And now, here are two straight, each on a wine from Europe, which I'd think would be the last continent to give up on cork. What's happened to California's sense of adventure and creativity?

While I wait for an answer, let me tell you a bit more about last night's wine. It was the Tenuta Sant' Antonio 2008 Scaia Rossa from the Veneto in northern Italy. I'd just picked it up at Corti Brothers in Sacramento for $11. Spaghetti with a meaty tomato sauce and corn-on-the-cob was on the dinner menu, and a red wine seemed in order, though I'd no idea whether this particular selection would work with the meal. It did quite well, the youth, fruit, spice and hint of smoke in the wine well balanced with the light sweetness and earthiness of the sauce. Had I read the Corti Brothers newsletter before having the wine, I would have known to chill it a little beforehand, but I hadn't and I didn't. Now I get to buy another bottle to see what difference a slight chill would make. Even without chilling, it was a delightful wine, dry and approachable, with a tangy lift. Some wines seem made to be vertical, some horizontal, and this one falls in the vertical classification; that is, it remained upright and buoyant throughout the meal, and I was sorry when the last drop fell from the lip of the bottle.

Back to the Corti Brothers newsletter, which if I'd read it earlier I'd also have been alerted to the glass stopper: "Scaia," the wine's proprietary name, means "shard" in Venetian dialect. The newsletter doesn't elaborate, but the name conjures up the sorry image of a Murano chandelier shattered on the floor. In a more positive vein, the wine is a pretty red, catching and reflecting the last sunlight of the day, just as a sliver of glass might. The grape that makes up the wine, the newsletter notes, is corvina veronese, one of the same varieties that goes into the Valpolicella blend. The wine was fermented and aged entirely in stainless steel.

At the Web site for Tenuta Sant' Antonio, you can learn more of Scaia, including the numerous dishes that the proprietors recommend with the wine, such as flour gnocchi with mountain cheese, and sausage risotto. Sounds as if the wine will work as well in winter as it does in summer.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Tonight's Wine

Dinner tonight was colorful, flavorful and wholesome - braised chicken with sauteed sweet peppers, potatoes, broccoli and onion seasoned with garlic, ginger, sesame oil and kaffir lime leaves, accompanied by brown and wild rices off to the side. I was only vaguely aware of the menu when I was summoned to the table. En route, I paused at the refrigerator to grab a bottle of wine I'd been looking forward to tasting. I also fetched from a kitchen drawer a cork puller, which, I soon discovered, wasn't necessary. This was a bottle plugged with one of those new glass stoppers that require just a slight twist and tug to remove.

Happily, without forethought, the pairing worked out splendidly. The wine was the Der Pollerhof 2007 Ried Konigsberg Riesling ($24), which I'd just bought on the persuasive advice of a clerk at 58 Degrees & Holding Co. in midtown Sacramento. I'd asked for a dry riesling, and the Der Pollerhof is what he produced. The wine was perfect not only for the liveliness and brightness of the chicken, peppers and rice, but for this unusually balmy mid-July evening.

The riesling was dry, all right, but it also was unusually fruity and layered for the varietal, with no traces of the petrol aromatics often associated with European interpretations of the varietal (Der Pollerhof is in Austria). It opened with the smell of small white wildflowers, and on the palate kept unfolding into delicate fruit flavors - peach and grapefruit early on, and apple, apricot and tangerine later. The spice suggested white pepper, and made me think gruner veltliner. Later, when I looked up Der Pollerhof online, I learned that its signature wine is indeed gruner veltliner, so I suspect that a touch may have been added to the riesling.

The wine is imported and distributed by Valley View Wine Sales of Glen Ellen. I got the feeling that 58 Degrees was down to its last few bottles. Here's hoping that Valley View has more in the pipeline.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Fill World Cup With...Albarino? Riesling?

I've no dog in tomorrow's World Cup semifinal between Germany and Spain, but if I were rooting for the Spanish, and if they were to win, I'd head over to Aioli Bodega Espanola in midtown Sacramento to celebrate afterwards. Don't go during the match; Aioli has no television sets. What it does have is an extensive and solid menu of Spanish tapas and entrees, an embracing and festive atmosphere, the occasional classical guitarist, a seasoned and engaging staff, and the entertaining host and owner, Reda Bellarbi Salah.

Oh, and a wine list lengthy and varied, leaning mostly to releases of the Iberian peninsula, but also inviting in its smart selection of Argentine, Chilean, Italian and French wines. When we stopped in the other evening we'd already eaten, but wanted a nightcap fitting for a warm summer evening, something white, cold, crisp and minerally. A glass of the Morgadio 2008 Rias Baixas Albarino met our every request. It's precisely the kind of sharp and refreshing albarino that is prompting so many California vintners to experiment with planting the variety. If we hadn't already eaten, I would have been tempted to pair the wine with one of Aioli's mussel, scallop or clam dishes.

We liked that albarino so much we tried another, the equally refreshing if somewhat richer Paco & Lola 2008 Rias Baixas Albarino. It was rounder, with a more citric flavor hinting of lime peel, and a touch of spice on the edges. People who want more texture in their albarino likely will prefer the Paco & Lola, while those who look for angularity will pop for the Morgadio.

Reda Bellarbi Salah is proud of his wine list, and loves to persuade guests to try one of his latest acquisitions. We are easily persuaded, and thus got introduced to the Paulo Laureano 2007 Alentejo Singularis, a dark and expressive blend mostly of tempranillo with trincadeira. It's a wonderfully savory wine, its aromatics effusive, its flavors suggesting Bing cherries, tobacco leaves and barrels made of walnut shells. Not realistic, I know, but that's the magic of wine. Eric Stumpf stocks the wine at his shop The Wine Consultant in Citrus Heights. And chef Traci des Jardins of the San Francisco restaurant Jardiniere will be pouring the wine with the main course during her prix-fixe special Devil's Gulch Porchetta Dinner on Aug. 2.

And while the Singularis is Portuguese and not Spanish, a few bottles just might get opened at Aioli Bodega Espanola tomorrow night should Spain beat Germany. And if not, let's hope the restaurant has some riesling on its wine list.

Monday, July 5, 2010

High Sierra Wine Lesson

Every year, in one form or another, from blog postings to casual conversations (not that there is much difference between the two), I talk up the challenges and joys of hiking into Fourth of July Lake near Carson Pass on the Fourth of July. Yet, the trail never seems to get congested, which could mean that no one listens to or reads me, but I prefer not to go there. Parties remain relatively small and well scattered. This is a glorious trek, high and sunny, with generally balmy temperatures (54 degrees at the start yesterday, 71 at the end seven hours later). The roundtrip is 10 miles, and includes such diversions as Frog Lake, Elephant Back, Winnemucca Lake, Little Round Top (where a couple had packed in skis for one steep and graceful run down a slope still deeply packed with snow) and Little Round Top Lake (where another venturesome and sure-footed couple sauntered out onto a curving ice floe to fish).

Every year on the way out I pause above Winnemucca Lake to appreciate the grand vista (you can see Lake Tahoe from there) and to record the snowpack. To get into Fourth of July Lake this year required crossing a fair number of snow fields, more than usual, but they weren't as broad or as steep as I've seen in the past. At top left is this year's dwindling snowpack above Winnemucca Lake as it stood yesterday. In the center is the more-or-less same view on the Fourth of July in 2009, and at the bottom right it how it looked on the Fourth in 2008. The lesson looks clear, a lot more snow this year than during the past two winters.

So, is there a wine angle here, other than that growers should be assured of more water for their struggling vines late this summer than they've had the past two years? As a matter of fact, let's hear it for the PlatyPreserve Wine Preservation System by Platypus, a rather grand name for a simple lightweight pouch whose polyethelene line reputedly protects a wine's integrity on long and jostling hikes. I don't have one myself, but Fred and Robin Hollabird of Reno, who led a group of about a dozen pals into Fourth of July Lake, were opening their pouch and generously sharing pours of a Sterling sauvignon blanc during lunch.The wine tasted as cool, clean and fresh as if it had just come out of the bottle. (REI stocks the pouches, at least on its Web site.) With that many people, there was just a small pour for each, but that was a good thing considering the 1,000-foot climb in elevation from Fourth of July Lake. Any more and I'd still be camped by the lake, wondering if that iceberg floating in the middle ever would melt.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

A New Star Rises Over The Foothills

Zinfandel was the grape and the wine to establish the Sierra foothills as a fine-wine region. In recent years, however, the growing stature of barbera and syrah has been challenging zinfandel's historic standing. And now it looks as if another black grape and red wine - tempranillo - deserves to be included in this elite and competitive group.

In the second straight major wine competition of the summer, a tempranillo from the foothills has been declared the best example of the varietal. The most recent honor was bestowed at the San Francisco International Wine Competition, where the Consensio Cellars 2008 Amador County Symphony of Wines Tempranillo ($30) was named the best tempranillo in the judging. Earlier last month, the Convergence Vineyards 2008 El Dorado Tempranillo ($28) won the same award at the California State Fair. (Consensio Cellars is in Ventura County.)

At both competitions, incidentally, barbera from Amador County as interpreted by Jeff Runquist Wines continued to set the standard for the varietal in the state. At the San Francisco competition, the Jeff Runquist Wines 2008 Amador County Barbera ($24) was named the best take on the varietal, while at the California State Fair the same award went to the Jeff Runquist Wines 2008 Amador County Ambra Vineyard Barbera ($40).

Also at San Francisco, the Montevina Wines 2009 California Pinot Grigio ($10) was declared best pinot grigio. (Montevina is a label of Terra d'Oro Winery in Amador County.)

For its 30th staging, the San Francisco International Wine Competition drew 3,897 wines from 27 countries and 28 states. Though complete results are to be posted on its Web site, they weren't yet accessible when I tried.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

A Rare Bird In The Sierra Foothills Takes Flight

Two multi-layered, tight-deadline writing projects lately have kept me from posting here as often as I'd like, but yesterday I took a break to catch up with Bill Easton, who with his wife Jane O'Riordan makes wines in Amador County's Shenandoah Valley. They have two brands, Terre Rouge, for wines based on Rhone Valley varieties and styles, and Easton, for everything else, from cabernet sauvignon to zinfandel. Between the two labels, he makes some 20 wines each vintage.

With that kind of portfolio, how do you keep a tasting manageable? I did it by asking Easton to bring out only what he considers his "signature" wines - releases of which he is proudest, and which have the most to say of winery and region. He pulled five, but noted up front that one is too new to be considered a signature wine. He's so excited about it, however, he wanted to show it off, and the wine does have a news angle. Though Easton is a longtime fan of Burgundy, the Easton 2008 Sierra Foothills Duarte-Georgetown Vineyard Pinot Noir is his first interpretation of the varietal.

There's a reason for that. The Sierra foothills is just too hot for pinot noir, so goes the conventional thinking. Easton, however, knows the history of pinot noir in the Georgetown area of El Dorado County, and he's specifically acquainted with the Duarte-Georgetown Vineyard in that area. It's not only at a relatively cool 2,500 feet, it is planted to five carefully chosen clones of pinot noir. He used four of the strains to make a wine that if it were rolled into a blind tasting of Burgundies and California pinot noirs it well might be taken for the former. In color, it's a dusky red, so transparent it could be mistakenly dismissed as a lightweight. In smell and flavor, however, it delivers fresh strawberries and cherries sprinkled with pie spices, all set off against a fine-boned structure and a velveteen texture. It's refined, but it also has snap. It shows that pinot noir out of the Mother Lode shouldn't be ignored. Easton made just 270 cases, and even at $25 a bottle he should exhuast his inventory well before this year's harvest. What in the world possessed him to take the risk? "I get bored easily, so I'm always looking for new things to do," he says.

So, as to other potential signature wines, he opened his Easton 2008 Sierra Foothills Monarch Mine Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc, a lush and well-balanced take on the varietal, with flavors melony rather than grassy, and his Terre Rouge 2007 Sierra Foothills Roussanne, all spring pollen and late-summer fruit basket dominated by melons and pears, with an undercurrent of almond coursing through the wine.

Pleasant as those whites are, Terre Rouge/Easton is a winery I most closely associate with red wines. He makes seven syrahs alone, and six zinfandels. We tasted one of each. The Easton 2006 Fiddletown Old Vine Zinfandel is a beauty, from its brilliant and deep garnet to the tingle of exotic spices in the finish. The fruit is all fresh blackberries and raspberries, with none of the raisins or prunes often associated with Amador County zinfandel. I have no quibble with raisins or prunes, it's just that this zinfandel has a youthful charge that speaks more to juicy than somewhat dried fruit. From among his syrahs, Easton brought his Terre Rouge 2005 Sierra Foothills Ascent, which I've long thought of as his signature wine, in part for the price ($85), even though I've found its tannins intimidating. This is a wine that Easton makes for the long haul, however. It's a collector's wine, meant to be tucked away in the cellar for a decade or so. Nevertheless, the 2005 is spectacular, lush without being ponderous, solid without being rigid; the tannins this time around aren't at all as hard as nails. All its heft comes from ripe fruit. Oak is integrated judiciously, alchol is kept at a respectable 14.5 percent. Syrah is having a difficult time getting traction in California, but it wouldn't be if more could be packed with this much dark fruit flavor, smoky meatiness, minerals and spice.

As to which of Easton's wines is his signature wine, I'm not yet prepared to say. After all, the bold and lengthy Terre Rouge 2005 Shenandoah Valley Sentinel Oak Pyramid Block Syrah that I tasted last fall still resonates in my mind as perhaps the finest take on the varietal I've had from the foothills. I'm planning to write up one of these wines for my column for The Sacramento Bee, so I need to make up my mind soon.