Sunday, January 16, 2011

Barbera Bucks Into Zinfandel Territory

Darrell Corti's cryptic directions to Hank Cooper

I've told this story before, but I like it so much I'm telling it again. Besides, not only have four years elapsed since I most recently told it, the yarn continues to evolve, developing intriguing new nuances, just like wine.

The tale opens in the mid-1970s. Hank Cooper, a longtime walnut and prune farmer in the Shenandoah Valley of Amador County, invites some friends over to his ranch to share lunch. Cooper is thinking of getting back into growing grapes. He'd tended zinfandel during World War II, selling the fruit to the military for medicinal alcohol. When the war ended, the bottom fell out of the zinfandel market, and Cooper swore off the variety. Never mind that when he convened his luncheon gathering zinfandel was surging in popularity in the Shenandoah Valley. He'd made up his mind that he didn't ever want anything to do with the variety again, and that was that.

But what should he plant, he asked his guests, one of whom was Sacramento grocer Darrell Corti, who at that time was playing a pivotal role in the development of zinfandel in Amador County. Nonetheless, he understood Cooper's reluctance to jump onto the zinfandel bandwagon. As a consequence, Corti suggested that Cooper plant barbera and dolcetto. Cooper wasn't familiar with either variety. He asked Corti to jot down their names so he could look into them some more. When a piece of paper was slow to materialize, Corti pulled from his wallet a dollar bill and wrote "Barbera" and "Dolcetto" right next to George Washington's portrait.

Cooper appreciated the advice, and followed up by acquiring some barbera cuttings from Shenandoah Valley vintner Cary Gott of Montevina Winery (now Terra d'Oro Winery), who in 1971 was the first person in the area to plant the variety. Dolcetto, on the other hand, wasn't nearly as available, and even wines from its native turf in Piemonte weren't selling well, recalls Corti. Besides, dolcetto can be challenging both in growing and in making wine. "I told Hank that and he probably was put off by it. But it would have been difficult to get cuttings here in any event," says Corti.

Thus, Cooper ignored dolcetto but enthusiastically began to cultivate barbera. His heirs, most notably his son Dick, have been even more passionate about barbera. Dick Cooper not only has expanded his plantings of barbera on his Shenandoah Valley ranch over the past three decades, he's been responsible for providing advice, cuttings and grapes for most of the barbera grown and made in the Sierra foothills. This past fall, 35 tons of the 88 tons of grapes crushed at his eponymous winery were barbera. And twice out of the past four years barbera from Dick Cooper's vineyard has been largely responsible for the wines declared the best reds in the commercial wine competition of the California State Fair.

When I first wrote of the barbera buck four years ago, the dollar itself was missing. It had been stashed with other family heirlooms, then lost. Not long ago, however, the wrinkled bill was rediscovered. Chrissy Cooper, one of Dick Cooper's daughters, sent me the photo above. The dollar now should be pressed, framed and displayed in the tasting room at Cooper Vineyards, perhaps not far from copies of Dick Cooper's book, "Vineyard Development & Maintenance in Amador County."

Perhaps that can be arranged by June 11, when the first Barbera Festival will be held. Fittingly, it will be staged at Cooper Vineyards. (When plans for the festival first were announced last summer it was tentatively scheduled to be at Deaver's Amador Flower Farm, but since then it has been moved to the nearby Cooper spread.) Brian Miller and Deirdre Mueller of Fiddletown, who are pulling together the festival, report that about 60 California wineries with barbera in their portfolios have shown interest in participating. To keep abreast of festival developments, check out its website.

One winery sure to participate, naturally, is Cooper Vineyards, which likely will be pouring its 2008 Amador County Barbera ($25), a hefty yet sunny take on the varietal, juicy with bright red-fruit flavors, sweet and tender with American and French oak, and readily accessible for the suppleness of its tannins. It also packs 15.2 percent alcohol, which means, ironically, that it isn't likely to be found at Darrell Corti's grocery store in Sacramento, where table wines with more than 14.5 percent alcohol are an endangered species.

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