Thursday, August 4, 2011

Bill Easton Lets Each Wine Speak For Itself

Bill Easton of Terre Rouge and Easton Wines
Earlier today I had my yearly lunch with Bill Easton. He's a longtime Amador County winemaker who owns two brands, Domaine de la Terre Rouge and Easton Wines. He's a rarity in that his wines don't reflect a singular house style, even though, ironically, he releases wines under a secondary label called House. Indeed, one of the five wines we shared was the House 2010 California Rose, based largely on grenache but also including mourvedre and roussanne. With clarity and balance, it fulfilled rose's traditional assignment, which is to be a wine uncomplicated, unchallenging and most of all just downright refreshing. It's the kind of wine I've come to expect to find at the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op. Bill Easton just makes the wines, he doesn't market them, so he didn't know whether the Co-op actually stocks the wine, though the store has been a fan of his releases in the past. Though he isn't much into sales, I think he was headed in the direction of the Co-op as we went our separate ways.

But to get back to Easton's lack of a "house" style. One of the pleasures in tasting his new and pending releases is their variability. As you start to taste his wines you can't predict what's in store for your palate, unless you recognize at the outset that Easton is principally a student of place and time. He seeks to seize in his wines a sense of their origin, both their setting and their vintage. He's pretty much locked in to variety and clone at the outset, but beyond that he's careful to delineate ripeness, yeast, oak and other factors that contribute to a wine's overall statement.

As a consequence, each wine has to be taken on its own. Each has something different to say beyond the frame of reference provided by varietal. When you drive through the foothills, a new vista or something new in a familiar vista greets you at each curve, and that's what it is like to taste through a flight of Easton's wines. The Easton 2010 Sierra Foothills Monarch Mine Vineyard Sauvignon Blance was true to the varietal in its fresh and forward tropical fruit, but the two clones he used, the high elevation of the vineyard where the grapes were grown, and his fondness for keeping the wine for a long time on its lees resulted in a wine not far removed from key-lime pie in its tang and creaminess. The Terre Rouge 2008 Amador County Viognier wasn't over the top with honeysuckle, peaches and oil, as is common with so many California interpretations of the varietal, but leaned toward a more European take, its faintly apricot aroma and flavor bearing a spiciness both unusual and welcome.

Easton makes several zinfandels, but the Easton 2009 Fiddletown Zinfandel is a new addition to his portfolio. It's a departure from the standard definition of zinfandel in the foothills in its suppleness and elegance. The fruit runs as much to plums as the region's customary raspberries and blackberries. The tannins are more reserved than usual for the area. Despite its youth, it's ready to drink now, but it isn't shy; it has the backbone to stand up to sweet and juicy meats.

The most curious wine in his lineup was the last, the Terre Rouge 2006 Shenandoah Valley Sentinel Oak Pyramid Block Syrah. As with zinfandel, Easton makes several syrahs each vintage, but year after year this is my favorite. I can't recall an earlier version as rich, gamy, feral and even French as this. In its earthy and exotic smell, it will snap back your head, but it is so alluring you won't be able to help yourself, and you'll return time and again not only to sniff but to sip, then drink enthusiastically. It would be fun to see how this wine would do in a commercial wine competition. It could go either way. Judges could love it or loathe it, but I suspect that those with an open and adventurous mind would fall for it. Then they'd end up wagering among themselves just what estate in the Rhone Valley produced it.

We met, as we do each year, at the restaurant Spataro. I always go in there kind of holding my breath, not knowing what to expect in terms of service or food. The place was jammed, a good sign in these troubled economic times, especially today. Service started jerky but soon settled into a groove. As in the past, Spataro does a commendable job with fritto misto, the calamari and chickpeas crisp, the garlic mayonnaise fitting in weight and balance, but watch out for the slices of jalapeno chile peppers; if not for that heat, the sauvignon blanc, the viognier or the rose would be an ideal match. The Thursday lunch special each summer week is skirt steak with arugula, parmesan and fried onions; I don't know how they provide such a substantial and complete dish for $10, but the juicy sweetness of the beef was perfectly matched by both the bright berry fruit of the zinfandel and the savory exoticism of the syrah. I'm glad Bill Easton brought the wines; none of his wines, oddly, are on the wine list.


  1. Mike--

    Bill may not market his wines, but someone is. I just returned from a vacation to eastern Canada. Bill's wines are widely available in restaurants, especially in Montreal. It was nice to see an old friend from home.

  2. Bill,

    Bill is both a great guy and a great winemaker, congrats.

    Gregory Graziano

  3. Charles, you are correct. Bill does a lot of hands-on marketing, but didn't know offhand just who was stocking this or that wine locally, as he delegates much of that responsibility to others.