Monday, April 30, 2012

Notes From The Calaveras Gold Rush

Entries bagged and ready to pour
Results of the Calaveras County Fair commercial wine competition, held Friday at Frogtown on the southern outskirts of Angels Camp, confirmed old suspicions, revealed promising newcomers, and validated the standing of a couple of oldtimers:

- While the Sierra foothills occasionally can produce a notable chardonnay or cabernet sauvignon, the region by and large just isn't receptive to the two. Nevertheless, whenever you tour tasting rooms in the Mother Lode you don't have trouble finding chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon. That's because many vintners reconize the immense popularity of the two, and can't resist their market appeal. They also fear that they can't be seen as serious winemakers unless their lineup includes at least one of California's two most highly regarded varietals. However, as further evidence that the two grapes just aren't at home in the foothills, aside from a rare exception, consider that of the 11 chardonnays in the Calaveras judging, none won more than a silver medal, and just two of those were awarded. And of the 18 cabernet sauvignons in the competition, only one got a gold medal, the Chatom Winery 2007.

- And speaking of Chatom, one of Calaveras County's pioneering wineries, it hasn't generated much buzz in recent years, in part because it's on the market and its future is uncertain. Nevertheless, it clearly generated buzz during the competition, winning four gold medals - for its 2010 semillon, 2008 sangiovese, 2007 "Esmeralda" syrah and 2008 touriga.

Best Calaveras County wine
- No winery stirred up more excitement than the relative newcomer La Folia, based in Murphys. It's the brand of Ryan Teeter and his wife Sara. He's the assistant winemaker at Lavender Ridge Winey of Angeles Camp; she's executive director of the trade-group Calaveras Winegrape Alliance. They're making just 1,000 cases of wine a year, but six of their wines won gold medals, the 2010 pinot grigio, the 2009 sangiovese, the 2009 zinfandel, the 2009 red blend called "Madness," the 2009 barbera, and the 2011 moscato called "Masquerade," the latter of which went on to be acclaimed the best Calaveras County wine in the judging, though the grapes that went into the wine, it needs to be noted, were from the Fair Play district in El Dorado County.

- Another newcomer to cause excitement was Mineral Winery of Angels Camp, which won three gold medals, for its 2010 viognier, 2009 merlot and 2009 petite sirah, as well as a silver medal for its 2009 "Meritage," a red blend based on grape varieties traditionally associated with Bordeaux. Mineral is the brand of Brett Keller, who also is the wineamker at Twisted Oak Winery in Murphys.

- Another relative newcomer on the foothill wine scene to do well at Frogtown was Amador County's Convergence Vineyards, which won gold medals for its 2010 zinfandel, 2010 petite sirah, 2010 carignane, 2010 barbera and 2010 "The Ranger," a red blend of traditional Rhone Valley grape varieties. The gold medals for the zinfandel and the carignane actually were double-gold medals, only awarded when judges of a panel agree unanimously that a wine merits a gold medal.

- While the results didn't do anything to boost the standing of cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay in the foothills, they did reaffirm that the region is well suited for such warm-climate varieties as petite sirah, zinfandel, sangiovese and barbera. All 12 petite sirahs that were entered won a medal, five of them gold. With 41 entries, zinfandel accounted for the largest class; 10 of them won gold medals. Nine sangioveses were entered, with every one winning a medal, two of them gold. The results for barbera were mixed; 16 were entered, with just four winning gold medals, though one of the gold-medal barberas, the 2009 from the Amador County winery Shenandoah Vineyards, went on to be declared the best-of-show red wine. (Shenandoah Vineyards also won a gold medal for its 2008 tempranillo, while its sister Amador County winery, Sobon Estate, won a gold medal for its 2009 Fiddletown Lubenko Vineyard Zinfandel; I recently wrote of the Sobon zinfandel in the weekly wine column I contribute to The Sacramento Bee.)

- To me, one of the more intriguing development in the foothill wine trade in recent years has been the emergence of outstanding blended red wines based on traditional Rhone Valley grape varieties like syrah, grenache and mourvedre. At the Calaveras competition, curiously, just two were entered. Both, however, won gold medals, the Sierra Vista Vineyards and Winery 2010 "Fleur de Montagne" and the Convergence Vineyards 2010 "The Ranger."

The 262 entries were drawn from throughout the Mother Lode - Mariposa County north to Nevada County - with Calaveras County understandably the largest contributor. The fair's directors, however, owe a shout out to vintner Charles Mitchell, who owns three wineries in El Dorado and Amador counties, where he gets most of his grapes. Nevertheless, he entered 39 wines in the Calaveras judging, and did well, winning seven gold medals and 15 silvers.


  1. Well done! Thanks for lending us your palette and your kind words!

  2. We love Chatom and had a wonderful bottle of red on their patio.