I admit it, my image of the winemaker who likes to craft a single wine from three or four or more grape varieties is romantic. I see him or her painstakingly tasting wines from an assortment of oak barrels in the cellar, thoughtfully pondering the strengths and weaknesses of each, and then patiently experimenting with a bit of this and a bit of that until he or she is convinced that the blended wine is superior to any one of its varietals on their own.
I know this is romantic because winemakers will confide that some blends are more happy accident than the result of any kind of alchemy practiced by them.
After I tasted and liked very much the Damas Vineyards 2010 Shenandoah Valley Shenandoah Blanc at the Amador County Fair commercial wine competition earlier this summer, where it was voted the "best Amador County white Rhone wine," I was ready to hear just how the scientist winemaker precisely and repeatedly had measured a beaker of this and a vial of that until he or she was confident that the combination was just right. I suspected that maybe even more esoteric laboratory equipment had come into play.
Instead, there was none of that. Frankly, this delightful wine lean and lively, balanced and long, with bright fruit flavors and notes of minerals and spice developed more by happenstance than design. As last fall's harvest was winding down in Shenandoah Valley, Mara Feeney and Deborah Grady, who own Damas Vineyard at Fiddletown, had a chance to buy a ton each of viognier, roussanne and marsanne. Because they are fans of the white wines of France's Côtes-du-Rhône, where the three grape varieties long have played significant roles, they were eager to see how they would be on their own and in a blend.
"We liked the blend a lot better than any of the three varietals," Grady said. "The viognier was too floral, the roussanne a little too big, but when all three were put together, the wine had a lovely fruit nose as well as some minerality."
The grapes were picked the same day at two unrelated vineyards and delivered to Andis Winery, where winemaker Mark McKenna had agreed to make them into wine for Feeney's and Grady's label, Damas Vineyards. He simply pressed the grapes together and fermented them at the same time in a stainless-steel tank.
"We didn't do anything fancy," McKenna said. The model he had in mind was the proprietary wine Enigma, a similar blend made by Bill Easton at his nearby winery Terre Rouge Winery. McKenna credits the authority and appeal of Shenandoah Blanc to the grapes being harvested just when they were correctly ripe.
Grady and Feeney spend much of their time in the San Francisco Bay Area, where Grady, a physician, is a professor of medicine and co-director of the Women's Health Clinical Research Center at the University of California, San Francisco, and Feeney directs an eponymous planning agency specializing in environmental consulting.
Grady grew up in Virginia and was well acquainted with that state's Shenandoah Valley. Several years ago, when she heard that California also had a Shenandoah Valley, her first thought was: "That can't be. I should have a look at it."
When she did, she fell in love with its rolling terrain, vineyards and stands of oak trees. In 1998, she and Feeney acquired property at Fiddletown and put in a two-acre vineyard of zinfandel. They like the wine that comes from those vines, but they also wanted some diversity for themselves and for their portfolio, so when the viognier, roussanne and marsanne became available, they grabbed them.
The viognier was grown by Steve Honeychurch, while the roussanne and marsanne were grown by Dick Cooper, all in Shenandoah Valley.
"Damas," in addition to being Spanish for "women," is a portmanteau word deriving from Deborah and Mara, with the "s" initially standing for their cocker spaniel Scooter, now deceased but succeeded by a pointer named Spud.
2010 Shenandoah Valley Shenandoah Blanc
By the numbers: 14 percent alcohol, 185 cases, $15
Context: Given the wine's generous fruit, solid structure and refreshing acidity, it calls for cold cracked crab, rosemary roasted chicken, poached pork loin with a tuna sauce, Caesar salad, grilled fish or a platter of assorted cheeses.
Availability: The wine is available at Pokerville Market in Plymouth and Susan's Place Bistro in Sutter Creek. Grady and Feeney soon hope to be selling the wine at the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op and Taylors Market in Sacramento and the Davis Food Co-op. (Damas Vineyards doesn't have a tasting room.)