Bill Easton

The Terre Rouge/Easton winery in the Shenandoah Valley.

Mike Dunne: Easton Wines tastefully tames a potential 'fruit bomb'

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 3D
Last Modified: Friday, Oct. 14, 2011 - 12:17 pm

When a wine critic talks of a wine being a "fruit bomb," you almost certainly can bet that it's from California. Oh, sure, "fruit bombs" originate elsewhere, most notably Australia, but in sheer numbers and power most of them bear a California appellation.

"Fruit bomb" is shorthand for a wine that essentially explodes in the mouth with the essence of grape, coating palate and roof alike with saturating sweetness and clinging warmth. They're thick wines, often shored up with a superstructure of oak to support all that fruit.

Though some critics often criticize fruit bombs for being overwrought, out of balance and difficult to match with food, their audience is big and avid. Why shouldn't a wine taste like an amiable food fight involving fruit, they wonder?

For sure, the style is here to stay. Some think it will become even more pervasive, given that climate change, with its rising temperatures, often is implicated in the spread of the style. Fruit bombs are grounded in sunshine and heat, and California has plenty of both. Grapes have little problem getting ripe, or even overripe, and the result is wines that erupt out of the glass with richness, power and mass.

Bill Easton makes wine in one of California's warmer and sunnier enclaves, Amador County's Shenandoah Valley. He bottles his wines under two labels, Domaine de la Terre Rouge, for releases made from grapes traditionally associated with France's Rhône Valley, such as viognier, marsanne, grenache and syrah, and Easton Wines for everything else, from zinfandel to pinot noir.

He's probably made some fruit bombs in his day. After all, wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr., who quite possibly may have coined the term, has been a fan of Easton's wines.

Nevertheless, Easton brings a European sensibility to the foothills, which is to say he strives for his wines first to represent place, and to do it with poise. Naturally, he wants his wines to be fruity – he's not in California by accident – but he's keen on grasping what the soil, drainage, exposure and the like of each vineyard has to say in its grapes. Thus, with precision and study he aims to strike a balance between fatness and leanness, directness and complexity, and accessibility and longevity in his releases. But always, place is most prominent.

This became clear not long ago as we tasted through several of his current releases, a few from each brand. What they shared in common was their diversity, not just in varietal or blend also but in style. Easton makes some everyday wines under the fitting label "House," but, ironically, his wines show no consistent house style other than their allegiance to the peculiarities of place, which he modulates with a careful selection of such factors as clones, yeasts, types of wood and so forth. All of these, he discusses with the assured experience of a professor who has spent years strolling about vineyards.

Two clones, a South African yeast and strictly neutral French oak barrels yielded his unusually complex and long Easton Wines 2010 Sierra Foothills Monarch Mine Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc, at once rich but also buoyant. It filled the mouth with lemon, peach and vanilla bean, almost a fruit bomb but closer to a fruit firecracker for its zest and wiry build.

A new wine in his lineup, the Easton Wines 2009 Fiddletown Zinfandel, seized in a supple and even elegant interpretation the fresh berry flavors, a touch of minerality and notes of peppery spice for which the appellation is known when its grapes are harvested on just the right day and handled with just the right care.

But my favorite wine of the day was the Domaine de la Terre Rouge 2008 Amador County Viognier. Here's a varietal that often defines California "fruit bomb," at least among white wines. It's often dense, heavy, viscous, dripping with honeysuckle and juicy with peaches. It can be a fun wine, if tiresome after a few sips, especially when all that richness is braced with more timber than in a Mother Lode gold mine.

The Domaine de la Terre Rouge, however, while substantial and laced with telltale suggestions of apricot and peach, has a lift not often found in the varietal as interpreted in California. It's exuberant and hefty, but without any suggestion of stickiness, thanks to its jaunty spice and acid. If anything, the wood on the wine is understated.

Easton says he models the wine after Condrieu, a viognier out of the northern Rhône Valley, customarily dry and focused, its peachy fruit offset with a texture likely to evoke a sense of granite or slate. He styled it to age as long as 10 years, unusual for a California white wine.

At a wine festival in Paso Robles last spring, he pulled out the 2001 version of the wine and reports that it was "very well-received."

The grapes that went into Easton's viognier were grown in vineyards on decomposed granite and loam in Shenandoah Valley and Fiddletown. He harvests the grapes only after they get a brown speckled look, which helps tell him they are physiologically mature. Their juice is fermented in slightly used French oak barrels and goes through extended lees aging, which involves leaving it in contact with skins, seeds, dead yeast cells and other debris, a step that winemakers occasionally use to add complexity to the wine.

A fruit bomb it may not be, but in that complexity is an unusually compelling take on viognier.

Domaine de la Terre Rouge

2008 Amador County Viognier

By the numbers: 14.5 percent alcohol, 250 cases, $25

Context: Is it too early to start planning the wines for the Thanksgiving table? Nope, and this viognier has the forward fruit, layered flavor, solid spine and refreshing acidity to accommodate the wide range of flavors and weights of the traditional holiday feast. Bill Easton suggests it be paired with Thai cooking, in particular Thai shellfish dishes, Moroccan cuisine, curries from any culture, and seafood, especially sea bass, salmon and oysters.

Availability: Though retail stores have been slow to stock the viognier, several restaurants have embraced it, including Mulvaney's Building & Loan, Taylor's Kitchen and Esquire Grill in Sacramento, and Moody's Bistro in Truckee. The wine also is available at the winery, 10801 Dickson Road, Plymouth, open 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Friday through Monday, and it can be ordered through the winery's website, www.terrerougewines.com.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Mike Dunne



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