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Fiddletown Cellars founder Reno Farinelli, left, and winemaker Joe Shebi toast their award-winning zinfandel.

Mike Dunne: Zinfandels win gold in Fiddletown competition

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 3D

Despite its proximity to Sacramento, the officially recognized American Viticultural Area called Fiddletown is one of the smaller, more remote and less frequently visited wine appellations in the country.

It has few wineries, and fewer still with tasting rooms. Vintners from all over the north state, however, value the quality and nature of grapes from Fiddletown's tiny, isolated and frequently old vineyards. The region is higher and cooler than the larger and better-known Shenandoah Valley, which is right next door. Fiddletown's elevation – 1,500 feet to 2,500 feet – and more moderate temperatures generally are credited for yielding wines celebrated for their brightness, freshness and friskiness.

While expansion of Fiddletown's vineyards and wineries has been slow, the appellation nevertheless has its own annual wine competition. It's probably the most intimate wine competition in California, involving four or five judges, fewer than 20 commercial wines and about 10 homemade.

Fiddletown may be a small appellation, but it produces a wide range of black grapes, including such varieties as montepulciano, petite sirah, barbera and grenache.

The largest class at the latest judging this fall was zinfandel/primitivo, with five entries. As in neighboring Shenandoah Valley, zinfandel is the variety most closely identified with Fiddletown.

Two of the five zinfandels/primitivos got gold medals, one of which was a double gold, meaning that all four judges concurred that it deserved the highest medal. That was the Sobon Estate 2009 Fiddletown Zinfandel, an unusually rich and ripe interpretation of zinfandel for the appellation.

The other gold medal went to the Fiddletown Cellars 2009 Old Vine Fiddletown Zinfandel, which to my palate was more representative of the sunniness and litheness for which Fiddletown zinfandels are recognized. I liked it for the freshness of its raspberry fruit, the agility of its structure and the zestiness of its acidity. It's blithely seamless and graceful, the very definition of Fiddletown zinfandel. Like the Sobon, it's high in alcohol, but neither wine struck me as ponderous and warm. Both had the vivacious and juicy fruit to carry that kind of heat.

Joe Shebl, a young but seasoned Amador County consulting winemaker, made the wine. He got the grapes from Ray and Helen Zanini's approximately 40-year-old vineyard not far from the Fiddletown Moose Lodge.

The key to retaining so much fresh fruit in the wine without the intrusion of heat from the alcohol, explained Shebl, was to ferment the wine cooler and longer than usual. He also co-fermented the zinfandel with around 2 percent alicante bouschet to deepen the wine's color, then blended in around 5 percent barbera to intensify its fruitiness. He brought a seam of toasty wood into play by adding French oak chips to the wine while it was in older and largely neutral barrels.

Fiddletown Cellars is a relatively new player on the Amador County wine scene. Reno Farinelli, owner of Capital Sweeper Service of Sacramento, established the winery in 2007. Virtually all the power for his 23-acre spread at Fiddletown is provided by solar panels and a wind turbine.

Fiddletown Cellars

2009 Old Vine Fiddletown Zinfandel

By the numbers: 15.5 percent alcohol, 1,875 cases, $19

Context: Winemaker Joe Shebl calls the zinfandel "an everynight wine," making it fitting for the likes of ribs, burgers and various interpretations of barbecue. He's also found it a good companion with grilled chicken salad and spicy Mexican food. Fiddletown's owner, Reno Farinelli, likes the zinfandel with such Saturday-night fare as pork loin wrapped with prosciutto.

Availability: The Fiddletown Cellars zinfandel is stocked by Nugget Market in El Dorado Hills, Pokerville Market in Plymouth and the Wine Smith in Placerville. It's poured by the glass at the Plymouth restaurant Taste.


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