Randall Benton / rbenton@sacbee.com

Ironstone Vineyards gets its name from the tough rock that vexed the miners who dug the caves. It has become both a major producer and a cultural magnet for the Murphys area, hosting numerous concerts at its amphitheater.

Mike Dunne: Ironstone Vineyards sees future in cabernet franc

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 3D

Like small gems on an antique gold necklace, about 20 winery tasting rooms are scattered along and about Main Street of Murphys in Calaveras County.

The biggest and gaudiest bauble of them all dangles from Six Mile Road just south of town.

That's Ironstone Vineyards & Winery, which correctly bills itself as much as an entertainment complex as a winery. There's a tasting room there, too, but it has competition for the attention of visitors.

There's a museum with a 44-pound specimen of crystalline gold leaf, the largest in the world, unearthed nearly 20 years ago by prospectors in neighboring Tuolumne County. There's the 1927 pipe organ from the long-gone Alhambra Theatre in Sacramento, which swells back to life for periodic concerts and silent-movie nights.

There's an amphitheater where the likes of Sammy Hagar, Willie Nelson and Don Henley perform each summer, followed by a Concours d'Elegance car show in the fall. And on it goes – culinary center, jewelry shop, wine caves, gardens and deli. Even if a wine enthusiast doesn't get lost on the sprawling and terraced grounds, he is almost sure to forget what drew him to Ironstone in the first place.

Ironstone, which takes its name from the dense rock through which miners dug caves at the start of the project in 1989, long has been as serious about its wines as it has been about diversifying and broadening the area's cultural allure.

At the outset, the winery's founders, John and Gail Kautz, prosperous Lodi row-crop farmers, hired as their winemaker Steve Millier. Even at that early stage in the development of Calaveras County's modern wine trade, Millier already was well-seasoned in growing grapes and making wine in the Sierra foothills.

A 1975 graduate in viticulture and enology at Fresno State, Millier initially went to work at David Bruce Winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains before coming to Murphys in 1982 to join pioneering vintner Barden Stevenot at his eponymous winery just outside of town.

Millier has stayed in the area ever since. He and his wife, Liz, established their own winery, Milliaire, in 1983 and four years ago they bought another small Murphys winery, Black Sheep.

Through it all, Millier has overseen Ironstone's long and varied portfolio of wines. Under his guidance, production soared to nearly 1 million cases a year by 2004. Then the Kautz family began to dial back, in part because of the nation's faltering economy, in part to better concentrate on its core quality products rather than mass-market bargain wines.

Thus, Millier today is overseeing the output of between 350,000 and 400,000 cases annually, and quality has likely never been as consistent and as high. His current lineup includes a 2009 reserve Sierra foothills chardonnay that is classically Californian – rich, ripe, spicy and smoky – yet agile and crisp. His 2010 Lodi old-vine zinfandel is an unusually youthful and lithe take for the genre, yet sings with fresh varietal character.

From the start, he's been intrigued by the commercial prospects of the underappreciated grape symphony, and watched its popularity skyrocket among consumers despite little wine-media appreciation for the intensely floral, spicy and sweet wine it yields.

Today, Ironstone's symphony, marketed under the proprietary name "Obsession," is the winery's single most popular wine, accounting for 35,000 cases a year and growing.

But Millier remains puzzled why another relatively unknown variety – cabernet franc – hasn't caught the public's attention, even though some vintages have been well-received by critics and on the competition circuit.

"We thought at one time that it would become our calling card, but for whatever reason it hasn't captured people's imagination, though it can be a solid wine," said Millier.

He speculates that some consumers may look upon cabernet franc as a poor cousin of cabernet sauvignon, though it can be capable of producing wines captivating in their own right. He also acknowledges that cabernet franc's track record from vintage to vintage and vintner to vintner has been erratic.

He's kept at it, however, and is encouraged by reaction his cabernet franc is receiving in the United Kingdom. Merchants there have been urging him to make the wine in a fresher, fruitier and lighter style, and that's the direction he's taken it.

As a result, the Ironstone Vineyards & Winery 2010 Lodi Cabernet Franc is an unusually frisky interpretation of the varietal. The color is a stunningly bright and deep garnet, while the smell and flavor is fresh and forward with black fruit, green herbs and ticklish spices. Its wiry build and zesty finish suggest Europe more than California.

Cabernet franc isn't a varietal for everyone, given that its distinctive herbalness takes some getting used to, though the Ironstone is laced with the sort of snappy fruit and spicy punctuation to which anyone should be able to adapt easily.

Grapes for the wine were grown in two of the Sacramento County sub-appellations of the Lodi American Viticultural Area – Sloughhouse and Alta Mesa, just outside Galt.

For a huskier and more demonstrably California take on the varietal, try the darker and richer Ironstone Vineyards & Winery 2008 Sierra Foothills Cabernet Franc, which stands out from the 2010 Lodi in large measure for its broad vein of licorice and its grippy tannins.

"It's not quite as polite" as the 2010 Lodi, said Millier.

Ironstone Vineyards & Winery

2010 Lodi Cabernet Franc

By the numbers: 13.5 percent alcohol, 10,000 cases, $10

Context: The sweet fruit and soft tannins of the cabernet franc make it one of those rare red wines that can be sipped just on its own, though it also has the spine to stand up to barbecued tri-tip, grilled chicken with a berry sauce, or braised pork with a salsa built on pineapple and orange.

Availability: Ironstone wines, including the cabernet franc, are distributed widely through grocery stores and wine shops in the Sacramento region. It also can be ordered through the winery's website, www.ironstonevineyards.com.

Information: Ironstone's tasting room, 1894 Six Mile Road, Murphys, is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily.

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