As you drive up Slug Gulch Road in the Fair Play district of southwestern El Dorado County, you pass a small vineyard easy to overlook for the dense forest of pine and oak that rises up the slope just behind it.
In the fall, however, the vineyard is easy to spot. Even drivers whose eyes are as fixed on the narrow, windy and steep road as their hands are on the steering wheel can't help but glance toward the vines, not so much for their purple clusters of grapes as their fiery red leaves.
Leaves on vines fade from green to yellow and brown in the fall, but few blaze as brightly as those in that small patch along Slug Gulch Road. By their flare, they signal that here stands a plot of the black grape alicante bouschet, one of very few varieties whose leaves flame naturally into a brilliant red. (By and large, red leaves in a vineyard planted to black grapes is a sign of virus, nutritional deficiency or some other problem with the vines.)
In California's vineyards, alicante bouschet stands apart for reasons other than the deep blush of its leaves in fall. It's one of few grapes whose juice also runs red. It's a French variety, bred in the 1880s by Louis Bouschet and his son Henri, who were looking for a grape whose yields would be high and the color of the wine it yielded would be deep. It worked, and plantings surged across southern France and in Algeria, where its large crops generally went into undistinguished wines for the bulk market.
Later, it filled a similar role in California's San Joaquin Valley, providing structure and color to middling everyday jug wines. During Prohibition, it was a popular grape among home winemakers, in large part because its thick skin meant it could be shipped east and arrive in relatively good shape.
Aside from that, alicante bouschet hasn't had a high-profile presence in California's vineyards. Acreage devoted to the variety has dwindled, though a few scattered new plantings over the past decade have pushed the state's total to around 1,000 acres today.
As a stand-alone wine, alicante bouschet is rare. It may be impressively dark, but all that color doesn't necessarily translate into deep and distinguished flavor.
In 2002, however, John Smith, proprietor of both Oakstone Winery and neighboring Obscurity Cellars in Fair Play, made an alicante bouschet with grapes he'd picked up from Sequoia View Vineyard at Sanger.
"It turned out so well I decided I had to have my own source (of grapes) for it," recalls Smith.
The next year he planted about an acre of alicante bouschet 650 or so vines in his Serendipity Hill Vineyard hard by Obscurity Cellars, and another 100 vines down the slope in his Fiddlehead Vineyard, the vines visible along Slug Gulch Road.
Alicante bouschet fits in perfectly with his business plan for Obscurity Cellars. Whereas his Oakstone Winery focuses on such mainstream varietals as sauvignon blanc, zinfandel and merlot, Obscurity Cellars specializes in "neglected, misunderstood and off-the-beaten-path" grape varieties like touriga nacional, carignane and charbono.
At first, he added the alicante bouschet to a proprietary blend, but with the 2006 vintage he began to release it as a stand-alone varietal. The Obscurity Cellars 2009 Fair Play Serendipity Hill Vineyard "Alice's Biscuits" Alicante Bouschet has enough authority and complexity to prompt authors of wine books to start revising their chapter on the variety.
The wine is as richly colored as petite sirah, with a smell and flavor equally floral, fruity and spicy. While its forthright tannins urge that it be cellared for three to five years, it isn't so firm that it can't be savored now when paired with food just as robust in assertiveness and weight. While hefty, it's a terrifically balanced wine.
Despite its youth, the wine has done consistently well in commercial wine competitions, winning four medals in four outings a bronze, a silver, a gold and a "four-star gold," the latter one of 34 higher awards at the Orange County Fair, which drew a total 2,512 wines.
What's more, Smith has either the perfect site or the perfect touch or both with alicante bouschet. In 2010, he also made a rosé of alicante bouschet, which in four competitions has won three silver medals and a double gold, the latter at the California State Fair, where it also won best of region among Sierra-foothill appellations.
As to the curious "Alice's Biscuits" on the label of the 2009, Smith says he added that for the benefit of consumers intimidated by French and uncertain of the correct pronunciation of such an obscure varietal.
"We insist that wine not be taken too seriously," says Smith.
2009 Fair Play Serendipity Hill Vineyard "Alice's Biscuits" Alicante Bouschet
By the numbers: 14.3 percent alcohol, 123 cases, $24
Context: John Smith, proprietor of both Oakstone Winery and neighboring Obscurity Cellars in Fair Play, recommends that this wine be paired with prime rib "or any other robust red-wine fare."
Availability: Aside from three restaurants in the foothills Manderes in Folsom, Gold Vine Grill in Somerset and Taste in Plymouth the wine is available only at Oakstone Winery, 6440 Slug Gulch Road, Fair Play, where the tasting room is open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday through Monday. (Because Obscurity Cellars doesn't have a tasting room, its wines are poured at Oakstone.)
Contact: Visit www.obscuritycellars.com. Oakstone also will be the setting Jan. 28-29 for an annual barrel tasting and sale of futures, during which the alicante bouschet will be poured, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.