A decade has passed since Marco Cappelli startled his winemaking colleagues by letting them know that he saw potential in the trade beyond Napa Valley, specifically in the Sierra foothills.
Rarely has a winemaker so closely identified with Napa Valley packed up and left the nation's most highly regarded wine region for an isolated and remote area recognized more for apples, walnuts and cattle than grapes.
At the time, Cappelli was the longtime winemaker for Napa Valley's Swanson Vineyards, esteemed for his ways with such varietals as cabernet sauvignon, sangiovese and merlot. But Cappelli had a hankering for a place of his own, so in 2002 he bought the old Frank Herbert spread in the Fair Play district of southwestern El Dorado County. The 42 acres includes one of the more cherished zinfandel vineyards in the area. After 17 years at Swanson, Cappelli moved to Fair Play in 2004.
Wine industry observers who thought it would be just a year or two before Cappelli released a zinfandel under his own brand still are waiting. Instead, he rather enjoys the role of farmer, tending the demanding vines and selling their prized fruit to various wineries in the area.
No Cappelli brand is imminent, he says, though aging in his cellar are about 50 barrels of angelica made from mission grapes he's bought from assorted old-vine vineyards in neighboring Amador County. Maybe in two or three years, he'll start selling that. (Angelica is a California original, dating from the mission days. It's a wine whose fermentation is stopped with the addition of aguardiente, an early distilled spirit. After long aging in barrel, the result is a sweet, thick, warm and nutty dessert wine.)
Despite his affection for farming, Cappelli hasn't abandoned winemaking. Indeed, he may be the most active consulting winemaker along the foothills. This past year he oversaw the making of more than 120 wines for about a dozen brands, including Indian Rock Vineyards, Toogood Winery, Elevation Ten and Swanson Vineyards, for which he continues to consult, and where he also makes the winery's highly regarded angelica.
The winery with which he is most closely associated, however, is Miraflores, a stunning Mediterranean- inspired complex southeast of Placerville. There, Cappelli is the resident winemaker, making a dozen or so kinds of wine each vintage. The opportunity to make so many wines is what has most surprised and gratified him in moving from Napa Valley to the Sierra foothills. He's learned that mountain terrain, with its numerous elevations, exposures and soil types, is providing him with an abundance of varied terroirs from which to draw grapes.
"I love the fact that one winery can make 10, 12, 14 or more different wines," says Cappelli.
The tasting room at Miraflores, which Victor and Cheryl Alvarez established in 2003 on a 254-acre estate about 3,000 feet up the foothills, reflects that diversity in its architecture as well as in its wines. Beams of the big and blocky structure are of Douglas fir salvaged from an Oakland ferry building razed in the 1930s. Floors are of Mediterranean stone and black walnut from Napa Valley. Iron doors are from the old mining camp of Columbia in Tuolumne County. At the entrance, an ancient stone water basin off to one side is from China, while overhead the stylus of the sundial on the face of the structure's tower is a French bayonet from World War I.
At the tasting counter, visitors on any given day can make their way from a light and lean pinot grigio to a rich and persistent petite sirah, all made with foothill grapes.
Cappelli appreciates both Old World traditions and New World innovation, and his style, broadly speaking, strikes a balance between the lean finesse of the former and the rich vigor of the latter. He's undaunted by the conventional wisdom that says the foothills are too hot to yield graceful examples of cooler-climate white wines, and produces a chardonnay sassy with tropical fruit and a pinot grigio downright Italianate in its sunniness and angularity.
Among the red wines in his current lineup, the 2009 estate mourvèdre is plump, flashy and complex, the 2009 cabernet sauvignon is polished, fruity and herbal, and his two petite sirahs, including the first from the estate, show by their muscularity, agility and spice that this just may be the varietal that ultimately defines Miraflores.
What's more, Cappelli likes the syrah that the foothills is capable of growing.
"This area produces a dense, powerful, deep style, with way more structure, minerality and blue fruit than many coastal areas," he says. "That said, I'm not sure that quality alone can give us an advantage in a market that doesn't want the varietal, regardless of how good the wine tastes."
In short, syrah is languishing on the market, prompting Miraflores to dial back its production, even though Cappelli is making one of the more unusual and expressive interpretations in the state.
That would be the Miraflores Winery 2009 El Dorado Methode Ancienne Syrah. The wine is big, with jammy fruit, chewy tannins and the concentrated essence of syrah, a smokiness and spiciness suggestive of peppered bacon. Its blueberry fruit is fresh and sharp, its finish long and caressing, especially when it is paired with a husky slab of beef.
The "methode ancienne" of the name refers to the ancient tradition of stomping grapes by foot and taking advantage of native yeasts, which is just what winery personnel did with much of the fruit that went into the wine.
They've been doing that for the "methode ancienne" syrah since the 2005 harvest, when the winery's first general manager, Ted Ennis, proposed it both as a fun exercise and as a way to provide sales personnel with another style of syrah that might appeal to consumers slow to warm to the varietal. Ennis' wife, Nancy Steel, made a similar wine when she was winemaker at Perry Creek Vineyards, also in El Dorado County.
Whether it was the foot stomping or, more likely, the nature of the vintage and the experience Cappelli has gained in working with foothill fruit, the power and the grace of the "methode ancienne" syrah just may persuade consumers to give the varietal another try.
2009 El Dorado Methode Ancienne Syrah
By the numbers: 14.5 percent alcohol, 196 cases, $30.
Context: Consulting winemaker Marco Cappelli has had good experience pairing the syrah with cassoulet, mild curries, mushroom risotto, braised meats (lamb shank, osso buco, short ribs), ripe cow's-milk cheeses, venison and lamb. He hasn't yet tried it with his favorite dish, blood sausage, but he's hopeful it will work there as well.
Availability: The wine is available only at the winery, where it also can be ordered online, www.mirafloreswinery.com. Other Miraflores syrahs are sold through wine shops and grocery stores in the Sacramento region.
Contact: The tasting room at Miraflores, 2120 Four Springs Trail, Placerville, is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily.