The winery in the old Calaveras County gold camp of Murphys is named Milliaire. The people who own it are named Steve and Liz Millier. What's up with that?
The Milliers established Milliaire in 1983. In French, "milliaire" means "milestone." At the time, Steve Millier was winemaker at Stevenot Winery, also of Murphys. He also was making wine for nine other brands. He was so closely identified with Stevenot and the others that the Milliers felt it just wasn't right that he should put his name on their own label. Thus, Milliaire, pronounced just like Millier.
For more than two decades, Steve Millier has been the winemaker at Calaveras County's largest and most ambitious winery, Ironstone. He's continued to oversee Milliaire, and four years ago, he and his wife also bought another small Murphys winery, Black Sheep.
At Milliaire, he and Liz, who handles marketing and sales, specialize in small lots of wines made almost solely from Sierra foothill vineyards.
Early on, all their wines were made from Mother Lode vineyards, and that's the way they would have preferred to continue.
One of those wines was gewürztraminer, a grape that does better in a cool climate. The foothill vineyards from which the Milliers bought gewürztraminer gradually faded away, so they looked for fruit outside the area.
On top of that, they at first made their gewürztraminer in an Alsatian style, which is to say dry, without residual sugar. That's the kind of gewürztraminer Steve Millier learned to make on his first job after earning his degree in viticulture and enology at Fresno State, at David Bruce Winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
He and Liz were quite fond of that style, so that's what they made in establishing their own winery.
"Liz and I enjoyed it, but we were about the only ones," recalled Steve Millier not long ago. "It's an acquired taste for people."
Their difficulty in selling a dry gewürztraminer, coupled with the difficulty of finding the variety growing in the foothills, had them on the verge of abandoning the varietal.
At Ironstone, however, Millier was seeing sales soar for a sweet white wine he was making. Marketed under the proprietary name Obsession, the wine is made with the symphony variety of green grape.
Around the same time, he found a source of gewürztraminer growing in the cooler Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
That discovery, coupled with the popularity of Obsession, prompted him to revise his style of gewürztraminer. He began to model it after Obsession, abandoning the dry approach in favor of an interpretation with enough residual sugar to make it sweet but not sticky.
The couple's latest release of the wine, the Milliaire Winery 2010 Clarksburg Gewürztraminer, is a finely integrated representative of the varietal. The gewürztraminer grape yields a wine floral, fruity and spicy, but at times, one or the other of those elements can dominate, making the wine appear disjointed. That's not an issue with the Milliaire, which is smooth and balanced. It's sweet, all right, but the comparatively cool climate of Clarksburg helps retain the grape's acidity. As a consequence, the Milliaire gewürztraminer is one vigorous and refreshing wine, with just the sort of fresh aroma and juicy fruit to prime the palate for spring.
Millier says the key to seizing and retaining gewürztraminer's multifaceted fruit is to crush the grapes early in the morning, press them off that evening and keep the fermenting juice cool.
The gewürztraminer isn't the only cool-climate wine that Millier makes. From the 2009 harvest, he also made a startlingly complex pinot noir from grapes grown at Lodi. That dark and intense wine, however, is essentially sold out. He wasn't pleased with the nature of the pinot noir grapes from the 2010 vintage, so he won't have another pinot noir in his lineup until the 2011 is ready for release in several months.
Despite Millier's affection for grape varieties not generally associated with the Sierra foothills, he doesn't turn his back on the region's dominant varietal, zinfandel. His portfolio includes three: one jammy with blackberries and spicy with black pepper, from Amador County's Clockspring Vineyard; a second rich and earthy, from Calaveras County's Ghirardelli Vineyard; and a third both lithe and juicy, from another small old-vine Calaveras County vineyard.
Gewürztraminer, however, though his style and his source of grapes have changed over the years, retains its allure for him and his wife, as well as for wine enthusiasts who have discovered its intriguing layering and welcome sweetness.
2010 Clarksburg Gewürztraminer
By the numbers: 13.5 percent alcohol, 340 cases, $16
Context: Chinese takeout "Szechuan dishes, especially" is Steve Millier's first choice for pairing with the gewürztraminer, followed by slow-smoked pork shoulder with a dry rub that includes the likes of paprika, black pepper and chili peppers, applied not too aggressively.
Availability: Purchase it at Milliaire Winery's tasting room, 276 Main St., Murphys, open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. The wines also can be ordered through the winery's website, www.milliairewinery.com.