When judges of the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition at Cloverdale sat down for their final task in January, 84 glasses were gathered in front of every one of them.
Each glass held a couple of sips of a wine that judges over the previous three days had concluded was the best of its class, worthy of serious consideration for one of the competition's five sweepstakes awards (best sparkling wine, best white, best red, best rosé, best dessert or specialty wine). The 84 had been whittled from an original field of 5,667 wines from 1,379 wineries spread across 25 states. No other wine competition attracts as many American wines.
Judges were told the varietal or style of each wine, but not the appellation, producer or vintage. Later, they learned that one winery had three best-of-class wines in the running for sweepstakes consideration. Though none of the three won any of the high honors, the nominations alone made for an impressive showing by a winery that not only was one of the smaller producers in the judging but also from a region still not as esteemed as Napa, Sonoma and Paso Robles in the minds of wine enthusiasts.
That would be Charles B. Mitchell Vineyards of Fair Play in southwestern El Dorado County, whose three sweepstakes candidates were all inexpensive proprietary blends.
Charles Mitchell is an energetic and voluble vintner who enjoys combining his interest in wine with other passions, which include flying. Thus, to promote his wines, he's given to such marketing schemes as rides in the seaplane he pilots between his home at Bethel Island in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and Sierra lakes.
He owns a second Fair Play winery, Winery by the Creek, and late last summer, he bought a third, the former Bantam Cellars in the Shenandoah Valley of neighboring Amador County, which he's rechristened J. Foster Mitchell Winery in tribute to his father. The elder Mitchell was a high school calculus teacher who inspired six of his seven children to go into education.
Charles Mitchell was the one who didn't. Nowadays, however, he is something of a teacher. Indeed, he says that education will be the focus of his efforts to promote J. Foster Mitchell Winery. Toward that end, he has hung on one wall of the winery's tasting room the master's degree in education that his father earned at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
More to the point, Mitchell conducts monthly lectures at the winery on some aspect of winemaking, such as the making of barrels, or sparkling wine. He sweetens the sessions with wine tasting and pizza, not a classroom tactic used by his father. (Starting March 17, visitors to J. Foster Mitchell Winery can get pizza without a lecture as Mitchell launches "endless pizza" from 5 to 9 p.m. each Saturday. The cost will be $10 per person.)
Mitchell says he was drawn to the Shenandoah Valley by its proximity to such population centers as Sacramento and Stockton and by the "business sense" of vintners he's met in the area. In contrast to grape growers and winemakers in Fair Play, says Mitchell, the winemaking community of Amador County is "better organized," setting goals and drawing plans to meet them.
He acknowledges that he's ruffled the feathers of his fellow Fair Play vintners, and now his activism potentially could rile his new neighbors in Amador County. For one, he's lobbying for tasting-room fees, something not traditionally seen in the Shenandoah Valley. Such a charge, which he favors applying to a subsequent purchase of wine, would help cut down on the number of people out for little more than a free buzz.
Sure enough, on the day earlier this winter when we stopped by J. Foster Mitchell Winery, so did about a dozen members of a bachelorette party, who while considerate of others at the tasting counter were more eager to talk of the impending wedding than the zinfandel or syrah in their glass.
Mitchell wasn't around that day, which was too bad. It would have been interesting to see how he would have handled these difficult students.
Not even the J. Foster Mitchell Winery 2009 Shenandoah Valley Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon brought them up short. While I enjoyed the sweetly fruity 2009 zinfandel and the rich yet balanced 2009 petite sirah, the cabernet sauvignon won me over for its pure freshness and the suggestions of herbalness that brought welcome complexity to the wine's bright red-fruit flavor.
While the cabernet is firm with tannins give it three to five years to soften if you like to serve cabernet sauvignon as an aperitif it's made in a relatively light style for the varietal. (That could have worked against it at the Chronicle competition, incidentally, where it was awarded only a bronze medal. The zinfandel, on the other hand, got a gold medal, while the petite sirah won silver.)
Allen Kreutzer of the nearby winery Drytown Cellars made the wine for Mitchell. Though cabernet sauvignon has had difficulty finding a consistently rewarding home in the Sierra foothills, seen as too warm and sunny for the variety, Kreutzer recalled that 2009 was not quite as scorching hot for the region, yielding grapes ripe but not raisiny. He aged the wine in older oak barrels, thus restraining the influence of wood on the wine.
J. Foster Mitchell Winery
2009 Shenandoah Valley Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon
By the numbers: 14.2 percent alcohol, 200 cases, $25
Context: Given the wine's sturdy backbone, vintner Charles Mitchell recommends it be paired with lamb or beef, especially grilled steak.
Availability: The wine is available only at the winery's tasting room, 10851 Shenandoah Road, Plymouth, open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday through Sunday.
Contact: (209) 245-6677, www.jfostermitchell.com