You can coach or you can play, but just a gutsy and smart few do both simultaneously.
John Duarte is one of those guys.
As president of Duarte Nursery Inc. in Hughson, Stanislaus County, he helps grape growers line up the best rootstocks, varieties, clones and the like for their particular farm.
He's apparently pretty good at it. Officials of the family-owned Duarte Nursery Inc. boast that it is "the largest permanent crops nursery in the United States," with annual sales in the $30 million neighborhood. In any given year, Duarte sells enough vineyard stock to cover several thousand acres. The nursery also deals in pistachios, cherries, almonds, walnuts and olives, among other crops closely identified with the California cornucopia.
A decade ago, John Duarte and his wife, Alexandra, began to apply his insights about growing wine grapes to a nearly 400-acre spread they had bought in the mountainous Georgetown Divide east of Auburn and north of Placerville in El Dorado County.
Today, they tend 110 acres of wine grapes at 2,500 feet up in the foothills of the Sierra. They've got blocks of such familiar foothill varieties as tempranillo, petite sirah, mourvedre, grenache and syrah, but they've also put in some relative strangers to the region, including pinot noir. Even more startling, more than half their vineyard is given over to cabernet sauvignon, a variety whose performance in the Mother Lode can be likened to a vein that's all quartz, no gold.
The Duarte vineyard could help change that view. The couple is selling grapes to about a dozen wineries each harvest, most of them small operations in the foothills.
One of them is the Coppermine Winery at Vallecito in Calaveras County. Coppermine is the second winery established by the husband-and-wife team of Rich and Siri Gilpin.
Their original brand is Lavender Ridge, devoted to wines made with grapes traditionally associated with France's Rhône Valley, such as viognier and grenache. Coppermine is the brand they set up for wines from grapes customarily identified with France's Bordeaux region, such as cabernet sauvignon and malbec.
For his Coppermine Winery 2008 Sierra Foothills Cabernet Sauvignon, Gilpin went to Duarte for his fruit. The result is one of the more poised cabernet sauvignons to emerge from the foothills. But it's more than grace and manner. It has structure and complexity.
It tilts to the savory and earthy side of cabernet sauvignon as much as the fruity, suggesting more varieties of olives than you're apt to find at the olive bar in a fashionable grocery store.
I'm a sucker for those attributes in a cabernet sauvignon, as well as notes of eucalyptus and mint, which also register in the Coppermine. Mostly, it's one fresh cabernet whose elegance and spirit could fool even a seasoned wine enthusiast into thinking it's from Dry Creek Valley or Paso Robles.
Gilpin attributes the wine's clarity and authority to several factors, including the cooler foothill elevation of the Duarte vineyard and its well-drained soils. Mostly, however, he notes that the Duartes planted their block of cabernet sauvignon to four clones or strains of the variety. The grapes he got from Duarte included all four clones.
"The layers of complexity that they give to the wine is difficult to duplicate," Gilpin says. "Most of the cabernet vineyards in the foothills are planted with one clone. If growers here get more involved with these current clones, we'll see a lot of wines show like this one."
Duarte concurred with Gilpin's assessment, noting that elevation, the porosity of the site's red, loamy soils and the mix of clones all help explain the allure of the wine.
"It is a perfect site for cabernet sauvignon," Duarte says. "The red soils are very even and well drained. The grapes ripen at the end of October."
As with his other wines, Gilpin fermented the juice with native yeasts, a risky practice that he's convinced adds complexity to a wine. He aged the wine in just 20 percent new French oak. The rest was neutral barrels, thus restraining the insinuation of wood into the wine, allowing fruit to dominate.
2008 Sierra Foothills Cabernet Sauvignon
By the numbers: 14.3 percent alcohol, 150 cases, $24
Context: Given its backbone, fruit and acid, this is a versatile cabernet, able to accommodate a wide range of foods, from "barbecue to pizza," as Rich Gilpin puts it.
Availability: Coppermine wines are sold principally at the winery's tasting room just outside Murphys, but the cabernet sauvignon also is stocked by WineSmith in Placerville.
Visit: The tasting room at Coppermine Winery, 3210 Main St., Vallecito, is open 11 a.m.- 5 p.m. Friday through Sunday.