From the outside, the Amador County winery Andis Wines is as much modern sculpture as utilitarian structure. It's a sharp-edged and soaring wedge of metal and glass that looks as if it's taking flight from its vineyard knoll in the Shenandoah Valley.
Inside, the thinking is equally modern. Winemaker Mark McKenna is a progressive, eager to experiment with whatever new cellar tool catches his attention.
One is the squat egg-shaped plum-toned concrete fermentation tank at the back of the building. He has only the one, and it stands among more conventional stainless-steel tanks and oak barrels.
Such ovoid vessels are becoming somewhat fashionable in California's wine regions. Manufacturers and winemakers make all sorts of claims on their behalf. The temperature of fermenting juice is easier to control, thereby reducing heating and cooling expenses. They have no corners where skins and seeds can get stuck. They facilitate oxygenation of the wine. And so on.
McKenna took a cautious approach in working with his first egg. He didn't use it for fermentation, but simply to age a batch of new wine. For comparison purposes, he aged some of the same wine in oak barrels. He was impressed with the results, concluding that the wine from the concrete egg tasted more vibrant, complex and expressive than the same wine aged in wood.
"The wine that was in concrete was cleaner, brighter, livelier and more interesting," said McKenna. "The wine that was in barrel was more muted. The concrete seemed to allow the wine to evolve in a more expressive way. I think it's because the concrete is a more sanitary environment. Also, with concrete it's easier to control the temperature, so the wine is treated more gently." He was so pleased with his initial effort with the concrete egg that he ordered two more of them.
That first wine has now been bottled and released. It's the Andis Wines 2010 Sierra Foothills "Bill's Block" Reserve Cabernet Franc.
While deeply colored, it's fresh and youthful, tripping across the palate with feinting suggestions of cherries and mint. Cabernet franc isn't customarily a concentrated wine, but this one is surprisingly aromatic, with earthy, floral and spicy notes as well as the fruits and herbs traditionally identified with the varietal.
Though the wine was aged in concrete, oak is obvious, but it isn't so intense that it overpowers or even distracts from the fruit.
The oak in the wine stems from another facet of McKenna's enterprising winemaking. While many winemakers insist on aging wine in oak barrels, and eschew such modern alternatives as wood chips, McKenna embraces unconventional options. While he isn't a fan of oak chips, probably the most popular alternative to barrels, he is fond of oak in other and generally larger formats, such as "dominoes," "blocks" and "beans."
"I get nervous about wood chips," McKenna said. "Wines (treated with oak chips) lose their elegance, they come off harsh."
He's found that oak-barrel alternatives that are larger and more varied in shape give him more leeway and control in matching a particular regimen of wood with the specific characteristics of a wine, especially when he deals with small-production lots. For the 2010 cabernet franc, for example, he used three kinds of oak French, American and Hungarian with a mix of toasts and in two formats, "blocks" and "beans."
"We base our oak treatment on the character of the wine. With these kinds of (wood) alternatives we can precisely blend the oak for each wine," McKenna said. He likens the use of oak alternatives to making a cup of tea, steeping the leaves just long enough to give him the ideal touch of oak influence.
The "Bill's Block" of the wine's label doesn't refer to one of the oak blocks he used but to Bill Bertram, who tends the 58-acre vineyard where the cabernet franc was grown at Fair Play in neighboring El Dorado County.
The 58 acres originally was part of the holdings of the winery Perry Creek Vineyards, but it is owned and managed separately. The cabernet franc, planted in 1991, occupies 1.7 acres of the vineyard, which sits on well-drained weathered granite, said Bertram.
Nowadays, McKenna buys all the cabernet franc from "Bill's Block," but he isn't the only fan of the fruit. Bears are keen on the grapes as well, shouldering their way through the deer fence around the vineyard to get to the fruit.
To satisfy the appetite of McKenna more than the bears, Bertram this year will graft over an acre and a half of the vineyard's cabernet sauvignon to cabernet franc.
2010 Sierra Foothills "Bill's Block" Reserve Cabernet Franc
By the numbers: 13.9 percent alcohol, 237 cases, $28
Context: While the freshness and soft tannins of the cabernet franc invite sipping on its own, McKenna also enjoys it with grilled steaks, sausages, barbecued ribs, lamb, meatloaf, roast chicken, mushroom bruschetta, mushroom soup, French onion soup and Indian dishes. He suggests that the wine be gently decanted.
Available: The wine can be purchased at Andis Wines, 11000 Shenandoah Road, Plymouth, where the tasting room is open 11 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Thursday through Monday. Andis wines also can be ordered through the winery's website, www.andiswines.com.