Dunne on Wine: Berryessa Gap's Tradition a tasty throwback red wine

Published: Wednesday, Jun. 27, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 3D
Last Modified: Wednesday, Jun. 27, 2012 - 9:58 am

Berryessa Gap Vineyards is a young winery, just 10 years old. Yet, the sense of history at the winery is fairly palpable.

It's evident in the plain and practical structure, a former fruit-packing shed, that houses the winery. It's evident in the old books on the shelves behind the tasting counter. It's evident in the bloodline of the winemaker, Mike Anderson, whose great uncle, Ernest P. Peninou, was a California wine historian with numerous books to his credit, including "Directory of California Wine Growers and Wine Makers in 1860" and "Leland Stanford's Great Vina Ranch."

And it's evident in the wines that Anderson makes. He favors grape varieties traditionally associated with California's wine history, such as petite sirah and zinfandel. This is especially the case with the Berryessa Gap Vineyards 2007 Yolo County Rocky Ridge Collection Tradition. As its name suggests, the wine is in part a throwback, in this instance to the early practice of planting several grape varieties together, harvesting them at the same time, and then co-fermenting them. The resulting wines commonly are known as "field blends," and while the technique has been largely abandoned, several vintners are showing renewed interest in the practice.

"We're blending in the vineyard rather than in the winery," Anderson said.

How is it working out at Berryessa Gap Vineyards?

The 2007 Tradition is an intriguing wine, its saturated color and voluminous aroma evoking a proud sense of the sunshine and soil that yielded the wine. The smell is fresh and forward, mostly suggesting blackberries, raspberries and plums, with a whiff of anise to add a dash of complexity. It's an inviting and juicy wine, without rigid tannins to obstruct its silken texture.

While substantial, it's also immediately drinkable; no aging needed.

The mix of grapes in Tradition changes yearly, depending on the nature of the grapes yielded by the nature of the growing year. Nearly half of the 2007 is from a block of Berryessa Gap's vineyard planted in the old-fashioned California style, in which small allotments of various grape varieties are integrated with the dominant variety. That vineyard consists of 80 percent durif, sometimes spelled "duriff," a cross between the French grape varieties peloursin and syrah; in the United States, durif generally is known as petite sirah.

That vineyard also includes zinfandel, peloursin and syrah. By the time Anderson finished blending the 2007 Tradition, he figures he had a wine consisting of 48 percent durif, 44 percent zinfandel and four percent each of peloursin and syrah.

Regardless of how the composition of Tradition changes from vintage to vintage, his goal with the wine remains steady.

"I want that wine to say as much about our place as possible. I want a wine unique to our site. I want to find a lot of pleasure and pride in that wine," said Anderson, who also is a researcher in the Department of Viticulture and Enology at UC Davis.

As another measure of the significance of place to Anderson, he is planning in another couple of vintages to change the name of the wine from Tradition to Cobel Ranch, the historic name of the former sheep ranch now occupied by the Berryessa Gap vineyard.

Ultimately, he wants the wine to be made solely with the mix of the varieties in the vineyard, but that likely will take some replanting. In the meantime, the soundly structured, supple and lightly herbal Berryessa Gap Vineyards 2009 Yolo County Petite Sirah is made solely with grapes from the mixed vineyard, harvested, then fermented together.

Berryessa Gap's 45-acre vineyard is just northwest of the winery, where the flat valley floor starts to buckle into the foothills of the Coast Range. Thin and cobbly, the old sheep ranch's soils aren't as suitable for the region's usual crops but are splendid for grapevines.

From this spread, Berryessa Gap has developed a following for its fresh and balanced tempranillos, its floral, complex and smooth petite sirahs, and its ripe and layered zinfandels.

Though Anderson and his partners originally expected to make only red wines, they've added to their lineup a surprisingly aromatic, assertive and spicy verdejo, a refreshing sauvignon blanc, and a fleshy, exotic and spirited verdelho.

Originally, Berryessa Gap Vineyards was housed in an old meat market along Main Street in Winters, which Anderson and his partners continue to use as a tasting room.

Anderson established Berryessa Gap in 2002 with two fellow home- winemaking pals, Santiago Moreno and Dan Martinez. Since then, Martinez's sister, Corrine, has joined the winery as a partner.

In 1969, Dan Martinez Sr., the father of Dan and Corrine Martinez, teamed up with Anderson's grand- uncle, the wine historian, to establish the Yolo Hills Viticultural Society, a Winters nursery specializing in wine-grape rootstock they sold largely to growers in Napa and Sonoma counties.

In the mid-1990s, the senior Martinez's farming operation, Martinez Orchards, absorbed the nursery. At that time, Moreno had been the foreman for Martinez Orchards for about 30 years. In 1999, Moreno, Anderson and the younger Martinez began to plant what is now the 45- acre vineyard northwest of Winters. As the vines developed, they bought Winters Winery along Main Street, founded around 1980 by David Storm, who subsequently moved to Provence, France. They rechristened the facility Berryessa Gap Vineyards after a gap between hills at the nearby Monticello Dam, which backs up the waters of Lake Berryessa.

Though Anderson and his partners like to indulge California's wine history, from focusing on old-time grape varieties to adopting early vineyard practices, they eschew corks in their bottles for screw caps. All their wines are finished with twist-off closures, even their flagship wine Tradition.

"I believe very strongly in learning from what came before, but in not following tradition blindly. I do not believe in grasping tradition and not improving upon it," Anderson said.

He's convinced that screw caps offer a better closure than corks, if for no other reason than that twist-offs won't contaminate the wine as poorly processed corks occasionally do.

"That first taste of one of my wines is my introduction to people, and I didn't want the wine corked," Anderson said.

Berryessa Gap Vineyards 2007 Yolo County Rocky Ridge Collection Tradition

By the numbers: 14.2 percent alcohol, 150 cases, $25.

Context: Did someone say grilled tri-tip? That's where Tradition can play a part at a summer barbecue, or it could be held for winter stews based on beef or lamb.

Availability: Berryessa Gap wines are stocked by Nugget Markets in Vacaville, Woodland and Davis, the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, the Davis Food Co-op, Valley Wine in Davis, and Vino Velo at Sacramento International Airport. Wines also can be bought through the winery's website, www.berryessagap.com.

More information: Berryessa Gap's downtown Winters tasting room, 15 Main St., is open 4:30-8:30 p.m. Thursdays, noon-8:30 p.m. Fridays, 11 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Saturdays, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sundays. The tasting room at the winery, 27260 Highway 128, Winters, is open 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

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