When Argentine businessman Alejandro Pedro Bulgheroni bought Amador County's financially distressed Renwood Winery last year, he vowed not only to retain the winery's focus on zinfandel but to raise its quality and profile.
While Bulgheroni himself has kept a low profile since he picked up Renwood for around $11 million, the people he retained or hired have been busy laying the foundation to achieve his goal.
Over the past year, they've invested a conservatively estimated $5 million to replant an ailing portion of the estate vineyard, bring in 3,000 to 4,000 new French oak barrels and puncheons, reconfigure the facility's forest of stainless-steel fermentation tanks, and convert the old tasting room into an expansive and diversified hospitality center.
In the meantime, Renwood's new president, Brent Cohen, whose corporate background was in high tech and finances rather than wine, and longtime Renwood winemaker Dave Crippen have been overseeing the first lineup of wines to be released under the new regime.
And true to Bulgheroni's pledge, almost all the new wines are zinfandel. This summer, they began to trickle to wine competitions, where they gathered an impressive collection of gold medals, none more than the Renwood Winery 2010 Timberline Zinfandel, which picked up three. (Densely colored, robust and warm, the Timberline is expected to sell for around $75 in restaurants. Under Renwood's marketing strategy, some of its wines, including the Timberline, are to be available only on restaurant wine lists.)
Timberline, incidentally, is named after a kind of wren, a tiny bird that while not native to Amador County long has been the centerpiece of the winery's label. Other Renwood zin-fandels to carry the name of a variety of wren include Musician, Nicefero and Merida.
Since Renwood's founding in 1994, various explanations have been given for the presence of a wren on the label, and the new owners have their own reasoning. They restyled the original simple label into a complex piece of art that resembles an old German woodcut from a collection of children's fairy tales.
A massive vine aflutter with leaves and dripping with clusters of grapes features a large and noble eagle on one arm, and a small crown-wearing wren on a high cane.
As winery personnel tell the story, the symbolic artwork was inspired by a fable in which several varieties of birds gathered to see which could soar closest to the sun, the winner to be anointed king of the flock. The powerful eagle had the edge, but as he tired, a stowaway wren emerged from his plumage to fly higher and win the crown. The moral can be interpreted variously, but the angle favored by the folks at Renwood is that it shows how ingenuity can triumph over sheer power.
At any rate, another wine to carry the name of a kind of wren is the Renwood Winery 2010 Amador County Clarion. Technically, Clarion can't be called zinfandel because its content of the varietal falls just short of the minimum 75 percent needed to qualify for designation by the name of the grape. The wine is a blend of 74.8 percent zinfandel and 25.2 percent syrah.
When I tasted through Renwood's 15 new zinfandels in August, Clarion was a clear favorite for both its brightness and beefiness. It's a substantial wine, but the vividness of its red-berry flavors, dash of peppery spice and zingy acidity sent it across the palate with a light but confident step. It's dry, medium-bodied and packed with berry and cherry fruit, with the heft and verve to make it fitting for fall dishes ranging from the moderately light to the hearty.
Clarion came off a vintage during which growers and vintners fretted whether grapes would ripen adequately to yield expressive wines.
Winter dallied into late spring, summer was unusually cool, and fall rains started to fall earlier than usual. The yield was off 20 percent at Renwood, but as shown by the liveliness and depth of Clarion, the grapes seemed not to have had any problem reaching respectable maturity. It helped that only a fraction of the wine was aged in new oak barrels, restraining the influence of wood and thereby allowing the fruit to make a clear statement on its own. (The question before the house now is whether Crippen in future vintages will be compelled to age more of Clarion in all those new French barrels the winery has trucked in.)
Bulgheroni, who also has wineries in Argentina and Uruguay, was drawn to Amador County for his first wine venture outside South America by his confidence that wine will continue to rise in popularity globally, said Cohen. Bulgheroni favors vineyards and wineries in areas he believes to be largely undiscovered and underappreciated, and is keen on helping them realize their full potential, eagle-like.
Renwood Winery 2010 Amador County Clarion By the numbers: 15 percent alcohol, 3,000 cases, $20.
Context: Clarion has the fullness and zip to accompany a wide range of foods, from panzanella salad made with the last tomatoes of summer to the first hearty lamb stew of fall.
Availability: Under Renwood's marketing strategy, Clarion, just now entering distribution channels, is to be sold in stores with strong wine departments; winery principals hope to place it at Nugget Markets and Whole Foods Markets. Wines also can be ordered through the winery's website, www.renwood.com.
More information: The tasting room at Renwood, 12225 Steiner Road, Plymouth, is open 10:30 a.m.-5 p.m. daily.