Just as California grape growers and winemakers were getting used to the consequences of summers that seemed to be growing hotter and longer earlier harvests, more sugar in the fruit, more alcohol in the wine along came the vintage of 2010.
Winter lingered into spring, which remained damp and cool, eventually segueing into a summer so benignly pleasant that farmers and vintners fretted about whether their grapes would ripen before the onset of fall, which, sure enough, arrived early.
Most of the state's grapes did mature adequately, but the atypical growing year often left them with less sugar and more acid. Yields were down in several areas, but growers and winemakers were confident that by and large the fruit got ripe enough to produce flavorful wines, though they might be lighter, leaner and lower in alcohol than what California customarily yields.
The word "elegant" began to crop up frequently in their predictions concerning the caliber of wines to emerge from the vintage.
California's red wines from 2010 are growing in circulation, and while quality is uneven (Isn't it always?) farmers and vintners who predicted that while the wines generally would be restrained they nevertheless would be flavorful, are being vindicated.
Indeed, for wine enthusiasts put off by the state's frequently overblown red wines inky, concentrated, high in astringency and alcohol many of the releases from 2010 are charmingly lithe, with direct fresh-fruit flavors, a conservative application of oak, and alcohol content so modest that a couple can finish a bottle over dinner without feeling as if they've slipped into a coma.
One of those wines is the Sobon Estate 2010 Amador County Barbera, which with its frisky cherry-berry flavor, touches of cola and spice, and nippy acidity harkens more to the racy barberas of Italy than the customarily fatter, softer and oakier barberas of California.
By the state's standards for the varietal, the Sobon is unusually light, but it doesn't lack verve and length. It beckons the taster to keep coming back, from its up-front clarity in aroma and flavor through a finish that persists much longer than anyone has a right to expect from an interpretation so breezy.
"It's my summer red; it's so much fun to drink," said winemaker Paul Sobon. Summer's gone, but October is the most gracious month, only grudgingly giving up on light and warmth, making it just as fitting for the wine. Even if there were an early onslaught of fall rains and chilly nights, the barbera has the fruit and spine to stand up to autumn's deeper, richer fare.
The nature of the vintage, coupled with the nature of the sloping estate vineyard where Sobon's barbera is grown fruit at the top of the hill ripens faster than clusters at the bottom yielded a wine lower in alcohol and higher in acidity than is traditional for the site.
Thus, Sobon blended 4 percent zinfandel into the barbera to soften its tartness and deepen its fruitiness.
"The fruit hung and developed a lot of flavor without yielding a huge amount of alcohol. Some people think it wasn't a good vintage, but we think it was great. The barbera has all kinds of blueberry and cherry flavor," said Sobon. Compared with more typical barberas from the Sierra foothills, his 2010 has a more streamlined European profile, he noted.
As a consequence, the wine has found an eager audience with East Coast residents who historically have looked more to Europe than California for their barbera.
But in California, especially in the Mother Lode, barbera is rising in stature. This spring and summer, two Amador County barberas, both made with grapes from Dick Cooper's pioneering barbera vineyard in the Shenandoah Valley, won high honors on the wine-competition circuit. The Jeff Runquist Wines 2010 Amador County Dick Cooper Vineyard Barbera was elected best red wine at both the Riverside International Wine Competition in Temecula Valley and the Pacific Rim Wine Competition in San Bernardino, while the Helwig Vineyards & Winery 2010 Shenandoah Valley Cooper Ranch Barbera was voted best red wine at the Long Beach Grand Cru. And in June, a sold-out crowd of 1,800 people attended the second Barbera Festival on Dick Cooper's ranch, where 86 wineries with barbera in their portfolios poured tastes; most were from California, with a few from Italy, barbera's historic homeland.
Note that the Runquist and Helwig barberas, as well as the Sobon, all are from the cool 2010 vintage, which while bad-mouthed in some quarters apparently did well by Amador County.
2012 Sobon Estate 2010 Amador County Barbera
By the numbers: 13.4 percent alcohol, 1,077 cases, $18 (though often discounted to between $12 and $14).
Context:"I wouldn't have it with super-heavy foods, but last night we had a bottle with blackened ahi tuna with a spicy rub and an arugula salad. The wine has enough crispness to work well with blackened fish," said Paul Sobon.
Availability: In the Sacramento area, the barbera is carried by Total Wine & More and the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op.
More information: The tasting room at Sobon Estate, 14430 Shenandoah Road, Plymouth, is open 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. daily.