Sacramento wine enthusiasts drawn to Amador County wineries custom-arily drive east on Highway 16 before swinging north on Highway 49 to Plymouth, the gateway to Shenandoah Valley, the home of most of the county's wineries.
Just before getting to Highway 49, motorists zip right past the south turnoff to Highway 124, blithely unaware that one of Amador County's smaller but more frequently honored wineries is just a short detour down the road.
That would be Convergence Vineyards, founded in 2004 by Stephen and Jamie Concannon. They own 105 wildland acres, on which they tend 4 acres of vines that help produce around 2,200 cases of wine per year, virtually all of which they sell at their tasting room, as remote and isolated as it may be.
The Concannons are nothing if not industrious and imaginative. They sell about a fifth of their output through their two creative wine clubs. They stage around a half-dozen food-and-wine pairings a year. Jamie Concannon is an inventive cook who has published one cookbook and is working on her second. And they not only enter numerous wine competitions; they win so much gold, silver and bronze that they've taken to calling themselves the "heavy metal" winery.
For anyone looking for a quiet tasting room where the only distraction is the adjoining vineyard and oak land the medals haven't yet been hung as wind chimes Convergence is the place where you can really focus on the wines being poured.
Convergence, incidentally, takes its name from the convergence of three streams just down the slope from the tasting room, the Rancheria, the Amador and the Dry, creating a branch of the Mokelumne River.
While the Concannons appear to have mastered the challenge of selling their wine despite their seclusion, their setting raises another issue. Their vineyard is the only banquet table in the vicinity for birds that nest in the adjoining woodlands. Last year, they lost as much as 40 percent of their zinfandel to hungry birds. When I stopped by the winery late this summer, they were preparing to assemble a crew of nine workers to snugly wrap every row of vines with netting. By the time they would finish, they would have strung five miles of netting.
So goes the glamorous life of a California vintner.
They don't face that chore for some of their other wines. Several are made with grapes grown elsewhere in the Sierra foothills. One of them is the Convergence Vineyards 2009 El Dorado County Tempranillo, a wine remarkable for its forward floral aroma, its richly fruity flavor, its rugged earth- iness, its brilliant acidity and its tenacious finish.
It's broad and deep, but with a gracefulness and exaltation unusual for California interpretations of the Spanish varietal.
It bears the appellation of neighboring El Dorado County because the tempranillo was grown at Steve and Bea Grace's vineyard atop Apple Hill, where the high elevation helps yield wines of uncommon equilibrium and confident authority.
Stephen Concannon comes from a long line of pioneer California winemakers whose impact and stature endures. His great- uncle, Irish immigrant James Concannon, in 1883 bought 47 acres in Livermore Valley and began to plant wine grapes with money he'd made in his rubber-stamp business in San Francisco.
Through subsequent decades, Concannon Vineyards was instrumental in establishing the Livermore Valley as a prestigious California wine region, in large part through the quality of its petite sirah; it was the first winery in the state to introduce petite sirah as a stand-alone varietal wine at the repeal of Prohibition. (When Stephen and Jamie Concannon began to plant vines in 2002, they didn't include petite sirah because they liked so much the quality of the grapes grown by Dick Cooper in the Shenandoah Valley just up the road. Lately, however, they've been grafting more than half of their block of syrah to petite sirah, in part because they feel they have enough syrah, in part because they are confident the site will yield petite sirah of a nature that will please their customers who have become accustomed to the quality of Cooper's fruit.)
Whether the wine is petite sirah, tempranillo or some other varietal or blend, Stephen Concannon is fixed on a vision of what the wine is to be freshly fruity and immediately accessible, without much intrusion of either wood from aging the wine in oak barrels or astringent tannins from harvesting the grapes at the wrong time or treating them haphazardly in the cellar.
He is especially keen on taking advantage of carbonic maceration in the fermentation of the juice for several of his varietals.
Under his approach, carbonic maceration involves sending about half the grapes through the crusher without being popped.
"You get additional aromatics, and not as much tannin as you would if you crushed all the grapes," Concannon said.
He uses this technique for his tempranillo as well as for his petite sirah and his syrah.
He also prefers to take a light hand with oak treatment of his wines, preferring older and thus more neutral barrels.
"I'd rather err on the side of less oak than too much," Concannon said. "Too much oak is a flaw."
Nevertheless, his wines have shown that they have the concentration and structure to stand up on the competition circuit without a heavy-handed use of tannin and oak. His 2009 tempranillo, for one, won a double-gold medal at the California State Fair over summer. (A double-gold is awarded when all the judges of a panel agree at the outset that a wine they've just tasted warrants a gold medal, with little or no debate.)
What's more, his 2008 version of the tempranillo also won a double-gold medal at the State Fair a year earlier.
Convergence Vineyards 2009 El Dorado County Tempranillo
By the numbers: 14.8 percent alcohol, 200 cases, $32
Context: The Concannons feel the tempranillo has the luxuriousness and build to stand up to such hearty dishes as braised lamb shanks and grilled baby back ribs. They also say its accessibility and generous fruit make it an amiable companion at the Thanksgiving table.
Availability: The tempranillo is available primarily at Convergence Vineyards, 14650 Highway 124, Plymouth, where the tasting room is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday through Sunday.