Dunne on Wine: Seka Hills 2010 Capay Valley Tuluk'a

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 3D

The clubhouse at Yocha Dehe Golf Club is stocked with all the requisite gear to ruin the perfectly beautiful day outside – balls, tees, sets of clubs not yet tarnished by clumsy swings and frustrated hopes.

Off to one side is a display of something you don't often see for sale in a clubhouse: bottles of wine, vinegar and olive oil bearing the label Seka Hills. It's as if someone in charge had looked at the broad, lush fairways and thought, "Picnic!"

Seka Hills is the brand of Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation Farm and Ranch. While Yocha Dehe is best known as the tribe responsible for building Cache Creek Casino Resort and its eponymous golf course in the remote rolling hills of Capay Valley west of Woodland, it's also starting to gain recognition for capitalizing on and extending the area's agricultural heritage.

Of the tribe's 11,000 acres, nearly 1,400 is being farmed to such crops as alfalfa, almonds, walnuts, sunflowers, asparagus, strawberries and wheat, with 250 of the acres certified organic. The tribe's farmers run 250 head of cattle, and tend 82 acres of arbequina olives, for which a high-tech 14,000-square-foot olive mill was recently christened just across Highway 16 from its Cache Creek Casino Resort.

They also oversee 15 acres of wine grapes, some directly in front of the casino resort, some climbing the same slopes occupied by the 18 fairways of Yocha Dehe Golf Club nestled into the hills flanking the gaming complex.

The tribe began to release wines last year. Its current lineup includes an exceptionally spicy and persistent 2010 viognier and a lush and lively 2011 rosé of syrah.

When we stopped by the clubhouse when an introductory tasting of the wines was under way not long ago, the most impressive release was the Seka Hills Wines 2010 Capay Valley Tuluk'a, a blended red whose high notes of various red fruits were punctuated with peppery spice. Both the tannins and the oak were restrained, letting the refreshing fruit continue to sing uninterrupted through the wine's long and caressing finish.

"Tuluk'a" translates as "red" from the tribe's native Patwin language. "Seka" translates as "blue," inspired by the Blue Ridge range along the western edge of Capay Valley, clearly visible from clubhouse and golf course. "Yocha Dehe" – pronounced YO-cha DEE-hee – translates as "home by the spring water."

The 2010 Tuluk'a is a blend of 50 percent syrah, 45 percent cabernet sauvignon, 3 percent cabernet franc and 2 percent petit verdot.

The blending of cabernet sauvignon with syrah is a practice on the rise among California vintners, which raises the question: Is this the outgrowth of a sluggish market for syrah or is it because the two varieties have a compatibility heretofore unrecognized?

Blake Kuhn, the winemaker for Seka Hills, says it's all about compatibility. Both cabernet sauvignon and syrah are most closely identified with France, but in different regions with their individual traditions for grape varieties, winemaking methods and the like. Until recently, vintners in Bordeaux wouldn't dream of blending syrah into cabernet sauvignon, while vintners in the Rhone Valley like to blend a whole bunch of other varieties with syrah, but not cabernet sauvignon.

"For hundreds of years in Europe they (cabernet sauvignon and syrah) weren't allowed to be compatible. That's the great thing about California, we don't have those kinds of rules and restrictions," Kuhn said.

In his perspective, the cabernet sauvignon and syrah being grown in Capay Valley are a perfect fit. Cabernet sauvignon brings structure, color and vibrant fruit to the party, but on its own it lacks complexity, which syrah enhances with its "nice gamy aromas" and peppery spice. In addition, notes Kuhn, the local syrah doesn't age particularly well, thus its life is prolonged with the tannins and antioxidants provided by the cabernet sauvignon.

Kuhn made the Seka Hills wines at Revolution Wines in Sacramento. Though Yocha Dehe has the brand new olive mill and plenty of room for expansion, no decision has been made on whether to build a winery, says Jim Etters, director of Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation Farm and Ranch. Total annual production of Seka Hills wines is at 2,500 cases and is expected to rise to 3,000 cases with this year's crop.

Yocha Dehe's 15 acres of wine grapes are devoted to syrah, petite sirah, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and petit verdot. Whether the tribe will put in additional blocks of grapes remains to be seen.

"As sales increase, we will make decisions about what to plant," Etters said.

"We have locations designated, but we are a ways from pulling the trigger."

Though wine grapes have been cultivated in the region since the 19th century, the area's low-profile hills, Mediterranean climate and varied soils – clay, river rock, volcanic ash – have yet to be exploited industriously. Only in the past decade was Capay Valley recognized as an official American Viticultural Area. Up to now, just one winery, Capay Valley Vineyards, just to the west of Cache Creek Casino Resort, has lured motorists off Highway 16, the main route through the area.

Seka Hills Wines 2010 Capay Valley Tuluk'a

By the numbers: 14.5 percent alcohol, 550 cases, $15/$17.

Context: The wine's fresh, easygoing fruit and supple tannins make it an ideal companion for winter pastas and for vegetarian fare based on beans and hearty seasonal greens.

Availability: In addition to the clubhouse of Yocha Dehe Golf Club, the 2010 Tuluk'a is stocked by Nugget Markets in Vacaville, Woodland and Davis, Cache Creek Casino Resort Minimart, Lorenzo Town and Country Market in Winters, the Davis Food Co-op, and RootStock in Winters. In California, it also can be ordered through the winery's website, www.sekahills.com.

More information: Seka Hills Wines has no tasting room, but its wines often can be tasted at RootStock, 22 Main St., Winters, 6-8 p.m. Fridays.

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