A little more than a decade ago, Jacques Mercier and Andrea Hamer, returning to their home in the San Francisco Bay Area after a skiing holiday at Lake Tahoe, detoured off Interstate 80 for their first look at Nevada City and Grass Valley. They'd heard from friends that the area was beautiful. They wanted to check it out for themselves.
Mercier and Hamer also found Nevada County beautiful. This being a wine column, you know where it's headed: Mercier, a longtime home winemaker and a frequent judge on the wine competition circuit, was aware of the area's nascent wine trade.
More visits to Nevada County ensued. They scouted for property and found a 15-acre parcel with a house, a barn and a struggling 3-acre vineyard.
Today, that site is home to their Solune Winegrowers, a winery whose portmanteau name derives from the French for sun (soleil) and moon (lune). The barn has been converted into a winery and tasting room. The original chardonnay vineyard has been pulled out, succeeded by a 4-acre plot planted largely to sauvignon blanc, cabernet franc, tempranillo, tannat and muscat.
(Soon after buying the property in 2001, Mercier and Hamer put in an experimental vineyard of 24 varieties to see which would do well on their sloping site, which at 2,700 feet is relatively high by foothill standards. "The barbera couldn't ripen. The pinot noir didn't work out," says Mercier in explaining how they settled on the varieties they continue to grow.)
With their own grapes and with fruit they buy from other growers, Mercier and Hamer produce around 1,400 cases of wine annually, anticipating eventually to top out at around 2,000. Most of their wine is sold at their winery and at their satellite tasting room in the heart of Grass Valley. Hamer manages the vineyard, Mercier oversees the cellar.
He came to winemaking via two routes, as a home winemaker first in his native Canada and then in Texas (where the two met) and Silicon Valley, where he was involved in the manufacture of semiconductors.
Second, he trained formally as a wine judge and today is a frequent panelist at competitions in Switzerland, Germany, Italy, Spain, France and elsewhere. Indeed, he was so impressed by the caliber of wines made from the black grape tannat while he judged in Argentina that when he returned to Grass Valley he immediately put in a few rows of the variety.
When he talks of his winemaking philosophy he tends to use terms associated more traditionally with Europe than California smoothness, balance, leanness, sharpness.
"I pay attention to acid balance. I'm not crazy about flabby wines," Mercier said. He's equally cautious in his exploitation of oak, finding that chips add too much astringency to wines while barrels often imbue them with so much wood their fruit gets overwhelmed.
Yet, he's fully aware that he is in California, where the sunshine and warmth produce fully ripe grapes that yield wines deeply colored, full-bodied and richly flavored. Just that sort of California wine, the Solune Winegrowers 2007 Sierra Foothills Syrah, was named the best interpretation of the varietal at last year's California State Fair commercial wine competition. Made with grapes from three Nevada County vineyards, just a few of the 250 cases he produced remain on the market.
With a Ph.D. in applied and engineering physics and physical chemistry from Cornell University, Mercier, not surprisingly, practices a keenly scientific approach in his cellar. He then relishes running his experiments by visitors to his tasting counter.
Not long ago, for example, he poured side-by-side two barberas from the same vintage and the same vineyard, but separate blocks of grapes. While similar in smell and flavor, one was darker than the other. Just as Mercier suspected at the outset of his experiment, tasters customarily favor the version with more pigment.
"The darker version is often deemed a more intense wine due to the preconception that a darker wine produces. In general, a lighter red wine is a harder sell in California because of that," Mercier said.
In contrast to other Mother Lode counties, Nevada County is showing promising potential for such traditional Bordeaux grape varieties as cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot. Mercier eagerly is embracing them, turning out an intense 2008 cabernet franc and a dry, crisp and subtly complex blend of five Bordeaux grape varieties from 2006 called Cinq Etoiles.
As I tasted through his current wines, however, the one that stood out to me for its lilting layering and persistent finish was the Solune Winegrowers 2009 Sierra Foothills Cabernet Sauvignon. It hooked me right away with the youth and vitality of its cherry fruit, and then kept me around for the suppleness of its tannins and the thread of herbalness I like in cabernet sauvignon. It's a rare cabernet sauvignon in that a glass could be savored entirely on its own, without need for food, though at the table it possesses the structure, depth and acid to pair with all sorts of rich dishes.
Though the wine carries a Sierra Foothills appellation, the fruit is from Nevada County's Bear River Vineyard, where the cabernet vines are three decades old. Grapes from the vineyard generally have been sold to Nevada City Winery, but in 2009 it didn't buy all the fruit and Mercier jumped at the chance to get some of it.
"I like the deep cabernet flavors this vineyard produces, especially the cedar and rosemary notes in the nose and in the finish.
"Because 2009 was a warm year, the green tannins sometimes found in foothill cabernets gave way to mature tannins that, with light fining, were rounded to produce a very smooth but full mouthfeel," Mercier said.
He aged the wine in oak barrels just long enough to add some complexity without allowing the traces of wood to distract from the fruit.
"My intent for all wines is to preserve what I call 'varietal clarity.' I believe this was fully and proudly accomplished with this cabernet sauvignon."
Solune Winegrowers 2009 Sierra Foothills Cabernet SauvignonH3
By the numbers: 14.3 percent alcohol, 125 cases, $24.
Context: Mercier and Hamer recommend that the cabernet sauvignon be paired with foods that don't hold back on the fat, such as cheeses like Gorgonzola and Gouda, and meats such as short ribs, steaks, roasts, lamb, game and burgers.
Availability: As with other Solune wines, the cabernet sauvignon is sold mostly at the winery, 16303 Jewett Lane, Grass Valley, open noon-5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, and the Grass Valley Wine Co., 128 Mill St., Grass Valley, open 1 p.m.-7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 1 p.m.-6 p.m. Sundays and Mondays during the winter. Wines also can be ordered through the winery's website, www.solunewinery.com.