In the 1990s, after living in Germany for several years, where they were involved in the music business, Hank Beckmeyer and Caroline Hoel agreed that it was time to do something different.
Out of their friendship with some French vignerons they'd developed an interest in grape-growing and winemaking. Hoel is a native of France, and that was their first choice of a place to establish a vineyard. They gave up that thought when they realized the cost was prohibitive.
They turned their attention to California. Neither had ever lived here Beckmeyer grew up in Michigan but the prospect of getting into the wine trade appeared more feasible in California. He arrived in the Sierra foothills in 1999; she followed the next year.
Beckmeyer landed a job tending the Shenandoah Valley vineyards of Bill Easton, who produces wines under the brands Domaine de la Terre Rouge and Easton Wines.
In 2004, Beckmeyer went to work as assistant winemaker for the nearby Leon Sobon family, which makes wines under the brands Shenandoah Vineyards and Sobon Estate.
In the meantime, he and Hoel bought 10 remote and high acres just outside of Somerset in adjoining El Dorado County. They put in 2 1/2 acres of grapes and accumulated a herd of goats. Early on, Hoel made goat cheese, but suspended the business in the face of fast-rising costs for feed and hay. (Their site, La Clarine Farm, takes its name from the bells that French herders tie to their livestock.)
Their investment in the wine business, on the other hand, is paying off in brisk sales, wide acclaim and keen curiosity over Beckmeyer's minimalist approach to making wine. They make only around 1,000 cases per vintage, and their wines sell out virtually the moment they are released. Their principal markets are the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles and New York.
Aside from the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, which has been buying their wines since they began to release them under the label La Clarine Farm with the vintage of 2007, the local market has been reluctant to stock them.
"Sacramento may be a more conservative market. Restaurants here are geared more to the wines of Napa Valley," Beckmeyer said.
His approach to tending his vineyard and making his wine is to meddle as little as possible. He wants his wines to faithfully represent both place and time, with the signature of the winemaker so faint it hardly can be read.
He's gone through organic and biodynamic phases and now is finding himself more philosophically attuned to the teachings of the late Japanese farmer Masanobu Fukuoka, author of "The One Straw Revolution," which advocates a more passive than activist approach to farming.
"It's a very natural farming method, with mixed planting and little intervention," Beckmeyer said. "Biodynamics is really pretty invasive, with its sprays and preparations. We want to let our property say whatever it is going to say."
Accordingly, Beckmeyer uses no chemicals or fertilizers in his vineyard. In the cellar, his practices are similarly restrained. His fermentations are spontaneous, relying solely on yeasts from the vineyard. He uses so little sulfur dioxide that no salesman is about to venture up to his farm with a pitch. He eschews enzymes, concentrates and new-oak barrels.
"New oak is a sexy flavorent, but it is a flavorent. I don't want to add anything to the wine," Beckmeyer said. "There's a lot going on in wine without having to use oak."
His approach isn't without risk. There's a chance, for example, that the wild yeast in the vineyard won't be sufficient to start or complete fermentation. The gamble is worth the added complexity that natural yeast gives wine, he feels. Besides, he hasn't yet had any failures.
"The first couple of vintages were pretty scary. We did a lot of finger-crossing, but once the fermentation got going we couldn't stop it if we wanted to. We've got a good population of yeast here," Beckmeyer said.
On the couple's home vineyard, they initially grew tempranillo, syrah and grenache, but the tempranillo has been erratic and he's replacing at least some of it with what he expects to be a more steady variety, tannat. He's also added some cabernet sauvignon.
The grapes they grow all go into one wine, aptly named "Home Vineyard," the 2011 version of which is downright meaty in its fruitiness, with dusty tannins, a note of dark spice and an elegantly composed finish.
Most of his wines are made with grapes he buys from farmers in nearby Pleasant Valley, Shenandoah Valley and Fair Play. He's keen on the robust and layered wines of France's Rhone Valley, so his lineup includes a gripping and lingering 2012 grenache and a 2011 "Cedarville" mourvèdre that despite its light color, slight build and low alcohol (11.5 percent) is surprisingly fresh and frisky.
The latest edition of the couple's signature wine is the La Clarine Farm 2011 Sierra Foothills "Sumu Kaw" Syrah ($24), which like the 2011 mourvèdre is low in alcohol (12.4 percent) but nevertheless swaggers into the glass with all the varietal's telltale sweet blueberry fruit, notes of smoked bacon and hints of dried green herbs. No oak intrudes on the wine's floral smell, bright fruit and balanced muscularity.
"Sumu Kaw," the name of the Pleasant Valley vineyard that produces the grapes, is taken from the Maidu name for "place of the sugar pines," or something close, said Beckmeyer.
In whatever tongue, the "Sumu Kaw" syrah is a pretty convincing argument for more winemakers to back off and to let the grapes have more say about their place and time of origin.
La Clarine Farm 2011 Sierra Foothills "Sumu Kaw" Syrah
By the numbers: 12.4 percent alcohol, 236 cases, $24.
Context: Given its freshness, restraint and spine, this is an unusually versatile syrah at the table, as fitting for mushroom ravioli with a butternut-squash sauce as it would be for richer steaks and stews. Beckmeyer and Hoel like it with grilled and smoked meats, especially pork. They've also found that the wine pairs well with grilled vegetables and jambalaya. They recommend that a bottle be enjoyed at a leisurely pace, allowing the wine to open and show more sides of itself during the course of a two-hour meal. They expect the wine to age well for at least six to eight years.
Availability: The Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op customarily stocks La Clarine Farm wines, and expects to have the syrah on hand. It also can be ordered through the winery's website, www.laclarinefarm.com.
More information: La Clarine Farm does not have a tasting room. Its website, laclarinefarm.com, includes archival material on older wines and on the couple's evolving approach to growing grapes and making wine.
Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne's selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions and visits to wine regions. Read his blog at www.ayearinwine.com and reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.