Dunne on Wine: This wine list speaks volumes

Published: Wednesday, Apr. 24, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 4D

You can order wine online when you visit the website of Domaine de la Terre Rouge and Easton Wines, twin Amador County brands founded and owned by the husband-and-wife team of Bill Easton and Jane O'Riordan.

At any given time, you will find 30 or so wines listed. Such an extensive and diverse portfolio can be interpreted as either an indication of insecurity or a sign of confidence. After three decades of farming grapes and making wines in the Sierra foothills, are Easton and O'Riordan still searching for the best match of variety and site, the usual reason for such an assortment of varietals and styles?

In a sense, they are.

They're inquisitive and restless, always up for a discovery. The wines they make, however, represent fulfillment more than experiment. Easton and O'Riordan are largely convinced that the Mother Lode counties from which they draw grapes – El Dorado, Calaveras and Placer, as well as Amador – are best suited for the varietals that form the backbone of their production, zinfandel and syrah.

They make seven syrahs and five zinfandels. This diversity reflects their conviction that they've found many sites where grape variety and growing conditions are ideal, and they celebrate that range by releasing wines that acknowledge a specific place.

"We have established ourselves as an artisan winery," Easton said. "What we do is about place and terroir. If you blend lots of places together, you lose that aspect in the finished wine."

The Sierra foothills, he is convinced, has been unfairly typecast as a region dominated by zinfandel, barbera and such traditional Rhône Valley varieties as syrah. But the region is so huge and varied, folded with all sorts of elevations, exposures, microclimates and types of soils, there's no reason why several other grape varieties also can't perform well through the region, he maintains.

"My rap is that the Sierra foothills region encompasses 2,600,000 acres over eight counties and is 40 miles wide and 250 miles long. There are a lot of things that can be done well in this region, and I want to be the spotlight and show the way, the potential," Easton said.

Toward that goal, he makes several wines not often associated with the Sierra foothills. By the critical and popular reception they receive, they appear to validate his premise that the region isn't to be pigeonholed into just a few varietals.

His lineup includes a cabernet sauvignon from Amador County and a pinot noir from El Dorado County, to cite two examples of the daring path he's taken.

Another is one of his more recent releases, the Easton Wines 2010 Sierra Foothills Monarch Mine Vineyard Cabernet Franc. Cabernet franc is a black grape most closely identified with Bordeaux, in which it plays more of a supporting than starring role in the region's acclaimed blends, though there are exceptions where its complexity and class are allowed to shine.

What's more, cabernet franc has shown it is quite capable of producing fine wines in several other regions, including France's Loire Valley and Italy's Tuscany and Veneto. Easton, who was a San Francisco Bay Area wine merchant before assuming a role in the trade that would leave his hands dusty and stained with grape juice, long has relished the light-hearted interpretations of cabernet franc from the Loire Valley, especially Saumur-Champigny, Bourguiel and Chinon.

Those are his role models, spirited wines with a freshness and charm suggestive of Beaujolais. As he puts it, he wants his take on cabernet franc to be similarly "exuberant" and relatively low in alcohol.

To emphasize the fruitiness more than the herbalness that cabernet franc also customarily yields, Easton handles the grapes gently. By and large, he relies on whole-cluster fermentation to capture the fruitiness, an approach whereby fermentation is encouraged to proceed inside of uncrushed grapes. The technique also enhances aromatics, restrains tannins, stimulates spiciness and blows off alcohol.

Convinced that fining and filtering strips wines of some of their character, he avoids the practice.

And he ages the wine in neutral oak barrels so wood won't intrude on aroma and flavor.

As a consequence, the 2010 cabernet franc is dry, lean and peppy, with an angular build, a seductive complexity that ranges from the upfront fruitiness of cherries and berries to delicate herbal notes that include pine needles, anise and mint. Oak is evident in just a whiff of smoke, while the acidity is razory, priming the palate for another eager sip. While the wine is young and its fruit is youthful, the overall impression is of maturity and balance. It's a firm wine, but not hard, though it finishes abruptly.

The Monarch Mine Vineyard where the grapes are grown is 2,100 feet up the Sierra foothills, between Foresthill and Auburn in Placer County. Its elevation and exposure provide the cabernet franc with just the right balance of coolness and sunshine for the variety to yield an interpretation in which fruit is highlighted more than herbalness.

"We have a vineyard site that has the right clonal material to ripen perfectly at a lower potential alcohol," Easton said.

It's also a site that shows again that the Sierra foothills is more than zinfandel, barbera and syrah country.

Easton Wines 2010 Sierra Foothills Monarch Mine Vineyard Cabernet Franc

By the numbers: 13.5 percent alcohol, 138 cases, $20

Context: Bill Easton and Jane O'Riordan, a chef, recommend the cabernet franc with meat and vegetable gratins, simple braised meats, bistro-style stews, grilled sausages and charcuterie. A recipe for a dish suggested to accompany the cabernet franc, Jane's Potato Gratin 2 Ways, is on the winery's website, www.terrerougewines.com.

Availability: The Wine Consultant in Citrus Heights, Valley Wine Co. in Davis and Beyond Napa in Sacramento have been fond of earlier vintages of the Easton cabernet franc and likely will stock the 2010. It also can be ordered online and bought at the winery.

More information: The tasting room at Terre Rouge/Easton, 10801 Dickson Road, Plymouth, is open 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Friday through Monday.

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 mikedunne@winegigs.com.

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