Nearly half a century ago, a Sacramento City College English teacher, Charles Myers, got the grapes and made the wine that led to the rediscovery of Amador County's Shenandoah Valley as fine-wine territory.
"He has never been recognized as really being the catalyst for Amador," said Sacramento grocer Darrell Corti.
In spring 1964, Myers, a studious home winemaker, was ambling about a spread of stumpy weathered vines in search of mission or muscat grapes with which to make a dessert wine that fall. He found some, all right, but another variety also caught his eye: zinfandel. "It all started with homemade wine and a May day in the vineyard," Corti said.
Myers was a long way from establishing his commercial Harbor Winery in West Sacramento in 1972, but he was delighted with those zinfandel berries and the wines they yielded.
Corti also liked those wines and in 1967 bought zinfandel from the same vineyard and made his own home version.
"I made it because my grandfather could no longer make wine and was out of wine. Still have some of that. Very wet harvest, but the wine is still delicious," Corti said.
In the meantime, Bob Trinchero, winemaker at his family's Sutter Home Winery in Napa Valley, tasted a 1966 zinfandel that had been made by Myers and stored in Corti's cellar. Trinchero was so impressed that he sought out the vineyard and began to buy grapes from it.
"It was like a zinfandel I'd never tasted before. I'd thought only cabernet sauvignon made a big red wine," Trinchero once told me.
The vineyard that yielded the grapes was on Ken Deaver's sprawling and diverse ranch in the middle of Shenandoah Valley. During the harvest of 1968, Trinchero bought 20 tons of Deaver zinfandel grapes for $125 per ton. The wine he made that fall, released in 1971, created such a stir for its bluster and spice that a veritable stampede of vintners descended on Amador County in search of old zinfandel vineyards.
For years, Trinchero increased his yearly purchase of Deaver zinfandel until he essentially was buying all the grapes it could produce.
Other vintners moved to the valley, scouted for older zinfandel or planted it. Today, the Shenandoah Valley and zinfandel are as closely associated in the public's imagination as Sacramento and the Capitol. (And today, Deaver zinfandel grapes sell for between $1,300 and $2,000 a ton.)
As a consequence, when the California State Fair gets under way Friday, the Deaver plot will be recognized as the exposition's Vineyard of the Year, an annual tribute to acknowledge the character of wines from a single distinguished plot of vines and their impact on the state's viticultural development.
This is the first time in the five years that the award has been given that it goes to a vineyard in the Sierra foothills.
Previous winners include Monte Bello Vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains and Bien Nacido Vineyard in Santa Barbara County.
"The idea of zinfandel pre-1968 was for a lightish-colored red, with a lot of fruitiness. It was even described by writers like Leon Adams in 1970 as being 'the Beaujolais of California,' " Corti recalled. "The style of the Sutter Home wine from Deaver Vineyard was full-bodied, about 13.9 percent alcohol, very balanced in flavor, with a certain grapey fatness that was uncommon in California at the time."
That take on zinfandel quickly became so popular that it more or less remains the model.
No one knows for sure just how old the oldest vines are at Deaver. The first are believed to have been planted in the mid or late 1860s. Various varieties were cultivated early on, with a stand of mission grapes grafted to zinfandel in or about 1867, said Ken Deaver Jr. (Early records of the ranch's history were lost in two house fires in the 1930s.)
That wouldn't have been long after what originally was known as the Davis place began its transition to Deaver Vineyards.
John James Davis, an Iowa cooper, arrived in the foothill gold fields in 1852, struck a little paydirt in neighboring El Dorado County and settled in the Shenandoah Valley in 1858. In 1869 he opened a shop to make wine casks.
Davis' stepson, Ken Deaver Sr., in 1968 began dealing in grape sales with Sutter Home's Trinchero, a negotiation that for decades ended with a handshake, not a contract.
Today, Ken Deaver Jr. farms about 600 acres of prime Shenandoah Valley land. It's long been a diversified spread. He continues to run cattle and sheep and tend walnut and fruit orchards along with winegrapes. He and his wife, Jeanne, also have added the Amador Flower Farm to the ranch.
Of their 300 acres of wine grapes, almost all are given over to zinfandel, aside from 20 acres of petite sirah, a few small plots of alicante bouschet and sangiovese, and a remaining stand of ancient missions.
Deaver Vineyards survived Prohibition largely by selling to home winemakers, who could continue to maintain cellars. Home winemaking is again popular today, but Charles Myers was a member of a dwindling community when he came ambling into Deaver Vineyard half a century ago.
"Charlie Myers and Bob Trinchero put us on the map and saved our bacon," Ken Deaver said.
What makes the site so special for zinfandel?
"The dirt has as much to do with it as anything, I suppose," said Deaver, referring to the valley's loamy, decomposed granite. "And the exposure. These hills roll gently, with a southerly exposure. And the clone of zinfandel we have, but don't ask me where it comes from. It may be local; I don't know."
In any given year, he'll harvest just a ton or two of zinfandel per acre.
Deaver continues to sell grapes to several vintners, but much of the zinfandel still goes to Trinchero wines, including zinfandels from the family's Terra d'Oro Winery, itself in the middle of the Shenandoah Valley.
The Terra d'Oro 2010 Amador County Deaver Vineyard Zinfandel seizes the vineyard's intense blackberry and raspberry fruit in a package that's muscular, fervent and racy. The oak is obvious, the tannins firm and the spice slow to blossom.
Overall, while the wine is warm, focused and complex, it's a somewhat more restrained yet vividly fruity take on zinfandel as customarily delivered from Deaver Vineyard.
The Terra d'Oro 2011 Amador County Deaver Vineyard Zinfandel, being released, is an even more refined representative of the plot, more young raspberry than ripe blackberry.
Chris Leamy, the Terra d'Oro winemaker, gets grapes from a plot of Deaver vineyard believed to have been planted no later than 1881. The zinfandels that emerge are deep, intense, classically Amador in their richness, with "beautiful baking spices" and "beautiful acidity," Leamy said.
"That acidity helps the wine live and keeps all that zinfandel fruit focused and on your palate."
In 1984, Deaver established his own eponymous lakeside winery in the Shenandoah Valley. There, he oversees production of 3,000 cases a year. His varied lineup includes several releases from his own vineyard, including an angelica and a port-style wine called Golden Nectar, from the oldest vines on the property, missions that date to the 1860s.
(Angelica is a historic style of California wine, made early on with mission grapes and fortified with distilled spirits, yielding a cordial that's sweet and potent.)
He also produces several zinfandels, one of which is the currently available Deaver Vineyards 2008 Amador County Old Vines 1867 Zinfandel. The 2008 is massive, with inky color, jammy fruit flavor, a saturation of oak, and plenty of heat (15.6 percent alcohol). It's a classic representation of the big and blustery style of zinfandel for which Amador County has become noted, especially as turned out from Deaver Vineyard.
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.