Deep into a March tasting, I turned to the judge next to me and said, “I feel like a homer.”
When she looked perplexed I explained that my many high scores suggested I was rooting unabashedly for the home team, which in this case was Amador County.
It was an idiotic remark, since all 165 wines that 21 judges were evaluating blind over two days were from Amador County.
But it seemed appropriate in that I was finding so many to like, and that I owe my interest in wine to having lived in Amador County when its wine industry was revived four decades ago.
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The tasting was a bold prelude to perhaps the most original wine festival to be staged in the Sacramento area: Amador Four Fires, to be held May 2 at the Amador County Fairgrounds in Plymouth.
The assembled judges were tasting the wines to determine which should be poured at the festival. Judges didn’t score wines numerically or award medals; they simply designated on their score sheets whether each wine warranted a “positive,” “neutral” or “negative” designation. Wines that were most enthusiastically embraced would be the wines poured Saturday. Judges – wine writers, wine judges, sommeliers and the like from outside Amador County – were assigned to six- or seven-person panels, with each judge tasting no more than 50 wines per day.
The intent of the vetting was twofold: to select wines that would reflect most favorably on Amador County, and to improve the odds that festivalgoers will like what they find in their glasses.
While some Amador County vintners balked at the screening, 36 signed on, providing judges with a convenient and wide overview of the state of the county’s wine trade.
While Amador’s grape growers and winemakers are most closely identified with zinfandel, the tasting above all showed that its wine industry nowadays is much more diverse.
Indeed, Amador Four Fires was created to highlight the variety in the county’s grapes and wines. The fairgrounds will be partitioned into four geographical areas, each an historical wine region that has helped inspire Amador vintners. In the Iberian Peninsula zone, for example, wines made with grape varieties most closely associated with Spain and Portugal will be poured, such as tempranillo and albarino. The Southern France zone will feature wines made with such varieties as grenache and syrah, the Italy zone will highlight wines such as sangiovese and barbera, and California Heritage will be devoted to wines made with zinfandel and mission grapes, the most historic cultivated varieties in the state. In each area, foods customarily prepared over an open fire in the individual regions also will be available.
Here are wines I found most exciting during the tasting. If fellow judges concurred, I will be looking for them at the Four Fires event. If they didn’t, I’ll still be looking for them on restaurant wine lists and the shelves of wine merchants. I’ve arranged them by historical region of origin, as they will be aligned at the festival:
▪ Drytown Cellars 2014 Amador County Verdelho ($18): Amador County remains principally red-wine country, but the occasional white wine will bloom with forward and refreshing fruit. This Drytown verdelho is one of them. It’s a fairly husky take on the varietal, with medium-bodied weight and ripe-peach flavor. A thread of minerality adds uncommon interest to a generally unassuming varietal.
▪ Los Portales 2012 Shenandoah Valley Monastrell ($21): Monastrell is Spanish for the same grape the French call mourvedre. Los Portales is a second label of Borjon Winery in Shenandoah Valley. The wine is dark, fleshy and exceptionally perfumey, its rich fruit flavor punctuated with enticing spice.
▪ Shenandoah Vineyards 2012 Amador County ReZerve Tempranillo ($24): An eccentric but likable take on tempranillo, which often conveys the aroma and flavor of tobacco leaves, usually dried. Here, however, the leaves are fresh, giving the wine herbal notes that insinuate themselves discreetly through the dominant cherry and plum flavors.
▪ Cooper Vineyards 2013 Amador County Carignane ($26): Anyone thirsting for a lighter-style red wine out of Amador, long celebrated for its muscular and robust zinfandels and syrahs, will welcome a glass of the Cooper carignane. It’s light-colored and sprightly, more in the vein of a nouveau Beaujolais than the standard broad and deep Amador red. The texture is silken and the acidity tangy, making it fitting for lighter fare coming off the grill.
▪ Legendre Cellars 2012 Amador County Arrastre ($28): “Rustic” more than “refined” has been the common descriptor of Amador County’s red wines, but this brilliant, polished and complex blend of syrah, grenache, mourvedre and petite sirah will shake up the wine-tasting lexicon. The wine is meaty, even gamy, but that raw and feral side is nicely balanced by its floral aroma and blackberry and blueberry flavors.
▪ Yorba Wines 2009 Amador County Shake Ridge Vineyards Syrah ($32): This is a monumental syrah for its dense color, ripe fruit aroma, deep juicy flavor and generous integration of oak. Its tannins remain strong, but that won’t be an issue when the wine is paired with a succulent cut of beef or lamb.
▪ Terra d’Oro Winery Amador County 2013 Aglianico ($18): A black grape cultivated historically in southern Italy, aglianico here produces a strapping yet light-footed wine. Its cherry/berry aroma and flavor are strong, but the wine’s build is lean and its zesty acidity propels it across the palate with spunk and grace.
▪ Vino Noceto 2012 Shenandoah Valley Marmelatta ($28): This aptly named sangiovese – “marmelatta” is Italian for marmalade – is jammy, solidly structured and exquisite with the flavor of strawberries and cherries. The color is light, and the aroma initially was hesitant, but in unfolding on the palate it provided a definitive and reinforcing statement about sangiovese in California.
▪ Scott Harvey Wines 2012 Amador County J&S Reserve Barbera ($35): Blended with fruit from three Shenandoah Valley vineyards, and then augmented with a dash of petite sirah, this gregarious and balanced interpretation of barbera shows just why the varietal is generating so much buzz in the Sierra foothills. The sunny fruit is all cherries and berries, the oak is well-modulated, and the acidity is pointedly zingy.
▪ Dillian Wines 2012 Amador County Shenandoah Valley Hangtree Zinfandel ($26): The Dillians are Shenandoah Valley farmers who long ago learned the value of growing vines attentively and treating the harvested grapes respectfully. The upshot is a portfolio of clean, representative wines of unusual clarity and charm. This fairly light-colored and medium-bodied representative delivers zinfandel’s berry flavors and spicy notes in a frame that while sturdy bends to accommodate a lamb or beef dish.
▪ Amador Foothill Winery 2011 Shenandoah Valley Esola Vineyard Zinfandel ($20): No spice is more closely associated with Amador County zinfandel than cloves, and this ripe and robust expression of the varietal is loaded with the stuff. The spice, however, doesn’t upstage the vibrant raspberry fruit and startling length of the wine, made with fruit from vines more than a century old.
▪ Sobon Estate 2013 Fiddletown Zinfandel ($22): Fiddletown zinfandels are recognized for their brightness and litheness. This is a heftier take on that model, but it still captures and delivers the cheery strawberry fruit and vibrant acidity for which Fiddletown zinfandels are celebrated. It’s a big boy, but polite and endearing.
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. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Amador Four Fires Festival
11 a.m. to 4 p.m. May 2, Amador County Fairgrounds, 18621 Sherwood St., Plymouth
In addition to tasting wine, the program includes musical entertainment, a series of educational seminars, samples of other local provisions such as baked goods, olive oils, honeys and beer, and fire-cooked foods representing the four regions that account for the range of Amador County’s wine trade. The menu is to include grilled lamb prepared by Mark and Tracey Berkner of the celebrated Plymouth restaurant Taste (in the Southern France area), and paella by Beth Sogaard of Amador Vintage Market, also in Plymouth (in the Iberian Peninsula zone).
The seminars are to feature such food and wine personalities as writer Janet Fletcher on cheese, winemaker Kent Rosenblum on zinfandel, and local vineyardist Ann Kraemer on growing grapes.
Proceeds benefit the Amador County Fair Foundation, which is working to preserve and enhance the fairgrounds in the wake of the loss of state support.
Tickets are $75 in advance, $85 at the gate. Information: wwww.amadorfourfires.com.