On the eve of the Fourth of July, Steve Grace is scratching his head, wondering when and how "patriot" became such a loaded word.
His vexation predates recent disclosures that agents of the Internal Revenue Service targeted for particular scrutiny the applications for tax-exempt status of groups with "tea party" or "patriot" in their names.
Rather, Grace is perplexed by an even more innocuous use of "patriot" – as part of the name of his El Dorado County winery and the wines it produces. In 2004, he and his family established their Apple Hill winery as Grace Patriot Wines and then began to release wines under the label Lewis Grace Patriot, as in Lewis Grace, Patriot.
Lewis Grace, a distant grandfather to Steve Grace, served in the 4th Virginia Regiment of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. One of five members of the Grace family to join the War of Independence, he was killed in the battle of King's Mountain in South Carolina on Oct. 7, 1780.
Pride in that family history prompted Steve Grace to adopt Grace Patriot for his winery and brand.
He gradually came to see, however, that consumers and members of the wine trade didn't look into the reasoning behind "patriot" on the label, and reacted as if it were a politically charged declaration. Some liked it, some loathed it.
His wines were selling well in more conservative enclaves of Nevada and Texas, and they seemed to be doing fine in the San Francisco Bay Area until a broker told him that he no longer could distribute them.
"He said he couldn't sell the label anymore, that customers didn't like the graphic of the patriot and the implications of the word 'patriot.' I didn't know what to say of that," said Grace. "It seems a lot of young people don't know what patriots are unless they play for the (New England) Patriots."
As a consequence, he removed the bold and colorful bust of a Revolutionary War patriot from the label. Reaction to the label remained mixed, however, and while reluctance was scattered and small, Grace began to fret that it represented an opposition that was broader, jeopardizing sales.
"When people come to the tasting room they like to hear interesting stories. We just wanted an interesting story to tell, not something that led to the taking of sides," Grace said.
Therefore, he is changing the name on his label from Lewis Grace Patriot to simply Lewis Grace.
"Going forward, we'll stay with 'Lewis Grace,' but 'Patriot' will remain part of the company name," Grace says.
Steve Grace and his wife, Bea, live in Reno, where for 35 years he's been a plastic surgeon. Several years ago they got smitten with wine, in part because a fellow Reno doctor, Tony Truchard, began to grow grapes in the Carneros district at the southern reaches of Napa Valley in the 1970s and subsequently established his eponymous winery there.
The Graces scouted much of California for potential vineyard land, settling in 2000 on a 50-acre hilltop spread just east of Placerville, in part for its proximity to Reno, in part for their confidence in the Sierra foothills as a fine-wine region.
"A friend in Napa was saying, (Highway) 49 will be the new 29 in a few years,' " Grace recalled.
(Highway 49 is the main route through the foothills, while Highway 29 is the main route through Napa Valley.)
The ranch had been in the same family since 1890, primarily for the growing of peaches and apples, though wine grapes are believed to have been cultivated on the site as early as 1915.
The place was weathered and overgrown when the Graces acquired it. Steve Grace recalls pulling about 10 abandoned vehicles from the brush.
"I took 95 tires on a trailer over to Reno to recycle," he recalled.
The family restored a residence dating to 1885, salvaged much of a barn, and recycled the wood of other outbuildings. In addition to the vineyard they started to plant in 2002, they still maintain apple and peach orchards on the site.
Today, the Graces tend 16 acres of wine grapes, with the biggest block – 5 acres - planted to cabernet sauvignon, rarely a success in the foothills, though the family believes that the elevation, exposure, climate and soils of their site are splendid for the varietal.
Adding to their confidence is the background of their winemaking son Tyler Grace, who spent seven years working for two Napa Valley wineries before moving to the Mother Lode.
Two other sons also are involved in the wine trade. Trevor Grace, a filmmaker and photographer, handles marketing for the winery, while Jason Grace is vice president of grower relations for the Bank of the West in Napa.
Tyler Grace is an advocate of density and concentration in wine, and feels at home with the ripeness that the heat and sunshine of the foothills produces in grapes. His newest cabernet sauvignon, from the 2008 harvest, is initially tight upon opening but unfolds as a fresh, lush and balanced take on the varietal, its fruit lingering, its tannins evident but not grating.
His 2010 syrah made with grapes grown in Calaveras County is similarly juicy and chewy, while the 2007 tempranillo, a varietal that has brought the winery some early acclaim, is thick and gentle, with plenty of oak and a thread of anise to complicate its fruit.
Even his white wines are hefty, as shown by a 2012 riesling that is sweet, peachy and fat, though not lumbering. It is his first riesling.
"If you're on Apple Hill you must make some sweet wines," said Steve Grace, noting that touring wine pilgrims often seek wines with some sweetness to them. Though the winery's production is small, it's also developing something of a following in Asia, where sweetness in wines also is favored, Grace noted.
As I tasted through Lewis Grace wines not long ago, however, my favorite was a surprise. The Lewis Grace 2010 El Dorado Estate Graciano in a deeply colored and invitingly aromatic red whose plush ripe-fruit flavor is shot through with a bolt of black-pepper spice. It's vigorous and warm, but its weight is lifted by a revitalizing acidity.
Graciano is even rarer in the foothills than cabernet sauvignon. Historically, it's been most closely identified with Spain's Rioja, where it was used to bolster the aroma and structure of tempranillo, which is what the Graces had in mind for it when almost as an afterthought they planted vines along the fence line on three sides of their vineyard.
That peculiar arrangement, which gives the maturing grapes a variety of exposures and elevations, apparently is just what the variety needed to yield a surprisingly vital stand-alone wine.
With the Fourth of July here, it's a wine a bit too hefty for hot dogs, but if hamburgers also are on the party menu it will work ideally. While pouring the wine, however, it might be best not to mention that it's from Grace Patriot Wines; just stick to the Lewis Grace of the label.
Lewis Grace 2010 El Dorado Estate Graciano
By the numbers: 75 cases, 15.2 percent alcohol, $28
Context: Given the amplitude of its fruit and its solid structure, this is a wine that definitely calls for food, and most anything traditional off the grill this Fourth of July – rib-eye steaks, ribs of pork or beef, tri-tip – should pair with it well.
Availability: Aside from the winery, the graciano is available at the El Dorado Hills branch of Nugget Markets.
More information: The tasting room of Grace Patriot Wines, 2701 Carson Road, Placerville, is open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursday 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.