On a small spread along narrow Mary Lane in the brushy hills outside Fiddletown, Scott Mahon is making the jump that tempts many home winemakers who’d like to see their label on store shelves and restaurant wine lists: He’s gone commercial.
His Legendre Cellars occupies what formerly was a tiny barn just down the slope from the house where he, his wife, Megan, and their toddler daughter, Ellie, live.
Here they made 350 cases of wine last year, up from 250 the year before. If all goes well, they will produce 450 cases this year. That’s still far from the 600 cases he figures he’d need to make to compensate for the salary he no longer gets as a high school English teacher.
As he builds patiently toward that goal and beyond, his wife commutes to Sacramento for her job as an attorney with a firm representing school districts, colleges and cities.
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“We started as amateurs, and this became a little dream,” Mahon reflects. They were living in Martinez. He was teaching in Concord when he got more serious about winemaking and took summer classes in viticulture and winery management at Napa Valley College.
In 2007, they began to scout the Sierra foothills for a place to establish a winery, develop a vineyard, settle down and rear a family.
“This place worked for us because it was within our budget, it had a barn that could be the winery, and it had vineyards nearby,” Mahon says. Jerry and Sally Macy, Megan Mahon’s parents, joined them as partners.
The family was drawn to Fiddletown in large part because Mahon was convinced it had the terrain and the climate for the varieties that most intrigued him — viognier, mourvedre, syrah and other grapes customarily identified with France’s Rhône Valley. “I like them ... and there’s a lack of great Rhônes from the area on the market, so I thought it was an area I could compete in.”
He liked the notion of being on the ground floor in developing relatively new appellations. They named the winery for August Legendre, a French prospector attracted to Fiddletown during the Gold Rush, who made wine when he wasn’t searching for paydirt. The name is pronounced “le-zhan-dreh.”
They moved to Fiddletown in 2008 and began to crush grapes with the harvest of 2009. In the meantime, Mahon enhanced his winemaking skills by working for other vintners in the area, in particular Chaim Gur-Arieh of the winery C.G. Di Arie in adjoining El Dorado County.
They put their plans for a vineyard on hold as they realized that several growers in the area had the type and the quality of grapes they were hoping to cultivate.
“A vineyard is a lot of work, so I’m a little happy not to have a vineyard now,” Mahon said.
Legendre Cellars is very much a hands-on operation, and the hands generally are Mahon’s, though he recruits family and friends to help with some chores such as bottling. He hand-sorts grapes, ferments in small batches and ages his wines in previously used French and American oak barrels. He bottles them without fining or filtering.
The most unusual appliance in his winery is an upright cylindrical press whose bladder he fills with water. Most presses are horizontal and use air rather than water. He hoists the press on a forklift and as the grapes are squeezed the juice that is released pours out and into fermentation vats solely by gravity.
“It looks like a beautiful wine fountain,” Mahon said.
The advantage, as he sees it, is that the process is more gentle than the standard pneumatic press.
“With mourvedre, for example, I don’t have to worry about the press crushing those big seeds and getting those bitter tannins in the juice,” Mahon said.
The resulting wines have been sleek enough and expressive enough to develop an enthusiastic early following. Though the couple has spent little time marketing and distributing their wines, they’ve built their wine club up to 200 members.
His viogniers have been spirited with a spiciness that punctuates the varietal’s telltale aromas and flavors of honeysuckle and peach, while his syrahs have been nearly as succulent, peppery and meaty as a slab of peppered bacon.
As with other vintners smitten with Rhône varieties, however, Mahon recognizes that the French grapes are at their most articulate when they are blended. His proprietary blends go by the names Arrastre and Tailrace. About all the two wines have in common besides their color (red) is that both were made with Rhône Valley grape varieties.
The Legendre Cellars 2011 Amador County Tailrace is the fresher, lighter, more agile of the two. It’s dry and lean, with a delicate cherry-berry fruitiness offset with a briariness. A note of chocolate comes out of nowhere, lingering like a flake of gold drifting teasingly through a tailrace, sparkly and elusive. The wine is a blend of 55 percent mourvedre, 35 percent grenache and 10 percent petite syrah.
The Legendre Cellars 2011 Amador County Arrastre is the more deeply colored and more ripely flavored of the two, its fruit plummy, its tannins more evident, a blend of 45 percent syrah, 25 percent grenache, 20 percent mourvedre, 5 percent petite syrah and 5 percent carignane.
At the outset, Mahon intended to make just one profoundly concentrated Rhône blend, Arrastre. After he finished the first one a few vintages ago, however, he began to play around with some leftover lots of wine, gradually settling on a blend that was lighter, brighter and more acidic than Arrastre. He called it Tailrace.
Since then, Tailrace has sold faster than Arrastre, and with the 2011 vintage he ramped up production of Tailrace to 140 cases compared with 105 for Arrastre.
Still, Mahon continues to abide by the principle he’d adopted at the outset and which constitutes the key advice he gives other home winemakers: “Don’t make more wine than you can sell. ... Sell out first, then next year increase production. It’s very easy to think that the friends you have been giving your wine will turn around and buy it for $250 a case. You could be in for a surprise.”