Gordon Pack greets me in front of his family’s winery, tucked like a bunker into a high and sunny slope of the Sierra foothills southeast of Placerville.
Before we go inside he points to a bird perched on a nearby pole. “We have two families of red-tailed hawks here. We could use two more,” he says by way of explaining that the predators aren’t keeping up with gophers that dart hungrily about his vines.
But he says this matter-of-factly, as if to recognize that the pesky gophers are but a minor annoyance compared with the challenges he and his family have faced in growing grapes and making wines.
The name of their winery – Gwinllan Estate Vineyard and Winery – hints at that history. Gwinllan – pronounced “gwin-lan” – is Welsh for “vineyard.” Gordon Pack and his wife, Chris, are from England, with “Gwinllan” inspired by her father’s life as a miner in Wales.
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Three decades ago, the Packs first tried their hand at growing grapes and making wine. That was in the south of England, not exactly the first choice of vineyardists and vintners. They had a view of Paul McCartney’s windmill and recording studio off in the distance, but that was small compensation for their efforts.
Nevertheless, there they were, pressing juice from the few grapes they could salvage from three rows of battered vines. “They didn’t grow much fruit, not with those cold winds from Siberia blowing across the North Sea,” Gordon Pack says.
He doesn’t know what kind of grapes they were growing, or even if they were wine or table grapes. “But that was the best wine I ever made. It was pale red, a bit like a pinot (noir).”
That was well before he went commercial with his winemaking. At the time, he was an electronics engineer specializing in systems for aircraft. Winemaking was a hobby. Avionics engineering subsequently took him to Minnesota, Florida and Los Altos in the San Francisco Bay Area, none of which was much more hospitable than the south of England for growing grapes and making wine.
As he started to ponder retirement he began to scout various wine regions in California for a possible vineyard and winery site. “I’d done it the hard way, so I said, ‘Let’s go where grapes grow well.’”
About a decade ago, his fondness for zinfandel prompted him to attend a large tasting of the varietal in San Francisco. As he made his way from table to table he found zinfandels from coastal enclaves too pale and shy for his taste, Amador County zinfandels too jammy, and Napa Valley zinfandels too weak, except for those made with grapes from growers in El Dorado County. They appealed to him for their combination of ripeness, crispness and “classiness.”
He began to visit El Dorado County, and while nibbling on bar snacks at Gold Vine Grill of Somerset and savoring a zinfandel from Cedarville Vineyard in the Fair Play district, he concluded on the spot that that is where he wanted to put down roots.
In 2005, the Packs bought an 80-acre parcel in Fair Play. “It was perfect, with an east/west ridge, the right angle of exposure to the sun, and a good altitude (2,300 feet), out of the heat but below 3,000 feet,” Pack says.
The next year they developed their first two acres of vines, and two years later they built the winery. They opened the winery’s tasting room a year ago. In the meantime, he was taking short courses in viticulture and winemaking at UC Davis.
Their original business plan was to concentrate solely on growing mostly zinfandel and selling the grapes to Napa Valley producers, but then they rather liked the notion of keeping at least some of the fruit for themselves, establishing their own label, and diversifying their vineyard in hopes of catering to the varied tastes of wine tourists ambling through Fair Play.
The family now tends 18 acres in vineyard and makes 1,000 cases of wine per harvest. “That’s enough, I’m stopping there,” Pack says, though one of the couple’s three sons, Jonathan, now involved in the business as consulting winemaker, indicates he may have other thoughts about that.
While Gordon Pack was delighted with the site, and confident that he could contribute positively to Fair Play’s growing reputation for Rhone Valley grape varieties like syrah and grenache as well as zinfandel, he couldn’t leave well enough alone.
The family’s 18 acres also include a couple of acres of chardonnay and half an acre of riesling, two varieties with only spotty records in the foothills. The chardonnay is there for its popularity among consumers and because Gordon Pack grew keen on the varietal. The riesling? It’s there because he wants to prove wrong all the people who have told him that such a cool-climate grape has no place in the warm foothills.
That’s been an uphill battle. If he were the nostalgic sort, his experience with riesling would take him back to his winemaking days in England. Here, he lost the first two crops of riesling to fierce freezes. Last year, the grapes got so much heat they ripened more than he wanted, so he never harvested them. In between, however, he made a riesling from the 2012 vintage that lives up adroitly to the variety’s reputation for playful apricot and peach flavors on a welcoming frame.
All of Gwinllan’s wines are made with grapes grown on the estate. What’s more, all the wines are sold from the winery’s tasting room.
While Gordon and Chris Pack originally saw the vineyard more as hobby than a big-time commercial venture, the unexpected involvement of their son Jonathan altered their business plan. Jonathan Pack initially was more interested in brewing beer than making wine, but wine caught his fancy and in 2007 he earned a degree in viticulture and enology at UC Davis. Today, he’s a consulting vineyardist and winemaker for five wine brands and three vineyards, as well as his family’s.
Small family wineries like Gwinllan are proliferating throughout California. When Jonathan Pack is asked what separates Gwinllan from others, particularly his neighbors in the foothills, he points to the “attention to detail” that he gives the family’s wines and to the diverse range of wines he and his father make.
In addition to zinfandel, chardonnay and riesling, they’re turning out cabernet sauvignon, muscat canelli and petite sirah. They also make a proprietary blend based on grape varieties most closely identified with France’s Rhone Valley. Coming up are a rosé made with grenache and a Bordeaux-style blend with a substantial portion of malbec.
Jonathan Pack fell hard for malbec while on a consulting assignment in Argentina, where the variety is the most highly regarded black grape. To get malbec, he grafted about two acres of the estate’s zinfandel to the variety.
His father, though first drawn to El Dorado County by zinfandel, has no quibble with that transition. He’s excited about the malbec-inspired Bordeaux-style blend that Gwinllan is to release this coming spring. “The malbec brings to the wine these lovely loganberry and blackberry flavors,” Gordon Pack says.
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.
GWINLLAN ESTATE VINEYARD AND WINERY
The tasting room, 7060 Fairplay Road, Somerset, is open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday through Sunday.
The wines tend to be hearty, spirited and readily approachable. Fruit flavors are clean, structures are firm yet yielding, and finishes are refreshing and lingering. At any given time, around eight wines will be poured in the tasting room. My favorites:
Gwinllan Estate 2012 Fair Play Dry Riesling ($22): I can’t recall ever seeing a riesling from Fair Play, but this example shows with harmony and authority that more of the grape should be cultivated in the appellation. It has apricots, peaches and apples in more-or-less equal measure, all nestled in a basket round and buoyant. The wine’s crisp acidity punctuates the generous fruit with revitalizing snap.
Gwinllan Estate 2011 Fair Play Chardonnay ($28): Chardonnay is almost as rare as riesling in Fair Play, but again this ripe and plump interpretation, threaded with vanilla and nutmeg from the oak barrels in which it was aged, shows that there is hope for the variety in the region.
Gwinllan Estate 2012 Fair Play Muscat Canelli ($20): The biggest surprise of the tasting, an exceptionally voluminous and complex take on the variety. The fruit runs so strongly to spiced apple that for a moment you think you’ve stepped into an Apple Hill bake shop. And the wine is just about as sweet as turnover, dumpling or pie. Nevertheless, it has the fruit, build and balance to pair nicely with some spicy Thai or Indian dish.
Gwinllan Estate 2010 Fair Play Zinfandel ($36): Fair Play is home to big but well-mannered zinfandels, and this one flatters the neighborhood with its juicy blackberry fruit, broad construction, zesty acidity and notes of cinnamon and clove from the American oak barrels in which it was aged. For two years running, different vintages of the wine won double-gold medals at the El Dorado County Fair commercial wine competition.
Gwinllan Estate 2010 Fair Play Winemaker’s Selection ($40): Modeled after the Chateauneuf-du-Pape wines from France’s Rhone Valley, the 2010 Winemaker’s Selection, made with 55 percent grenache, 23 percent syrah and 22 percent mourvedre, is earthy, heady and solid, its suggestions of berries, cherries, licorice and spice coming at you in waves that threaten to pull you under.
Gwinllan Estate 2011 Fair Play Cabernet Sauvignon ($40): Like chardonnay and riesling, cabernet sauvignon’s track record in the foothills hasn’t been steady, but the 2011 fruit was handled with deliberation and industry, producing an interpretation substantial, layered and balanced, its cherry and plummy fruit accented with suggestions of chalk, herbs and spice.