At Shadow Ranch Vineyard & Winery in the Fair Play district of southwest El Dorado County, founders Sam and Kimari Patterson walk the fine line between convention and invention, between sticking by what’s established and venturing into unproven territory.
Welcome to the Sierra foothills, where the first principle of contemporary grape-growing and winemaking is to diversify: Go with what is firmly established, but also invest in varieties of grapes and styles of wine that look as if they have a strong chance to further distinguish the region.
Thus, the Pattersons feature zinfandel in their lineup, that being the grape and the wine most closely identified with the Mother Lode.
But zinfandel wasn’t purely a business decision. They’re passionate about it. Zinfandel is why they are in El Dorado County. At the same time, they recognize the success that Italian, Iberian and French grape varieties are having in the area. Thus, the cabernet sauvignon, tempranillo, barbera and grenache also are in their portfolio.
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Zinfandel is “a grower’s variety,” says Sam Patterson. “It takes care to farm it.”
That reflects Patterson’s grounding as a farmer first. He comes in part from a farming family; his mother’s side grew sugar beets and alfalfa in the Imperial Valley, while his father’s family is in cabinetry, which explains the finely crafted walnut woodwork of the couple’s tasting room.
Sam Patterson’s mother got him a subscription to Wine Spectator magazine when he left home for San Diego Mesa College. In leafing through the magazine, he found himself “more interested in how wine was made than the wines and the lifestyle presented in the publication.”
In search of more information about growing grapes, he found in the college library a copy of the classic enology textbook “Wine: An Introduction,” by Maynard A. Amerine and Vernon L. Singleton of UC Davis. “While I didn’t understand the content when I first picked up the book, I knew instantly that I wanted to learn and understand the chemistry and biology behind the production,” Patterson recalls. “I wanted to be able to work outside. This brought me to the viticulture side of winemaking.”
He transferred to UC Davis, where in 1998 he was a member of the first class to earn a combined degree in viticulture and enology, soon after which he went to work as a viticulturist for Charles Krug Winery in Napa Valley.
In 2001, the Pattersons, who had met during their college years, settled in the Sierra foothills when Sam became director of vineyard operations for Renwood Winery in Amador County, a position he held until he established his own vineyard-management company in 2006. Today, he tends 100 acres of grapes for several growers scattered about the foothills, as well as the 7 acres the couple farm on their 80-acre spread at Somerset.
Oddly, not a single vine in their own vineyard is zinfandel. “There’s plenty (of zinfandel) in the neighborhood,” Sam Patterson says by way of explanation, and he has no problem getting his hands on all he wants. The couple, however, does plan to put in a block of zinfandel, and they have the site for it picked out down by their gate along Fair Play Road. They are waiting until they raise the capital for the planting.
For years, Patterson had driven by the property as he made his way from vineyard to vineyard. It had been for sale all that time, but one day he pulled off the road for a closer look. He liked the sweeping and open slopes, the well-drained granitic soils, the walnut orchard, the breezes, and the residence and barn, dating from when the property had been homesteaded as a cattle ranch in 1888.
The Pattersons bought it and started to develop their vineyard in 2006. They made their first wine in a small building on the site, but then outgrew that space and began to produce their wines elsewhere before erecting a dedicated winery on the property in 2013. It gives them enough space to yield up to 7,000 cases annually. The operation is almost entirely solar-powered.
The old farmhouse houses the Shadow Ranch tasting room, which they opened in 2007. There, walnuts from the site’s heritage orchard occasionally are put out on the counter for nibbling between tastes.
Though the ranch is without horses, the couple’s logo is a galloping horse that casts two shadows, meant to represent three generations of Sams – his father, also a principal in the winery; himself; and his son, Sam IV. (With Sam IV and their daughter, Maizy, the couple live in Cameron Park.)
The couple’s organically and sustainably farmed vineyard is partitioned into plots of sauvignon blanc, tempranillo, petite sirah and grenache. In addition to zinfandel from various growers in the region, they get cabernet sauvignon from John and Alexandra Duarte’s high-elevation vineyard along the Georgetown Divide about 25 miles north of Shadow Ranch.
The wine that so far has generated the most attention for the Pattersons is the fresh and spirited Shadow Ranch 2011 El Dorado Select Zinfandel ($14), an interpretation that while leaner and sharper than versions customarily associated with the foothills nonetheless seizes the region’s essence of raspberries and blackberries.
“Zinfandel is a blank canvas for winemakers,” says Sam Patterson as he talks of the style he seeks in the wine. “There’s no one defined style for zinfandel. Amador, El Dorado, Paso Robles, Dry Creek Valley all have their styles. We want ours to be fruit-driven, more in a French style, if there is any such thing, not the big, bold, jammy, fruit-bomb style. We’re not shooting for a cocktail wine. I want people to taste the vineyard.”
The grace and clarity of his 2011 zinfandel found a receptive audience at last spring’s El Dorado County Fair commercial wine competition, where judges awarded it the Frank Herbert Memorial Award given to the best zinfandel made with local grapes.
The 2012 version of the wine (also $14) is richer, spicier and more aromatic, but no less balanced, with the fruit fresh and snappy and the oak not at all distracting from zinfandel’s celebrated berry notes. Their 2012 El Dorado “Reserve” Zinfandel ($20) is a heftier, earthier and more fragrant take on the varietal, the fruit all blackberries and not so much raspberries.
As impressive as the couple’s zinfandels were, the standout wine for me was the Shadow Ranch 2011 El Dorado Estate Petite Sirah ($24), a monumental take on the varietal for its dense purple, floral bouquet, juicy fruit, black-pepper spice, chewy tannins and tenacious finish. The Pattersons say they chose a horse for their logo for its “grace, power and elegance,” and no wine in their stable captures those characteristics more than this petite sirah, a wine that only can be fully appreciated with a bracing stew, succulent lamb chop, spicy and sweet ribs, or thick cut of beef.
For their other red wines, the Pattersons by and large stick to grape varieties showing the most potential for success in the foothills. That would be the gentle but assured Shadow Ranch 2012 El Dorado Grenache ($22), whose brisk cherry and strawberry flavors are prompting the couple to plant more of the variety; the dry, edgy and tangy Shadow Ranch 2012 Sierra Foothills Barbera ($24); and the zippy Shadow Ranch 2012 El Dorado Tempranillo ($24), shot through with suggestions of tobacco leaves, some fresh, some dried.
Patterson only rarely blends his wines. An outstanding exception is the non-vintage Shadow Ranch Sierra Foothills Sheriff ($16), a seamless and liltingly sweet mix of syrah, tempranillo, zinfandel, petite sirah, grenache and cabernet sauvignon. It sounds like a wine made up of everything left over from making his varietals, but Patterson can explain his reasoning for every component and proportion – zinfandel for raspberries and blackberries, cabernet sauvignon for an herbal element, grenache for a strawberry note, tempranillo to temper the acidity, and so forth. The wine won a gold medal at last summer’s California State Fair commercial wine competition.
The only white wine in the couple’s portfolio is the ample yet vigorous Shadow Ranch 2013 El Dorado Sauvignon Blanc ($17), an unusually layered and rich take on the varietal, even though it was fermented and aged solely in stainless-steel tanks, without any time in oak barrels.
While the Pattersons were drawn to the foothills in large part to pursue zinfandel, they aren’t relying on it alone to establish their following. They want Shadow Ranch to help bring more attention and respect to the region, and their way of doing that involves capitalizing on the area’s most highly regarded varietal while also exploring the potential of other grape varieties.
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.
Shadow Ranch Vineyard & Winery
Sam and Kimari Patterson make roughly 3,000 cases of wine per vintage at their Shadow Ranch Vineyard & Winery, with nearly two-thirds of it sold through their tasting room, 7050 Fair Play Road, Somerset, open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday through Sunday.
Some of their wines also are available at Nugget Market in El Dorado Hills and Food 4 Less in Cameron Park.