Amador’s old vines survive drought, fires with unique vintage

Karen Hyatt-Miner of Reno brings wines back to a group of friends during the Big Crush Harvest Festival, a celebration of Amador County wines, on Saturday Oct. 3, 2015.
Karen Hyatt-Miner of Reno brings wines back to a group of friends during the Big Crush Harvest Festival, a celebration of Amador County wines, on Saturday Oct. 3, 2015.

Amador County’s tough old vines survived an onslaught of drought and fire this year, and 42 vintners partied hearty this weekend, holding grape stompings, tastings and feasts for their 23rd annual Big Crush.

While some were predicting disaster as California’s drought, now in its fourth year, scorched the hills and the 70,000-acre Butte fire closed in, all 17 varietals were harvested, said association director Melissa Lavin.

“The grape news is great news,” she enthused. “The fires have been put out, the emergencies have been taken care of, and it’s time to celebrate!”

And celebrate they did, pouring from the barrel: smooth zinfandels with roots going back more than 160 years and full-bodied sangioveses and barberas with European lineage – topped off with ports served with cheeses or biscotti dipped in chocolate sauce. People also dined on pumpkin ravioli, chicken or tri-tip, and pesto pasta, depending upon the vineyard.

Some danced on a vat of purple mission grapes, while others grabbed a large steel “punch,” or press, and hand-pressed a crust of skin, seeds, natural yeast and bacteria, all of which forms over the juice of fermenting red grapes after six or eight weeks.

“It stinks really bad,” Lavin said, “but that’s good because it means the fermentation’s going well. Wine is basically rotten grapes turning into something good.”

Despite a smaller grape harvest this year, Paul Sobon of Shenandoah Vineyards and Sobon Estate proudly called this year’s wine “the vintage of the century.”

Sobon’s family includes three generations of winemakers starting with Leon Sobon, a senior scientist with the Lockheed Corp. in Santa Clara County who transitioned into full-time winemaking in 1977. He later took over the D’Agostini Winery, started in 1856 by Swiss immigrant Adam Uhlinger, who brought some of the first zinfandel grapes to California.

The Sobons also bought the Fiddletown vineyard of sweet tiny grapes from Martin Lubenko, who planted it with his father, a Slovakian immigrant, in 1908. “Lubenko was a total iconoclast who never sold his grapes to vineyards and farmed with a horse and plow until 1952,” said Sobon’s marketing manager Tom Quinn. “He relied strictly on rainfall and runoff and no pesticides, herbicides or fungicides.”

The challenging conditions are what made this year’s harvest so interesting, Sobon said. “From Redding to Bakersfield, you’ve got some of the most fertile ground in the world. As a farmer, you worry about everything but can’t control anything.”

Last month, the Butte fire to the south sent about 30 hours of smoke over their 40 acres of vineyards, not enough to damage the flavor, Sobon said. He said, “10 to 12 days of what’s called ‘smoke taint’ can make the wine smell like a campfire.”

The rains came later this growing season – just in the nick of time, Sobon said. “We had only one real rain until February, and then we had a pretty normal spring of 18-20 inches, so we’ve watered nearly nothing.”

While Sobon was dispensing zin and primitivo, his daughter, Camille Sobon, 23, was pouring reserve barbera 2013. She had the lingo down: “It’s flavorful, big, bold and fruity.”

Shan “The Wine Man” Trail, who’s been part of the Big Crush since its inception, said the magic of Amador’s wines is that many of the vines are more than 125 years old, “and if I drink the wine – two glasses of red every day – from those vines, I’m looking forward to a long, long life.

“Amador County was growing grapes before Napa and Sonoma knew what they were,” he said. The acidic taste of some red wines that can cause your mouth to pucker comes from tannins rich in antioxidants “that are very very good for your health,” Trail explained.

After record harvests from 2012 to 2014, this year’s is down about 10 percent and came a full month earlier than the usual, Lavin said. Cooper Vineyards, whose winemaker, Dick Cooper, has been called “the father of barbera,” just finished its harvest: 17 varietals of wine grapes.

Though drought lowered the yield, Lavin said, “it’s caused the grapes to be resilient, digging their roots deep into the ground for nourishment and safety; this causes the fruit to be more flavorful, dense, and in some cases a bit mineral in flavor as the roots pass through the rocks, dirt and other terrain.”

Many wonder “how the vintage will ultimately turn out with all of Mother Nature’s additions to the recipe,” Lavin said.

“Through it all, it’s an exciting time to be a winemaker in Amador County, where no two vintages are alike and every unique aspect of a growing season makes that vintage an original.”

Stephen Magagnini: 916-321-1072, @StephenMagagnini