Dunne on Wine

A year of growth for Bill Easton and his Amador County winery

Bill Easton and his Australian shepherd Ginger check out gondolas of newly harvested syrahs.
Bill Easton and his Australian shepherd Ginger check out gondolas of newly harvested syrahs.

For Amador County grape grower and winemaker William “Bill” Easton, the year was going great until the fall harvest. Then he broke his right arm and sustained a deep gash to his left leg when he was catapulted through the air while unloading by hand a grape-bin trailer from a large flatbed trailer in one of his vineyards.

“Artisan winemaking and wine growing is down and dirty physical work, one of the reasons I like it,” Easton says, patched up and back to overseeing Terre Rouge & Easton Wines, the Shenandoah Valley winery he owns with his wife, Jane O’Riordan. His weekly tennis game, however, remains on hold.

While he sits on the sidelines he can take solace in the volley of acclaim that came his way this year.

In the spring, he received the fourth lifetime achievement award bestowed by the wine trade group Rhone Rangers for his long cultivation in California of grape varieties and wine styles traditionally identified with France’s Rhone Valley.

In the fall, Wine & Spirits magazine named Terre Rouge one of the year’s “Top 100 Wineries.”

And almost simultaneously, Wine Enthusiast magazine revealed that he was one of five international winemakers being considered for its winemaker-of-the-year award, which ultimately went to Andrea Mullineux of Mullineux Family Wines in South Africa. In nominating Easton, the magazine’s editors asserted that he “has been quietly making the best Rhone-styled wines in the state since 1986.”

That’s when he and his wife bottled their first wines under the brand Terre Rouge. Five years later they introduced a second brand, Easton Wines. Terre Rouge is reserved for wines made with Rhone Valley grape varieties like syrah, marsanne and mourvedre while Easton Wines is devoted to releases made with other varieties, such as zinfandel and barbera. Easton makes around 12,500 cases of wine under each brand. The couple’s current portfolio lists 26 wines, most priced between $20 and $30. Some hit $40, while their flagship wine, a syrah with the proprietary name Ascent, sells for $90.

Easton sees the recognition he’s accumulated during 2016 as confirmation not only of his winemaking skills but as validation of Amador County as a fine-wine region.

“This region is great for wine. It has great winemaking history, but a lot of the wines were a little rustic,” Easton says of his introduction to the county more than three decades ago. “We thought we could elevate the region, and I think we’ve accomplished that. These awards confirm that this region can compete with wines elsewhere in the world.”

Stylistically, his wines under both labels are celebrated for their force, clarity, layering and equilibrium. He prides himself on sculpting them to age long and well. While the winery’s annual output is substantial, several of his wines are made in small lots, with the goal of capturing the character of a vineyard or even a block of vines within a vineyard. He customarily makes seven syrahs and four or five zinfandels each harvest. “They all have different things to say,” he says of the sites that yield the fruit that goes into each.

When Easton talks of his winemaking philosophy and style, he cites mostly the structure he seeks in his wines. He builds his wines to last and evolve. And he eschews steps he could take, such as making them more fruit forward, to make them easier to grasp early on and thus easier to sell.

While his wines are big and bold, he refines them through long aging, first in barrel, then in bottle. As a consequence, he often releases wines of a given vintage much later than his neighbors. When I stopped by his tasting room not long ago, the crew was pouring his just-released 2009 barbera under the Easton label. Other winemakers in the vicinity were pouring much younger barberas, from the 2013 and 2014 vintages.

“We don’t compromise on structure,” Easton says in explaining why he hangs onto several of his wines so long. “We want them to last, develop and get better in the bottle. In that sense we are more like a classic producer, holding back wine before releasing it, as they do in (the Italian province) Piedmont with Barolo and Barbaresco. We’ve had to educate people that that’s what we do. Some get it, some don’t,” Easton says.

“I have always liked wines that expressed place, that were balanced, flavorful and elegant. Balance is the big take away,” Easton says in elaborating on the model wine he envisions.

A native Sacramentan and a graduate of Luther Burbank High School, Easton didn’t grow up in a farming family. His father was a printer for the state of California. In the mid-1970s Easton earned a degree in political science at UC Berkeley. He’d actually accumulated more credits in his other major, English, but he never completed his senior thesis on James Joyce’s experimental novel “Ulysses.”

In 1978 he opened the wine shop Solano Cellars near the Albany/Berkeley line. That introduced him to the Rhone Valley, first by tasting samples that salespeople brought by his shop in hopes he would stock them, then through his annual wine-buying trips in France.

At the same time, he grew more smitten with Amador County and its resemblance to the Rhone Valley in soils, climate and terrain. His introduction to the foothills came as he drove to and from the Sierra on backpacking excursions.

“It kind of rang a bell for me,” Easton says. “Amador is just a unique place geographically. The Delta breezes put us on the edge of having a marine influence, which you don’t get in El Dorado or Calaveras. At night you get cooling from the Sierra. The rainfall is usually 30 inches. It’s an incredibly unique place to grow grapes.”

Today he and his wife buy grapes from several growers in the region. They also own two vineyards that total about 25 acres at Fiddletown, where they live and maintain the “world headquarters” of Terre Rouge & Easton Wines in a small house in the middle of the settlement.

Aside from the occasional harvest accident and troublesome vintage, the couple’s winemaking venture has been relatively smooth, reflects Easton. He muses, however, whether it might have been even smoother had he named one of his original wines something other than L’Autre (The Other), a grenache-based blend. “Maybe if I called it ‘The Mad Scientist’ or ‘The Goofy Politician’ it would have been easier to sell,” says Easton, who favors an Old World approach to wine marketing rather than the modern approach with gimmicky names and cartoonish label art.

After 31 years as an Amador County vintner, and despite the risks of the job, he’s far from retirement. That might happen in 12 years, when he turns 75, he allows, but in the meantime he still gets excited about the potential he sees in his maturing vineyards. He even talks of joining a fellow grower to plant a small plot of a new grape for him – vermentino – along Ostrom Road between Shenandoah Valley and Fiddletown.

He frets about neighboring vintners who struggle to get distribution for their wines and must rely on direct sales to consumers, due to the growing concentration of wine distribution in the hands of fewer large companies.

He got into the wine trade before that trend developed. His business model from the outset called for selling 80 percent of his wine through distributors, just 20 percent direct.

“That’s succeeded,” Easton says, but not without a price, most important in frequent travel for both him and his wife to markets throughout the United States and beyond. “You can’t sell wine unless you get out there.”

And with that, he limped off, heading to Wisconsin on another sales trip.

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 dmichaeldunne@gmail.com.