When visitors step into the tasting room of Wilderotter Vineyard in Amador County’s Shenandoah Valley they can expect two things: a basket of mini-pretzels on the counter and a lineup of the most consistent European-styled wines in the Sierra foothills.
“European-styled” – just what does that mean? It’s shorthand for wines that are leaner, sharper and zippier than the prevailing model for California.
Some vintners in the Sierra foothills want their wines to strive to say as much of place as grape variety, one that addresses restraint and agility more than bravado and muscularity. They tend to take their cues from the traditions and stylistic goals of Europe.
Two of them in the foothills are Jay Wilderotter, who with his wife, Maggie, founded their eponymous winery in 2001, and their consulting winemaker, Rich Gilpin of Angels Camp, where he makes wines under his own brands, Lavender Ridge and Coppermine.
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“He’s the conductor, I’m the lead violinist,” says Wilderotter about Gilpin. “He’s the brains behind what I do.”
What Wilderotter mostly wanted to do three decades ago was grow grapes. In 1986 he and his wife bought 40 acres at the southwest entry to Shenandoah Valley and soon began to plant vines.
At that time, the Wilderotters were living in Sacramento, not far from Mather Air Force Base, where he was flying jets with the U.S. Air Force. Maggie Wilderotter also was a frequent flier as an executive in technology and telecommunications.
“I became Mr. Mom,” says Jay Wilderotter of his transition from cockpit to PTA meetings.
To occupy both himself and the couple’s two young children, he turned to farming, choosing a plot within an hour’s drive of the family’s Sacramento home.
He was content to grow and sell his grapes until 2001, when Jeff Meyers, the longtime winemaker at nearby Montevina and Terra d’Oro, persuaded him to keep a little of his fruit and to experiment with his own wine.
That harvest Wilderotter made three barrels of wine, subsequently releasing 75 cases. “My goal was not to lose money. That took 10 years,” Wilderotter says. He’s taken extension courses in viticulture and enology offered by UC Davis, but says he’s learned the trade largely on the job under the mentoring of Gilpin and Meyers.
Today, the Wilderotters produce nearly 5,000 cases of wine annually, farm 26 acres of wine grapes and make 30 gallons of olive oil yearly. Not long ago they bought a 40-acre plot up valley, 18 acres of which already are in zinfandel and barbera. They are expanding that spread to include plots of cabernet franc, primitivo, roussanne, vermentino and nebbiolo.
At their home vineyard they also cultivate a wide range of varieties, including sauvignon blanc, zinfandel, tempranillo, barbera and mourvedre.
From the outset, the Wilderotters pretty much have ignored marketing pressure and gone their own way, cultivating grape varieties and making styles of wine they personally like and which they feel are most appropriate to the area.
Chardonnay, for example, only rarely performs well in the foothills. Maggie Wilderotter, however, likes chardonnay and urged her husband to add one to their portfolio. He has, but he gets grapes for the wine from Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley, celebrated for its chardonnay. The newly released 2013 version of the Wilderotter chardonnay ($26) is about as close as they come to the signature California style for the varietal. It is big but not overblown, with pleasantly ripe tropical, apple and citric highlights. It is medium-bodied in build, and with a note of spice from its tempered application of French oak.
Similarly, the Wilderotters went to Sonoma County for the pinot noir for their rich yet dry sparkling wine ($28), a departure from the usually sweet and soft bubbly wines coming out of the foothills, and the Rutherford district of Napa Valley for their limber, toasty and eucalyptus-punctuated 2012 reserve cabernet sauvignon ($55).
From their estate vineyard and other plots in the foothills, they stick largely to Iberian and French varieties at home in warm and dry settings. Wilderotter, for one, was an early proponent of the Rhone Valley grape grenache, in large measure because of his fondness for the French way with the variety. He uses it for various applications, from blending to a stand-alone rose he makes in alternating years. From last fall’s harvest, he made a 2014 rosé ($20) bright, sinewy and vivid with suggestions of fresh spring strawberries. Wilderotter and Gilpin gave the grenache a jolt of tempranillo to buck up its spine and galvanize its fruit.
Sauvignon blanc is Wilderotter’s most popular varietal, with the 2013 accounting for nearly a fourth of the winery’s production. Wilderotter long ago developed a following for the crisp grapefruit-and-lime interpretation that accounts for the popularity of sauvignon blanc from New Zealand, and the 2013 sticks to that proven model as it resonates with flashing fruit and refreshes with keen acidity ($22).
The other varietal to consistently elevate Wilderotter’s profile is barbera, the 2011 of which, while lightly colored, nonetheless blooms with the aroma of cherries, delivers juicy fruit flavors across the palate, and finishes with the varietal’s telltale snap ($29).
Of all the reds, however, the 2011 syrah ($30) was the most impressive for the clarity of its blueberry and cherry fruit, its svelte lines, its note of spice and its lasting finish. “This is the most elegant wine I make,” said Wilderotter as we tasted through his current releases.
His lineup also includes an appropriately inky, floral and succulent 2012 petite sirah ($29), which for its density and weight is the most traditionally Californian release he makes; a 2012 zinfandel that shows that the varietal’s customary foothill gusto can be balanced with grace ($26); the 2011 Ambrosia ($27), an inventive proprietary blend of tempranillo (62 percent) and grenache (38 percent), which pulls off the difficult challenge of combining lightness with richness; and a 2011 mourvedre that seizes the variety’s customary earthy fruit but delivers it in an atypically buoyant package ($26).
The Wilderotters sell their wines mostly direct to customers through their tasting room and wine club, with just a small portion for sales in wine shops and restaurants.
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.
The tasting room, 19890 Shenandoah School Road, Plymouth, is open from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. The tasting fee is $5 per person, which is waived with the purchase of a bottle. http://wilderottervineyard.com/