Dunne on Wine

Let's take drive: Three wineries worth a visit in Amador County

Owner/winemaker Jon Campbell of Leoni Farms in front of his tasting room along Main Street in Sutter Creek.
Owner/winemaker Jon Campbell of Leoni Farms in front of his tasting room along Main Street in Sutter Creek.

When constricted and congested Highway 16 southeast from Sacramento reaches Amador County wine enthusiasts can relax a bit, choose any of several feeder roads and start to prospect leisurely for wines.

Let’s turn off Highway 16 to see what we can find in the way of interesting wine.

Leoni Farms

Pedigree: Jon and Meredith Campbell could be models for a poster to recognize the history of the Sierra foothills. She, a nurse at the UC Davis Med Center in Sacramento, is a sixth-generation foothill resident whose great-great grandfather was a homesteading dairyman at Grizzly Flat in neighboring El Dorado County starting in 1861. By comparison, he’s a relative newcomer, being a fourth-generation graduate of Amador High School in Sutter Creek. Their brand Leoni Farms is a tribute to her family name. The Campbells have a winery in Plymouth along Highway 49 just northeast of its junction with Highway 16, but their tasting room is in Sutter Creek along Highway 49 to the south.

Why here: Jon Campbell grew up in a Plymouth logging and construction family. He got drawn into the wine trade during the economic recession a decade ago. Construction had slowed, but he was working on a project at Drytown Cellars in Drytown when a cellar worker abruptly left the winery. Campbell just as quickly offered to assume his chores. He stayed five years. “That was trial by fire, but Allen (Kreutzer, Drytown’s winemaker) is a very good teacher if you are willing to listen and learn,” Campbell says. After Drytown Cellars he worked as a winemaker in Lodi before tiring of the commute and returning to Amador to establish Leoni Farms in 2014.

Focus: While Campbell recognizes and embraces the prominence of zinfandel in the foothills, he especially is keen on cultivating a following for such Italian grape varieties as montepulciano, sangiovese and refosco, the first interpretations of which he just released. “In the next five or six years you will see a lot of zinfandel vineyards being pulled out” and replaced with more Italian varieties, he is convinced. Already, the growing success of barbera in the foothills is showing that the landscape and the climate could be fitting for other Italian varieties, he adds.

Jon Campbell is a big guy, with strong views on just about any topic you’d care to broach, but he practices a gentle hand in his winemaking. Foothill wines have built their following largely on bluster, but stylistically he prefers to make wines sleeker and more civil – higher acidity, lower alcohol – yet don’t hold back in what they have to say of place and breeding.

Don’t miss: Campbell’s quest to pair authority with refinement in his wines is most evident in the deeply colored and exceptionally fragrant Leoni Farms 2016 Amador County Petite Sirah ($25), which while layered with character is unusually lilting for the varietal. The Leoni Farms 2015 Amador County Zinfandel ($25) is similarly husky, yet refreshing in its raspberry fruit and accessible for its ebbing tannins. Campbell also is a member of a small but growing community of winemakers looking to master a lighter style of zinfandel, which he does with his dry and wiry Leoni Farms 2017 Amador County Richards Ranch Zinfandel Nouveau ($22). The juiciness of his Leoni Farms 2016 Shenandoah Valley Alicante Bouschet ($25) is complicated with intriguing threads of chocolate and tobacco. And his Leoni Farms 2016 Amador County Barbera ($25) is bright and perfumey, with a supple build and pinpoint fruit.

The particulars: The tasting room of Leoni Farms, 67 Main St., Sutter Creek, is open 1 p.m.-5 p.m. Thursdays, noon-6 p.m. Fridays, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturdays and 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sundays.

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Matthew Gibson at his ranch and winery just outside of Ione in Amador County. Mike Dunne

Matthew Gibson Winery

Pedigree: Matthew Gibson was born in Lodi and grew up in Lockeford, surrounded by vineyards. During high school, he worked in the labs of local wineries. But wine held no particular interest for him. At UCLA and after, his leisure beverage of choice was beer. That’s what he was drinking when he and some buddies were on holiday at Caples Lake high in the Sierra about three decades ago. One of his pals had brought along a Silver Oak Winery 1982 Napa Valley Bonny’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. Gibson had a taste. “It blew my mind,” he recalls. “That one bottle has cost me a lot of money.”

Once a banker, now an attorney – for the past 10 years he’s been senior staff counsel for the State Department of Motor Vehicles - he started to collect wine, tour wine regions, and make wine at home, passions that became so expensive he figured he better come up with a way to pay for it all. His answer was to cultivate a vineyard and build a winery.

In 2006, he, his wife Kim and their two sons and daughter moved from Lodi to a seven-acre ranch in Jackson Valley just south of Ione. There he planted two acres of wine grapes and 100 olive trees on what had been a motocross track. Two years later the winery was up and running. The winery, not open to the public, is a meandering if scenic drive south off Highway 16 starting on either Ione Road or Highway 124, but Gibson, like Leoni Farms, has a tasting room in Sutter Creek.

Why here: After scouting such appellations as Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma County and Anderson Valley in Mendocino County, Gibson settled on low-profile Jackson Valley in Lodi’s backyard largely because he liked the composition of the soil and relished the challenge of helping develop its potential for fine wine. Though summer days are hot in the area, nights are surprisingly cool, helping retain acidity in wine grapes. He speculates that the helpful diurnal rhythm could be due to his ranch’s proximity to Pardee, Amador and Camanche lakes. “We generally don’t get the first pick of our tomatoes until October,” he says of the long growing season in the area.

His vineyard may be small, but Gibson, largely a self-taught viticulturist and winemaker, adopted a high-density planting scheme to intensify competition among vines for water and nutrients. Whereas a conventional vineyard may have fewer than 1000 vines to the acre, he has 2780. The result has been smaller clusters and smaller grapes, which he believes heightens the character of resulting wine. His vineyard is partitioned into varieties whose wines he especially enjoys – cabernet sauvignon, syrah, primitivo, nebbiolo and sagrantino, the latter a black Italian strain rarely grown in California.

Focus: Early in his winemaking Gibson subscribed to a more-the-better philosophy – more ripeness, more extraction, more oak and so forth. With recent vintages, he’s backtracked. He now favors a lighter touch, placing less emphasis on technology and manipulation and more on intuition and nature. His goal isn’t so much stylistic consistency in his wines as to have them express the vagaries of the vintage. “I don’t want my wines to taste alike each year,” Gibson says.

Don’t miss: Gibson makes his wines to last, with an emphasis on structure and solid tannins. He recommends they be decanted, or allowed to air after opening for up to eight hours. Initially, the Matthew Gibson Winery 2013 Sierra Foothills Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($34) was tight and rigid, but the next day it was much more supple, approachable and characteristic, its representative cherry flavor accented with notes of char and chocolate from the American oak barrels in which it was aged. The ripe and chewy Mathew Gibson Winery 2013 Sierra Foothills Estate Syrah ($32) also benefitted from a night on the kitchen counter, revealing more fruit flavor, peppered bacon and licorice the next day.

The particulars: The tasting room of Matthew Gibson Winery, 140 Hanford St., Sutter Creek, is open noon-6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays and some Fridays. (This summer, the family is to relocate the tasting room to 85 Main St., Sutter Creek.)

John and Cindy Sweigart with their Bernese mountain dog Abbie, down slope from the tasting room at their Rancho Victoria. Mike Dunne

Rancho Victoria Vineyard

Pedigree: Old-timers in Plymouth know the rolling rangeland now occupied by Rancho Victoria Vineyard as the Greilich Ranch. It is just east of Latrobe Road and west of highways 124 and 49, north off Highway 16 along aptly named Greilich Road.

The Greilich family began to run cattle across the oak-dappled hills in 1864. Some 75 head still roam the rangeland, but they belong to Ron and Terri Gilliland of the brand Lucky Dog, who use the beef for their restaurants Roxy, Lucca and Meadowlands.

In 2005, John and Cindy Sweigart bought 1100 acres of the Greilich spread. Five years later they moved onto the property, and in 2013 they planted a 120-acre vineyard on the site. The Sweigarts own JTS Communities, which builds homes throughout the Sacramento region.

Why here: At first, the Sweigarts simply wanted to live in the country, where they could ride horses and romp with their dogs. The notion of cultivating a vineyard only occurred to them when they realized that revenues from the sale of wine grapes would help offset the costs of owning such a substantial ranch.

They didn’t start to entertain thoughts of making wine until Cindy Sweigart figured the scenic setting would be ideal for weddings, and one thing weddings often need is wine. They schedule up to 25 weddings a year on the ranch. “Creating our own brand really evolved from that, and once we started to get involved with people in the wine industry we were hooked with the ‘wine bug,’” John Sweigart says.

They don’t expect to build a winery until their brand is securely established. In the meantime, their wines are being made at wineries overseen by veteran Sierra-foothill winemakers Robert Morse and Marco Capelli.

The Sweigarts have, however, converted the ranch’s old scale house into a handsome tasting room. The scale house was used originally to weigh cattle, and the scale remains in residence.

Focus: The ranch’s vineyard is planted to barbera, primitivo, petite sirah and cabernet sauvignon, the latter of which especially excites the Sweigarts. Though cabernet sauvignon has had difficulty gaining traction in the Mother Lode, the couple’s vineyard consultant, Mitchell Klug of Napa Valley, was confident that the variety would do well given the site’s elevation, climate and soil. As the Sweigarts waited for their estate vineyard to start yielding commercial crops they bought fruit from other foothill vineyards for the first wines under the Rancho Victoria label. Their first estate wines, including barberas and primitivos, recently were released.

Don’t miss: Though the foothills long has been perceived as too warm to yield refreshing pinot grigio, Marco Capelli for nearly as long somehow has been finding vineyards cool enough to retain the varietal’s lilting peach fruitiness; proof: the dry and refined Rancho Victoria 2016 Sierra Foothills Pinot Grigio ($24). At the other end of the intensity scale are the dense, firm and juicy Rancho Victoria 2014 Amador County Petite Sirah ($34), and the jammy and layered Rancho Victoria 2014 Amador County Crossroad ($39), a proprietary blend that Morse assembled from 27 different lots and six grape varieties.

The particulars: The tasting room of Rancho Victoria, 16920 Greilich Road, Plymouth, is open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday through Sunday and by reservation other days: (209) 600-2557.

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.