At first glance, the tasting room for the new winery Paul J. Wines along Shenandoah Road in Amador County’s Shenandoah Valley isn’t far removed stylistically from its neighbors.
It’s a handsome facility, all right, evoking tack room or stable in its sloping roofline and ambitious use of wood. Indeed, it occupies the site of a former riding arena shaded by a walnut orchard, several specimens of which remain.
Only when high-energy Paul Sobon – the Paul J. of the brand – guides a visitor about the premises does the artistry and individuality of the place become clear.
From the front gate (welded lengths of old well casing from nearby Renwood Winery) to the back fence (weathered redwood grape stakes from local grower Frank Alviso’s vineyard), the facility is a study in recycling and reimagining.
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Visitors stroll up to a tasting counter sheathed with corrugated steel salvaged from an Alviso barn that blew down in a storm. They pick up their glasses from a thick slab of salvaged fire-scarred cedar. They prop a foot on a railroad rail retrieved from Rinehart’s Iron Works just down the road, lengths of which still bear the name Carnegie Steel and the year 1899. The ceiling is of blue-streaked planks of beetle-killed pine retrieved from up the Sierra. The room’s appointments include ancient grape lug boxes from the former D’Agostini Winery up valley, one of the state’s older wineries.
Sobon darts outside to show off a chain rain spout that drops dark and heavy from the roof into a huge pulley wheel forged for the Kennedy Mine in Jackson at water-powered Knight Foundry in Sutter Creek. He points across the gravel parking apron to the sign out front, hung on more grape stakes rescued from burn piles, noting that the letters that form “Paul J. Wines” were laser cut from stainless-steel fermentation tanks that Bogle Vineyards of Clarksburg had outgrown.
“I’m the ultimate scrounger,” Sobon says, evoking an argument with absolutely no one.
He’s even recycling himself. Since 1983, he’s been the winemaker and vineyard manager for his family’s Shenandoah Valley wineries, Shenandoah Vineyards, founded by his parents Leon and Shirley Sobon in 1977, and Sobon Estate, formerly the old D’Agostini spread, which his parents bought as a 30th wedding anniversary present for themselves in 1989.
Paul Sobon is keeping those roles while also making the wine for Paul J., which he opened this spring.
His reason to establish his own brand is twofold:
For one, he and his daughter, Camille Sobon, had talked of collaborating on their own project for years. She’s a 2012 graduate of Sac State with a degree in social science and history. She’d planned to teach, but when her father said Shenandoah Vineyards and Sobon Estate could use someone to oversee public relations and tastings she signed on and found she loved the business. She is all in on the new venture, which as an avid equestrian meant giving up the arena where she learned to ride.
Secondly, Paul Sobon wants to make wines for which he is solely responsible. The Sobons long ago established a reputation for varietal wines and blends of faithful character and high value.
He isn’t abandoning that heritage, but he wants the wines of Paul J. to pack more weight and assertiveness than consumers have come to expect in the more lithesome wines of Shenandoah Vineyards and Sobon Estate.
No wine represents his heavier thumbprint than the inaugural Paul J. Wines 2016 California Chardonnay ($24). Sobon acknowledges up front that the template for the wine is “Rombauer,” the Napa Valley winery largely recognized for its rich, buttery and heavily oaked chardonnays. Think lemon curd or crème brulee eaten with a wood spoon.
In making the chardonnay, Sobon barrel-fermented grapes from Clarksburg and the North Coast, kept the wine long on its lees, and then applied “over the top oak,” giving the wine its creaminess, complexity, smoke and spice. Word got around fast, and the chardonnay quickly became the winery’s fastest-selling release.
Sobon’s fondness for the stamp of oak on many of his wines also is evident in the floral, spicy and robust Paul J. Wines 2016 California Petite Sirah ($30), the ripe, fruity and chocolate-lined Paul J. Wines 2016 Amador County Syrah ($24), and the inky, fragrant and jammy Paul J. Wines 2016 California Tannat ($32).
Tannat is a hardy black grape most closely identified with the tannic, long-living Madiran wines of southwest France. Little is planted in California, though it is drawing more attention among growers and winemakers, including the Sobons, who have added it to a vineyard they cultivate in Jackson Valley south of Ione at the western reaches of Amador County.
Sobon is as keen on tannat as he is on oak. Early in his winemaking career he worked in Australia, where he developed an abiding passion for imaginative and intricate blending. Tannat plays into that playbook with its deep color, firm tannins, jolt of spice and mouth-filling fruit. He adds it to both his syrah and to the ripe, floral and bouncy Paul J. Wines 2016 Amador County Barbera ($30).
The friskiest wine in his lineup is the Paul J. Wines 2016 Amador County Zinfandel ($26), which seizes with balance and zest all the juicy raspberry and blackberry notes that the varietal is recognized for giving in the foothills.
With Paul J., Sobon is focusing on small-lot production not expected to go beyond 2,500 cases per vintage, which he anticipates selling mostly at the tasting room. He made only 200 cases of the chardonnay, for one, and just 90 cases of the brassy and tangy Paul J. Wines 2017 Amador County Rose ($18), a sophisticated blend based largely on grenache. At Shenandoah Vineyards and Sobon Estate he makes around 50,000 cases of wine annually, with much of it distributed nationally.
Paul J. Wines is largely a red-wine house, with the chardonnay the only white in the lineup. Camille Sobon, however, is a fan of New Zealand sauvignon blanc and has been lobbying her father to make one in that sizzling style. “I love them, but it won’t happen,” she concedes. Sobon concurs, explaining, “We’re not in New Zealand.” But while she is giving up on sauvignon blanc, she’s confident she’s just about persuaded him to make a vermentino.
He’s already surprised her once. On the eve of the opening of Paul J. Wines in April he unveiled a wine he’d quietly made and stashed, the Paul J. Wines 2016 Amador County “Camille” ($32), a bright and cantering blend of the Portuguese grape varieties tinta cao and souzao, made with grapes grown at the family’s Jackson Valley vineyard. Eventually, Camille Sobon may segue into winemaking, but for now she is focusing on marketing.
Paul J. Wines is well placed to capitalize on Shenandoah Valley’s wine tourism, which factored into Sobon’s decision to establish his own place. It fronts busy Shenandoah Road, and nearby neighbors include Jeff Runquist Wines across the street and Turley Wine Cellars, Scott Harvey Winery, Vino Noceto Winery and Terre Rouge/Easton Wines just up the road.
Sobon’s five acres includes his house next door and the garage where he makes wines, though most of his production is at Shenandoah Vineyards. The site is somewhat pivotal in terms of Shenandoah Valley wine history. The historic Sadie Upton Vineyard is off to one side, and his house was occupied by such valley winemakers as Jeff Runquist and Jeff Myers (Terra d’Oro) before Sobon bought it in 1983.
Visitors to the tasting room look out across the bocce-ball court he built to an old zinfandel vineyard now owned by Turley Wine Cellars. Sobon’s own acre and a half of 85-year-old zinfandel vines had to be torn out because of depleted production, but he recently replanted the plot.
Sobon’s decision to establish his own brand was totally amicable with his parents. “They are so proud, because we talked of this for so long. They are always marching people in here,” Sobon says.
There is, after all, the rustic and repurposed art of the place to show off, and the elder Sobons long have been art patrons. At Shenandoah Vineyards they were early adapters in the use of a winery for exhibits, doubling down on barrel room as gallery. In their own way, son and granddaughter are extending that aesthetic.
The tasting room at Paul J. Wines, 10775 Shenandoah Road, Plymouth, is open 10:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursday through Sunday and on Monday holidays.
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.