Dunne on Wine

Dunne on Wine: Amador County’s Shake Ridge Ranch

When they’ve made a mighty fine wine, confident yet modest winemakers say something like, “It all begins in the vineyard” or “To get great wine you need great grapes.”

And yet Ann Kraemer is sounding contrary as she guides her rough-terrain vehicle up hills, down slopes and through rows of vines, pointing out the numerous strains of grape varieties she has tended at her Amador County vineyard since 2003.

“It’s not all about the vineyard,” she says abruptly. “It’s so not. It’s a lot about the winemaker. I just try to give them good ingredients.”

She’s come to this conclusion after three decades as a vineyardist who has worked with dozens of winemakers and been awed by their widely varied interpretations of the grapes she’s delivered.

For more than 20 years she managed several high-profile vineyards in Napa Valley, Oregon and Chile, and then in 2001 she teamed up with her father, a longtime Southern California citrus grower, to buy a chunk of the historic Oneto family ranch just off Shake Ridge Road a few miles east of Sutter Creek.

“This property was so pretty you didn’t want to put grapevines on it,” she says of her impression of the land when she first set foot on it.

The family was drawn to Amador County after scouting parcels in Mendocino, Sonoma and elsewhere, “but the price for quality wasn’t there,” Kraemer says. “We were looking for something underappreciated.”

She soon overcame her aversion to developing the site and began to tuck blocks of tempranillo, zinfandel, barbera, syrah and other grape varieties in among stands of oak trees. Today, the 46 acres under vine look like a series of precisely groomed golf-course fairways, beginning at 1,650 feet and topping out at 1,810 feet. Remnants of a pre-Prohibition winery are on a separate parcel across Shake Ridge Road. The artfully designed residence she moved into three years ago sits atop a small knoll.

Such was Kraemer’s reputation for producing exquisite fruit that she’s been followed to the foothills by 20 vintners eager to buy her crop, including Dirty & Rowdy Family Wines, Turley Wine Cellars, Keplinger Wines, Newsome-Harlow, JC Cellars, Forlorn Hope and Favia Wines. Four wines made from Kraemer’s Shake Ridge Ranch are on the wine list of The French Laundry in Napa Valley.

She’s been daring in her farming practices, most notably growing tempranillo and grenache on head-trained vines, an old and largely abandoned practice that allows tendrils to rise and spill Medusa-like.

Kraemer, however, believes that head-training of vines enhances air drainage and better spaces bunches, and dapples sunlight to the benefit of their developing clusters of grapes. With grenache, for example, too much direct sunlight bleaches the skins, resulting in lighter-colored wines. It also warms up the grapes so much that the heat degrades their aromatic compounds, muting the wine’s subsequent smells, she explains. So far, she’s sold on head-pruning for zinfandel and grenache, but isn’t so sure whether it will pay off for tempranillo.

Early on, she tried several Bordeaux varieties, including cabernet sauvignon and merlot, but the kind of “pretty fruit” she seeks didn’t develop, so they’re gone. “The season is just too short up here, and probably a bit too warm,” she says. “A blend (of four Bordeaux varieties) wasn’t bad, just not good enough to compete with the ‘big boys.’”

She also figured the area would be too hot and sunny for white-wine grapes, but she nevertheless put in a trial plot of viognier. To her delight, she then realized that cool air sweeping down from the higher Sierra at night chilled the vines more than she anticipated, helping preserve the variety’s crucial acidity.

On top of that, a take on her viognier by Favia Wines was so well received that she planted more and began to ponder the prospects of other white-wine varieties. As a consequence, she now may be the only vineyardist in California to tend a young plot of the obscure green grape greco di tufo, which yields an aromatic and tangy dry white wine in southern Italy.

“This ranch has completely surprised me. It isn’t as hot as I thought it would be. At nighttime it cools off so fast,” Kraemer says.

The property has produced other surprises. As her first commercial harvest approached in 2005, the vineyard was inundated with hungry birds. To appease and discourage them, she tried numerous techniques, from filling the lids of trash cans with birdseed and placing them about the vineyard to calling in hunters. Nothing worked. “After two days of shooting I couldn’t stand it. They just kept coming. I’d never seen a bird population like that,” recalls Kraemer.

With no other apparent solution, she ordered dozens of spools of bird netting. It was expensive to buy and install, but it worked. “As soon as we put the nets on they never came back,” Kraemer says. Today, virtually every row is cloaked with the dark, fine netting. As we ride through the vines, Kraemer abruptly stops the rig to free a bird trapped inside a row of zinfandel.

As the tour continues, Kraemer points out not only changes in soil types but changes in strains of zinfandel – the Heart’s Desire clone up there, the Monte Rosso clone over there, and coming up the Mendocino clone, all of them prized by savvy winemakers.

Kraemer sells most of the grapes she grows, but keeps enough to produce 2,000 cases a year under Yorba Wines, a name derived from her family’s history. She looks upon the Yorba wines as if they were a salesman’s samples, capable of convincing prospective grape buyers of the quality of the fruit from Shake Ridge Ranch. Her own preferred style is lean, direct, balanced and primarily “true to varietal.”

Her winemaker is Ken Bernards of Ancien Wines in Napa Valley. The two produce wines that express fruit forthrightly, are well structured but accessible and leave tasters convinced they just sipped something elegant. By foothill standards, Yorba wines are reserved but not shy, with tempered tannins, well-proportioned builds and modest oak. “Ken is really gentle on the wines, so they don’t come around easily, they take time to open,” Kraemer says. “I released our first two wines too soon. Now we hold them until they are ready to drink.”

As a consequence, Yorba’s current zinfandel is from the 2007 vintage, yet it’s fresh with sunny raspberry and blackberry fruit, a dash of holiday baking spices, and an acidity that is unusually zippy by foothill standards. Yorba’s 2008 syrah is juicy with blueberry fruit, spirited with Indian spices and snappy with acidity. Yorba’s 2008 tempranillo has the amiable fruit, subtle complexity and refreshing acidity to make it the perfectly flexible companion for a platter of tapas. And the brilliant 2009 barbera, with its frisky fruit and refreshing acidity, shows just why the varietal is gathering an enthusiastic following in the foothills.