A bit more than a decade after Chaim Gur-Arieh began his quest to show that cabernet sauvignon in the Sierra foothills can yield the kind of noble wine with which it is identified in Bordeaux and Napa Valley, he feels he’s pretty darn close to his goal.
“If this continues for another year or two, I may consider planting 30 acres of cabernet sauvignon and end up becoming the cabernet producer of the Sierra foothills,” quips Gur-Arieh, letting slip his usual reserve as he talks of the gains he’s making with the variety.
“This” is the C.G. Di Arie Vineyard & Winery 2010 Sierra Foothills Cabernet Sauvignon, an unusually finely stitched, exuberant, cohesive and supple interpretation of the varietal, especially for the Mother Lode, where cabernet has struggled to express itself with clarity and consistency.
Gur-Arieh’s excitement over his 2010 cabernet sauvignon follows a painstaking series of trials that well might have broken the determination of a less-patient vintner.
Gur-Arieh, however, came to grape growing and winemaking after a long and successful career as a food scientist, where experiments, observation and retrenchment were his daily diet. (There, he had more success than setback, playing a pivotal role in developing the energy bar, shelf-stable puddings and the granddaddy of colorful breakfast cereals, Cap’n Crunch.)
After he and his artist wife, Elisheva, sold their Oakland flavor-development company in 1998, they turned their attention to their 209-acre spread in southwestern El Dorado County.
There, in 2001, Gur-Arieh planted 2 acres of cabernet sauvignon to go with his plots of zinfandel, petite sirah and other varieties more common to the region. Forthright and faithful takes on cabernet sauvignon occasionally can be found in the foothills, but they’re rare, prompting farmers in the area to cultivate grapes that thrive more agreeably in the region’s sunshine and heat.
Gur-Arieh soon started to learn why. His stand of cabernet consisted of an acre each of two strains of the variety, customarily called “clones” – Clone 4 and Clone 337. “Clone 4 was a disaster,” he recalls. “I could not get rid of the bell-pepper flavor even if I aged the wine in new oak (barrels) for several years.”
In 2007, Gur-Arieh got rid of his plot of Clone 4 cabernet sauvignon altogether, grafting the vines to cabernet franc. He was happy with the results he was getting from Clone 337, however, and began to expand that section of the vineyard.
Today, he tends 4 acres of cabernet sauvignon, evenly divided between plots of Clone 337 and Clone 412, a strain that he’d read could be suitable to the hot, arid foothills.
The result is the bright color, vibrant cherry flavor, stretched tannins and subtle currents of chocolate, licorice and sage that flow through his 2010 cabernet sauvignon. The wine is craftily structured, possessing a frame that allows it to stand up to hearty winter stews but with an airiness that permits accessibility even at this early stage of its evolution.
Gur-Arieh’s long fondness in working with flavors is kept stimulated these days by his penchant for blending. His lineup includes about as many imaginative proprietary blends as it does traditional varietals.
As to cabernet sauvignon specifically, he says, “I got into the wine business because I thought it would be a challenge, and cabernet has been a challenge.”
Now, however, he is so pleased with his 2010 cabernet sauvignon and so confident that he’s found the correct clones and trellis technique for the foothills that he is thinking of putting in 30 more acres to the variety, an expansion and an expression of faith in the variety perhaps unprecedented in the region.
He’s inching closer to that decision, saying the early quality of this year’s cabernet sauvignon, which he recently finished picking, already has him excited about the release of the 2013 in a few years.