Dunne on Wine

Dunne on Wine: Morse Wines

If for some bizarre reason an aspiring vintner wanted to complicate his entry into the challenging California wine trade, Robert Morse could be the role model.

Consider the hurdles Morse set for himself as he segued from home winemaking into commercial winemaking:

• He scouted prospective vineyard sites throughout California, but settled on one of the state’s more obscure enclaves, Amador County. He then further handicapped himself by picking an exceptionally remote outpost, just beyond the far eastern reaches of Shenandoah Valley, atop a ridge so isolated you have to drive into El Dorado County before doubling back into Amador.

• He ignored U.S. Geological Survey maps stamped with a warning that the area is “unsuitable for agriculture.”

• He kept his day job in the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley for 12 years, visiting his nascent vineyard and winery mostly on weekends.

• He named his winery Il Gioiello, which might work in Italy – “the jewel” – but which wine enthusiasts here found so difficult to pronounce they weren’t likely to try to order another glass of one of his wines, despite the smiley-face buttons he hands out: “joy-yellow.”

• He was mostly keen on Rhone Valley and Italian grape varieties, not the French strains that dominate the California wine trade.

That was in 1999. Despite the self-imposed obstacles, Morse abides, and he looks poised to make his winery, now Morse Wines, though Il Gioiello remains as one of his three brands, a high-profile player in the foothill wine scene.

Last fall, at the Fiddletown Wine Competition, three of the six wines he entered won gold medals, the best showing for any one producer. (Of the other three, two won silver medals, one a bronze.)

His gold-medal winners were the inky, aromatic and generous Morse Wines 2009 Sierra Foothills Amador County Petite Sirah ($24), the bright and tangy Morse Wines 2009 Sierra Foothills Amador County Mourvedre ($22) and the beckoning and resonating Morse Wines 2009 Sierra Foothills Amador County “Three Popes” ($22), a blend of 55 percent grenache, 29 percent mourvedre and 16 percent syrah.

(Morse’s explanation for the name “Three Popes” is twofold: For one, he wanted to recognize a 14th century schism in the Catholic church when three men vied for the legitimate papacy; secondly, he wanted to acknowledge the three principal grape varieties of the French wine Chateauneuf-du-Pape, which helped inspire his move into commercial winemaking.)

Morse’s 80-acre parcel straddles a ridge nearly 2,300 feet up the Sierra foothills between Fiddletown and Mount Aukum. He bought the property in 1999 and the next year began to cultivate what now amounts to a 20-acre vineyard. His first wine was a 2003 petite sirah.

Today, his varied vineyard is divided into small blocks of a dozen varieties. Of his three labels, “Morse Wines” is used primarily for releases made with Rhone Valley grape varieties like viognier, roussanne and syrah; “Il Gioiello” is largely for wines made with Italian varieties like sangiovese and barbera; and “Parallax” is for his everyday wines generally priced around $14 regardless of varietal.

As a hobbyist winemaker three decades ago, Morse was attracted to traditional French varieties, and when as he mulled going commercial, he scouted California regions where they had established a standing, such as Napa Valley and Santa Barbara County.

At the same time, trips to the Rhone Valley and Tuscany persuaded him that the wines of those regions were just as food-friendly as the wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy, if not more so. He expanded his search for vineyard property, and became impressed with what vintners in the foothills were accomplishing with Rhone Valley and Italian grape varieties.

The rolling hills on which Morse settled appealed to him for their complex, shallow and rocky soils and for their elevation, providing cooler growing conditions than in the nearby lower Shenandoah Valley.

“There’s a lot of fractured rock here, with schists and shales like in El Dorado County, and I love the Rhone wines coming out of El Dorado,” Morse says. “At the same time, it’s a little cooler here than in Shenandoah Valley.”

Until four years ago, he was a largely absentee vintner, delegating winemaking to others, though he kept reading wine books and taking classes at UC Davis. Today, he lives full time on the site and directs the winemaking.

His Morse and Il Gioiello varietals generally are clear, balanced and medium bodied, while his blends tend to be intricate, complex and persistent. He is especially proud of his latest take on a Super Tuscan wine, the Il Gioiello 2010 Sierra Foothills Amador County Triumphe ($30), a vivacious, spicy and crisp blend of 47 percent sangiovese, 47 percent cabernet franc and 6 percent merlot, generous with the sweetness of the Missouri oak barrels in which it was aged.

Morse has learned that commercial winemaking is a demanding discipline that requires constant experimentation, adaptation and growth. “A lot of people start a winery out of a desire for a lifestyle, not a love of wine. They don’t think beyond making 2,000 cases (a year), but a couple thousand cases just doesn’t do it.”

He now calculates that to remain viable a small family winery needs to produce between 6,000 and 10,000 cases a year, develop distribution through the traditional wholesale/retail network, create a popular wine club, and cultivate a destination facility.

Toward the latter goal, he long ago built bocce courts and a comfortable picnic area next to his cozy tasting room. A hammock stretches invitingly off to one side of the lawn, and his small winery has been expanded into a much more substantive and modern complex capable of holding weddings and other special events.

He’s producing 4,500 cases a year and gearing up to reach 10,000, starting with the recent hiring of his first sales manager. His entry into the trade may have been unusually chancy, but he now looks to have found a comfortable niche for himself in the foothills, however remote.