Dunne on Wine

Mike Dunne on Wine: Four Winds Cellars is a breezy alternative to Murphys

In creating 20 tasting rooms along and about the main drag through the old gold camp of Murphys, Calaveras County’s vintners have made wine exploration fun, convenient and relatively safe.

Wine enthusiasts who swarm into the town each weekend seem not to miss the sight of vineyards and the thrill of exploring the inspiring and soothing Calaveras hinterland.

But for those who would like to venture out of Murphys, or skip it altogether, we offer an alternative: Four Winds Cellars.

The back story: David Gerber, a television and film producer (“The Lindbergh Kidnapping Case,” “Police Story,” “Flight 93”) settled with his actress wife, Laraine, on an old cattle ranch at Vallecito just outside of Murphys in the 1980s. (At one point, Gerber built and burned a barn for the filming of a segment of his 1982 TV drama “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.”)

The couple bought the Murphys Hotel, began to plant what now is the 100-acre Gerber Vineyards, and founded Laraine Winery.

David Gerber died in 2010, and the next year his widow, who retains Gerber Vineyards, sold the brand to two couples, David and Helen Webster and John and Ann Gibson.

The new owners changed the name to Four Winds Cellars. Their reasoning was twofold. For one, the name is a sentimental nod to a song favored by Helen Webster’s parents, Ian Tyson’s romantic 1960s ballad “Four Strong Winds.”

Secondly, the name and the compass on the label recognize the varied geographic origins of the four partners; David Webster is from England, Helen Webster is from the nearby foothill town of Sonora, John Gibson is from Los Angeles, and Ann Gibson is from Pennsylvania and Colorado.

The Websters each had been Laraine Winery’s general manager, and John Gibson is a seasoned Napa Valley winemaker (Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Vine Cliff) who began to make the Laraine wines in the early 1990s.

In helping build up the Laraine brand, David Webster was confident he could keep the sales momentum going even under new ownership and a new name. John Gibson signed on out of his familiarity with the quality of grapes from Gerber Vineyards.

Before moving to California eight years ago, David Webster was a financial adviser in England, where he met Helen. Today, he has swapped pinstripe for denim as he works out of a circa-1880 farmhouse surrounded by grazing cattle and rows of cabernet sauvignon, petite sirah, chardonnay, merlot and syrah.

Gibson, who this fall commences his 36th harvest in Napa Valley, knew little of the foothills when the Gerbers approached him in 1992, but he knew more about grape-growing and winemaking than they did.

“When David Gerber first called me, he said he’d give me 10 tons of fruit in exchange for 25 cases of wine. He wanted to use the wine for their Chirstmas-card list and as a calling card to sell his grapes. When I told him 10 tons of fruit would produce 600 cases of wine, he said, ‘I didn’t know that,’ ” Gibson recalls. Not long after, the Gerbers agreed to make and sell their own wine, retaining Gibson as their winemaker and going commercial with the 1996 vintage.

The farmhouse where David Webster works is shaded by a massive Norway maple and an equally large netleaf hackberry, both dating from the early 20th century, which provides the house with an unusually calm and scenic setting in which to evaluate the Four Winds wines, though the gregarious Webster likes to keep the place bouncing. “We like to have a bit of a laugh here,” he says.

Broadly speaking, the wines themselves represent a departure from the big-and-brassy style commonly associated with the Sierra foothills. Gibson leans toward the traditional European model, favoring a lean build over the muscle-bound, restraint and balance over intense ripeness, and representation of site over varietal jamminess.

Virtually all their wines are made with fruit from the rows of vines sweeping up hills flanking the tasting room. Though more than 90 percent of those grapes are sold to Rodney Strong Vineyards in Sonoma County, Four Winds gets first crack at the blocks it wants, says Webster. The fruit is harvested at night and trucked to Gibson in Napa Valley for squeezing into juice at Hendry Ranch Wines in Napa.

Gibson acknowledges that early on he made a mistake in applying his Napa Valley philosophy to grapes grown in a much different topography and climate. But over the past two decades, he has learned a thing or two about making wine in the foothills.

After several attempts, he’s conceding that the foothills region isn’t the place to try to emulate the big Napa Valley cabernet sauvignons that have been his signature. “The biggest hurdle up there is the heat,” says Gibson. The area, he now sees, is better suited for Mediterranean varieties such as sangiovese, syrah and barbera, the latter of which he just is starting to make.

He’s also dialed back on his fermentation techniques and on his use of oak, steps he’s taken to better showcase the more delicate nature of the fruit from the region.

“In Napa, we might use 50 percent to 100 percent new oak for barrel-aging of the wines, but those barrels would overpower the wines from up there,” Gibson says. “I don’t get all the American oak they use up there. It can be so dominating that you lose the essence of the wine you start with. We now use 2- and 3-year-old French oak barrels. We still get a fair amount of oak flavor, but it won’t be dominant.”

You won’t want to miss:

• Four Winds 2011 Sierra Foothills Merlot ($25): Merlot in the foothills generally is more miss than hit, but the Gerbers apparently studied their land closely, found just the spot for it and planted a most agreeable clone. The result is an interpretation that’s exceptionally generous yet elegant. It’s solid in structure but juicy with suggestions of plums, cherries and berries. The long finish is a surprising bonus.

• Four Winds 2011 Sierra Foothills Zinfandel ($28): This is a zinfandel for people who contend that mass can’t be coupled successfully with lift. Granted, it comes in at a potent 15.5 percent alcohol, but you wouldn’t know that without reading the label. It’s unusually light in color for the breed, with a fresh and fruity aroma. On the palate it is pure suppleness, without either rasping heat or gritty tannin. Picture a bowl of summer raspberries sprinkled with pepper and that’s what you get in a glass of this gem. If you like it as much as I did, however, you have to join the winery’s wine club to get it. That’s a strategy that looks to work for the partners; 800 persons have signed on to the Four Winds wine club.

• Four Winds 2011 Sierra Foothills Cabernet Franc ($28): People put off by the herbalness that often attends cabernet franc need not shy from this take, which comes down authoritatively on the fruit side of the varietal’s flavor spectrum. Also welcome is the dash of peppery spice that accents the cherry flavor. It’s also a wine-club exclusive.