Dunne on Wine

Mike Dunne on Wine: Shake Ridge Ranch in Amador County

The best way to get a handle on the link between the place where wine grapes are grown and the nature of the wine they yield is to join a winemaker in the vineyard. Better yet, 14 winemakers.

But despite the energetic intentions of Ann Kraemer, the message that unfolds from such a visit can be as confounding as enlightening.

Kraemer owns and tends Shake Ridge Ranch, an undulating and diverse 46-acre vineyard just east of Sutter Creek in Amador County. Blocks of tempranillo, viognier, zinfandel, mourvedre and other varieties sweep up slopes and creep over ridges.

Dangling from posts at the end of several rows are laminated cards with the names of wineries that have laid claim to the fruit they will give up in a couple of months – Turley, Favia, Keplinger, Forlorn Hope, A Tribute to Grace, among others. Just a few are from the Sierra foothills; most are from Sonoma County, Santa Barbara, Napa Valley. (The wines for Kraemer’s own brand, Yorba, are made by Ken Bernards of Ancien Wines in Napa.)

On a stunningly bright, breezy and balmy day in May, Kraemer invited her buyers to set up tables under oak trees scattered about blocks of her leafy vines. There, they poured samples of library, current and pending releases, all made with grapes from the surrounding plots. Between pours, winemakers answered questions from about 100 sommeliers, distributors and writers on why they get grapes from such a remote and isolated vineyard in one of California’s more underappreciated regions.

That was easy. Their collective answer came down to Kraemer, who before putting in her Amador County vineyard starting in 2001 had for more than two decades managed high-profile vineyards in Napa Valley, Oregon and Chile.

Her viticultural study and precision became so admired that vintners likely would follow her to the Sahara. “I want to work with growers I can trust 100 percent, people who can teach me something,” said one of the participating winemakers, Evan Frazier of the boutique Napa Valley winery Ferdinand, which specializes in such Iberian grape varieties as tempranillo and albariño. “It’s all about the legend of Ann. Now she’s up on this mountain, and we have to go find her.”

My agenda was a bit different. I wanted winemakers to tell me about how the Shake Ridge “terroir” affected the nature of their wines, in particular the association between soil and expression.

This is a hazy and contentious field of study in California these days. Winemakers are drawing a line in the sand – or clay or loam or schist. On one side stand proponents of the dominant school of modern winemaking, which stresses varietal intensity over representation of site. On the other side stand winemakers for whom place of origin is everything. They make wines they expect to talk loudly and clearly of setting.

Vintners at Shake Ridge Ranch by and large are graduate students of the School of Place. They’re all for varietal expression, but they believe strongly that the most distinctive wines speak more profoundly and persuasively to site.

They don’t, however, concur on what makes Shake Ridge Ranch or any other vineyard especially cherished in that respect. Altitude, exposure, topography, rainfall, temperature and soil composition all fall into the equation, but winemakers put a different weight to each.

For Angela Osborne – New Zealand born, trained as a filmmaker, now the owner/winemaker of the Santa Barbara winery A Tribute to Grace – it’s all about light, which at nearly 2,000 feet up the Sierra foothills is a bit more intense than at the six other California vineyards where she harvests the grenache grapes that drew her to winemaking.

What’s more, she’s convinced that the quartz churned up during preparation of the vineyard, and now scattered about the vines, packs both an energy and a reflective quality that intensifies the light, resulting in a rare charged aroma in her grenaches.

“I feel something when I smell grenache from here, and to me that’s all about the quartz,” she says, picking up one of several samples of quartz on her table. “My other sites don’t have that quality. This is magic, having this quartz all through the vineyard.”

Nearby, Evan Frazier is pouring tastes of the tempranillo he squeezes from grapes grown on the ranch. He doesn’t mention quartz as he ponders what it is about the location that gives him the sort of grapes he seeks for his sleek and approachable take on tempranillo. Rather, he settles on elevation. That height, coupled with cool night breezes off the Sierra, makes for a long growing season that tempers tempranillo’s forboding tannins while retaining refreshing acidity. “For balance, elevation plays a huge role,” Frazier says.

On a hilltop not far away, winemaker Andy Erickson of Favia Wines in Napa Valley is pouring tastes of his 2011 Suize Viognier, which at $85 a bottle likely is California’s most precious interpretation of the varietal. He harvests grapes for the wine from two blocks at Shake Ridge Ranch, picking them at different times and fermenting the lots separately with indigenous yeast.

The block with deeper soil and more clay yields a crisp viognier, while the block that runs to decomposing volcanic rock produces a riper, more honeyed viognier, Erickson says. He blends them into one peachy, vibrant and seamless take on the varietal.

Erickson leans toward elevation as the vineyard’s most distinguishing characteristic, but he’s also such a fan of the quartz on the site that he’s adopted the Italian word for the rock – “Quarzo” – as the proprietary name for his stately and strutting syrah, possessed powerfully with the blueberry and bacon facets for which the varietal is celebrated. He was pouring tastes of the 2011 vintage.

When “place of origin” or “terroir” makes its way into talk of wine, it generally is taken to mean a site’s natural elements – soil composition, temperature, aspect and the like. That may be the European definition, but it isn’t the Californian. Perhaps because of this nation’s historic stress on individual independence, winemakers here almost without exception eventually say that the role of grape grower and winemaker must be included in any discussion of “place of origin” or “terroir.”

“The way it is farmed,” says Erickson high up as he lists the factors that determine the contribution of site to a wine’s character. Growers have many decisions to make – type of rootstock and clone to plant, how to use each slope, whether to irrigate, when and how to prune, and on and on.

“You can’t take the person out of it,” says winemaker Rebekah Wineburg of the Napa Valley winery Buccella. “People talk about non-intervention winemaking, but you can’t make wine without intervention,” adds Wineburg as she poured tastes of Buccella’s first blends from Shake Ridge Ranch, the 2011 and 2012 Mixed Blacks, both opulent, focused, complex and spicy mixes of syrah, mourvedre, carignane, petite sirah and grenache.

Kraemer had said at the outset that a primary goal of the tour was to give winemakers an opportunity to taste each other’s wines, to see how even grapes of a type from a single site could yield remarkably different wines.

If any one thread was evident in the wines, it was how expressive their aromas could be. To taste wine outdoors, particularly on a breezy day, isn’t the best way to gauge a wine’s smell, but the amble about the vineyard proved it grows grapes that yield exceptionally aromatic wines.

Now, whether that’s due to soil, sunlight, elevation, temperature, the respectful role of winemaker or some other factor – or all of them – remains open to speculation and further study.