Mark McKenna has a boomerang hanging on his office wall, a cheery symbol of reconciliation and renewal. He doesn’t play with it, but he isn’t complaining. After all, his bosses, the husband-and-wife team of Andrew Friedlander and Janis Akuna, provide him with plenty of other toys to keep him occupied as winemaker of Andis Wines in Amador County’s Shenandoah Valley.
Like youngsters given the run of Toys R Us, McKenna and Friedlander giddily show off their playthings on a recent day as we cross the crushpad and wander deep into the winery cellar. There’s the squat egg-shaped concrete fermenter in which McKenna likes to finish cabernet franc and grenache. There are two more concrete tanks, antique versions of the egg – big and blocky throwbacks to early winemaking in California. They’re employed at Andis not to ferment juice but to polish resting wine.
And there’s a qvevri, a conical earthenware vessel lined with beeswax that harkens to a method of winemaking so ancient and rare it is on UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural traditions and arts. In a visit to the eastern Europe republic of Georgia, Sacramento grocer Darrell Corti bought it and then turned it over to Andis, where it’s gurgling with zinfandel juice, skins, stems and seeds.
McKenna removes the lid to steal a taste. The dark and foamy juice is floral, fruity and surprisingly sweet, though it tests dry, with no sign of residual sugar. “I think it’s the stems,” McKenna says in trying to put his finger on the source of the sweetness.
The qvevri will remain sealed for up to a year, after which McKenna is to clean up the wine to see what he gets. If the experiment works, great; if not, he will move on to the next project. “I feel safe here,” he says. “I can try an idea and if it doesn’t work, it’s OK to try again.”
Here and there, he pauses besides tank or barrel to pull a sample of this or that wine, each showing why Andis has gained a standing, even in its youth, for wines of clean-cut character and alluring refinement – a fragrant and earthy 2015 grenache; a densely colored and tobacco-scented 2014 malbec; and a lush and dramatic 2014 old-vine zinfandel, a worthy successor to other recent vintages from the same vineyard, which dates from 1869.
From the outset five years ago, McKenna and Friedlander have shared the same philosophy – to set themselves apart and to help raise the area’s profile as a fine-wine region by being unusually imaginative and inventive. “You have to be a little bit different,” Friedlander says. “Everyone is trying to do the same thing. To get people excited, we’re trying to be different.”
As a consequence, they’ve embraced grape varieties not usually cultivated in the Sierra foothills, such as schiopettino, semillon and malbec, and adopted strategies and techniques relatively new to the region, like sending out wine in kegs and refillable carafes.
They work in one of the more modern and striking facilities in Shenandoah Valley and don’t shy from risks. This past fall, they released a zesty and spicy “nouveau zinfandel” in emulation of France’s nouveau Beaujolais. They have brought in barrels of acacia wood to mimic an Australian approach to semillon. And to the sauvignon blanc, petite sirah, zinfandel, barbera and other varietal wines in their lineup, they’ve added a hard cider.
Which isn’t to say that they haven’t had their differences. Friedlander saw McKenna’s role as both winemaker and manager. Early on, McKenna was game, but he came to recognize that he couldn’t handle managerial tasks with as much finesse as he handles cabernet franc, zinfandel and the like.
About a year ago, the two parted ways. Friedlander brought on board another winemaker. McKenna went off on his own as a consulting winemaker for other brands.
Not to get mushy here, but as the year wore on they realized they missed working together, that their personalities and their vision for Andis dovetailed. They met, they talked for five and a half hours, and they ultimately agreed to end the separation.
That’s how the boomerang came into play. Friedlander is a successful commercial real-estate developer in Hawaii. He’s mentored plenty of employees who have struck out on their own. Over the past 50 years, several had second thoughts and returned to work with Friedlander.
“It is part of our history (as a company) that when someone leaves in a professional manner and is a good person we will welcome them back with a boomerang,” Friedlander says. “That’s how we built our company.”
McKenna got his boomerang this past summer. It came with a pledge from Friedlander to relieve him of managerial tasks that he found difficult, thus the recruitment of Jenae Plasse as chief operating officer to handle day-to-day operations.
“I’m a half-way decent winemaker, but I’m a bad manager,” McKenna says. “Andy took the stuff off my plate that I’m not good at.”
And gave him the toys with which to continue to set Andis apart for its distinctive wines.
Editor’s note: This story was changed Jan. 5 to correct Mark McKenna’s name.
Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at email@example.com.
11000 Shenandoah Road, Plymouth, is open 11 a.m.-4:30 p.m. daily except major holidays. 209-245-6177; www.andiswines.com