Despite a history of grape-growing and winemaking that stretches to the Gold Rush, Amador County rarely gets mentioned as a first-tier appellation alongside the likes of Russian River Valley, Anderson Valley and Napa Valley.
On the other hand, it no longer is derided as “Amateur County,” as one wine wag put it decades ago. Its grape-growing and winemaking professionalism and prestige have risen sharply since then, though several farmers and vintners still aren’t content, continuing to scrabble in the rich red dirt of the county’s vineyards for results that will raise Amador’s standing for fine wine.
Joe Shebl is one of them. “Amador is past the moment of inertia,” says Shebl, noting that he is seeing an uptick in respect given the county’s wines by consumers, merchants and writers.
To build on that, Shebl is keen on finding vineyards and blocs within vineyards that are or can produce grapes to yield wines of such power, finesse and complexity they will help Amador move near the top of any list of California’s finer appellations.
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“Amador is a mosaic,” Shebl says. “There are really cool sites here. There are sites within sites that can be used to highlight our uniqueness.”
He is well placed to affect that unfolding. For one, his primary role is winemaker for Renwood Winery, where since he took over in 2013 he has focused more attention on vineyard-designated, smaller-lot wines. But Shebl also is winemaker and partner of Fiddletown Cellars as well as consulting winemaker for Borjón Winery, both of which also are intensifying their release of wines that celebrate the attributes of specific vineyards, especially in and about Amador’s Shenandoah Valley.
“We’re working only with the best growers, those who are most receptive to doing things differently in the vineyard,” Shebl says. Those things run in large part to farming practices that lower the crop load on vines and thereby increase the intensity of flavors in the resulting wines.
“We are major proponents of vine balance,” Shebl says. “We want to be certain that we get as much of the terroir into the grapes – and resulting wines – as possible from our sites. Controlling vigor and facilitating optimal physiological ripeness is imperative.”
In the cellar, he’s also refined the winemaking. At Renwood, for example, he and the winery’s longtime assistant winemaker, Moises Acevedo Flores, have weeded out American oak barrels in favor of French oak barrels and puncheons, finding that the latter provide a more nuanced frame for the valley’s fruit. “We’re not smashing the wine over the head with oak,” Shebl says.
Cool fermentation of red wines, pushing them through early malolactic fermentations and aging them in large format barrels are techniques he has adopted to help assure the freshness, silkiness and length he wants in his wines. “I want powerful wines that are finesse-driven, suave and that always convey a sense of purity of fruit, that have uniqueness and that are mouthwatering,” he says.
Beyond freshness, balance and lucidity, the signature on his three brands is light, reflecting his twin goals to express most emphatically the nature of the vineyards where he gets grapes and the tautness and fluency of astute blending.
Of the 18 wines he poured for a tasting not long ago, these were the ones I found most fulfilling for their cohesive statements about his stylistic goals and for their representation about the caliber of grape growing and winemaking in Amador County today:
▪ Fiddletown Cellars 2013 Amador County Old Vine Zinfandel ($20): With winery partner Reno Farinelli, Shebl drew grapes from three older, scattered and highly regarded vineyards for the bargain-priced Old Vine, a zesty zinfandel with suggestions of fresh strawberries and raspberries. The tannins and the oak are restrained, the finish relentless.
▪ Fiddletown Cellars 2013 Amador County The Soloist ($20): Though the name suggests a single player, “The Soloist” is a style of blend that looks to be gaining more attention in Amador County, in this instance 60 percent zinfandel and 40 percent barbera. The result is a full-bodied but accessible wine that exploits harmoniously the rich blackberry essence of zinfandel while brightening it with the sunny fruit and zingy acid of barbera.
▪ Fiddletown Cellars 2013 Amador County Barbera ($24): Using fruit from the pivotal Dick Cooper Ranch in Shenandoah Valley, Shebl has turned out a take on the varietal both lilting and crisp, ready to drink now but possessing the structure and acid to linger into the next decade. A jolt of petite sirah rounds out the texture and deepens the color. Shebl recognizes that oak easily can upstage the fresh, direct fruit of barbera, so he’s used it conservatively.
▪ Fiddletown Cellars 2013 Amador County Jack Rabbit Flat Zinfandel ($32): From vines a century old, this is quintessential Shenandoah Valley zinfandel in its muscularity and rich centering fruit, but it’s also a New Age interpretation in its sunny vitality.
▪ Fiddletown Cellars 2013 Amador County Private Stock ($36): Shebl is so justifiably proud of this robust blend – half zinfandel from Fox Creek Vineyard in Shenandoah Valley, half petite sirah from Rinaldi Vineyard at Fiddletown – that he put it in a bottle so heavy it should carry its own warning label. Anyone strong enough to lift it is rewarded with a wine jammy, meaty, spicy and enduring, the seductive model for perhaps another style that will gain in appreciation.
▪ Borjón Winery 2013 Amador Reposado Barbera ($25): Made with grapes drawn from “six or seven” vineyards, the Borjón is about as faithful a barbera as you will find, its fresh and bright blueberries and cherries embellished with a thread of anise and just enough oak to add interest without distracting from its focus on fruit.
▪ Renwood Winery 2013 Amador County Premiere Old Vine Zinfandel ($20): Renwood’s signature zinfandel is blustery, sweet, stiff and warm (15.3 percent alcohol), a definitive take on Amador’s rich and spicy way with the grape, but with modern equilibrium and length.
▪ Renwood Winery 2013 Amador County Grandmere ($65): Grandmere has evolved over the years from a largely zinfandel wine to a release more intricate and diverse. The dry, hefty and layered 2013 Grandmere is 42 percent petite sirah, 33 percent zinfandel and 25 percent syrah, adding up to a broad and deep wine intriguing for its exuberant insinuations of blackberry, blueberry and pomegranate, its diverting thread of pipe tobacco, and its brushstroke of vanilla from the French oak in which it was aged.
▪ Borjón Winery 2012 Valle de Napa Cabernet Sauvignon ($65): OK, OK, it isn’t Amador County, but Shebl and Isy Borjon, who with his wife, Eliana, own Borjón Winery, are just nuts about cabernet sauvignon and recognize that it just hasn’t performed consistently well in the foothills. Thus, they go to Napa Valley in search of fruit, and in the Oak Knoll district found grapes to give them an astonishingly aromatic, layered and persistent cabernet sauvignon, its cherry and berry fruit punctuated with suggestions of mushroom and menthol. They make two cabernets from Napa Valley. The other, the Borjón Winery 2012 Valle de Napa St. Helena “Bull Rider” ($130), is a richer, smokier, more chocolate-accented take on Napa Valley cabernet; it’s named for Borjon’s father, Jesus, a former bull rider in his native Mexico.
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.