The Sierra foothills may have yielded a lot of treasure since the 49er gold rush era, but today’s bounty is red and white wine from a pair of newly discovered wineries near Placerville.
I hadn’t planned to visit any wineries this past weekend, hoping instead to strike it rich at the casinos on a visit to Lake Tahoe.
My luck was lukewarm at the tables, but it picked up en route home when my friend, David, pulled out a winery map and directed me to turn off I-80 at the Camino Exit and head for the nearest winery.
Luck of the Draw
When we turned into the driveway at Para Vi Vineyards, it was about 90 degrees and getting hotter.
Lesi and Laiken Brown
Two little girls in swimsuits were cooling off in a water-filled wine lug, the plastic boxes used to haul grapes to the winery. Their pet frog rested on a floating leaf, much to the delight of its caretakers, Laiken and Lesi Brown, the daughters of winery owner Tom Brown.
Para Vi Pad Dweller
Brown greeted us like old friends, hardly showing any effects from the wine release party the previous night. The shindig hadn’t broken up until well after midnight, and owner was doing the last few bits of cleanup when we arrived.
The winery is a comfortable spot and it’s wired for sound and lights used for special stage performances scheduled throughout the year. Two bocce courts draw local teams interested in competition and red wine.
Limited Production, Unlimited Potential
Para Vi (Italian for “with life”) has 13 acres in vines that produce about 3,000 cases of four varietals — zinfandel, syrah, merlot and cabernet franc, each bottled separately. Sales are strictly through the winery, either online, on-site or through the Wine Society. There’s no white wine and no blending program at Para Vi, thanks to Brown’s desire to let his grapes rise or fall on their own merits.
After tasting each wine, I’d have to agree he made the right decision. Each varietal runs to a house style, similar to four brothers who are all different but share a family resemblance. All are finished in 100% French oak.
One common component is a pleasant hint of dustiness and the other is a balance that kept the flavors of each varietal in check and true to the grape.
Every wine is very good but the piece de resistance is the cabernet franc (2006, $62). It sports a rich profile with hints of raspberry and lavender alongside balancing tannins. In the mouth, I tasted milder berries that lingered on my tongue for a nice, long finish. It would be outstanding with any grilled meat dish.
By chance, I got to taste more foothills-region wine from another, much smaller, winery — La Clarine Farm — that was pouring at my local wine bar, the Alameda Wine Company.
Winegrower Henry Beckmeyer brought along two whites and two reds plus a 2009 barrel sample from his tiny operation in Somerset, CA. All the wines are made “naturally.” No tilling, no fertilizer, no irrigation and no weeding of the home vineyard that includes tempranillo, syrah, tannat, grenache, negroamaro and cabernet sauvignon.
La Clarine Farm Vineyards
I sampled two red blends from the estate, the 2008 ($22) and the 2009, which is not yet released. Only tiny amounts — less than 100 cases of each — were produced.
The 2008 tasted of plums with moderate tannins. It was not a heavy wine, but it had good acids that made it a good match for some beef salami from an artisan meat company in Oakland and an organic sage cheddar cheese from Spring Hill Jersey Cheese Company in Petaluma.
The 2009 was more tannic (naturally) and I think it will turn out to be a very good wine. I liked looking at the long, lovely legs that trailed down the glass after I swirled the wine a bit.
A wine that’s ready to drink tonight is the 2008 mourvedre ($22), made from grapes purchased from the nearby Cedarville Vineyard. This is a complex little garnet-colored wine with an edge of granite and a nose of fresh, light herbs. I wanted a medium rare lamb chop to go with another glass!
The other La Clarine Farm wine I liked was an “orange” viognier from the 2008 vintage ($22). There’s a touch of fizz, thanks to a small amount of sulfur used as a preservative.
Whole clusters of grapes, stems and all, were fermented together, just like many red wines are processed. The result is a delightful, zingy wine with an enticing aroma that releases after about 15-20 minutes in the glass. There is a layer of honey on the tongue with a very nice aroma of sweet, fresh hay. Unusual and worth a try if you can find any of the 56 case production.
White Wine of the Week
I meant to share several bottles of wine with my friends at Lake Tahoe, but it was so hot that we left the reds alone and only cracked one white wine and it was quite good. I brought the 2008 Saintsbury Carneros chardonnay (2008, $19.99), sent to me by the winery to sample.
I was suspicious, since it was in the trunk of my car over the course of a very hot day, of how it might taste. I don’t recommend the hot trunk treatment, but the wine was no worse for wear.
At our hotel, I iced the bottle down for about 20 minutes and then opened it to toast our weekend fortunes. It was delicious — creamy good with just enough oak to give it structure. The citrusy nose was completed by Asian apple pear tastes and a nice round feel in the mouth, thanks to sur lie aging and complete malolactic fermentation. The wine was also bottled unfiltered.
I liked the ease of a screwcap closure versus a cork, but regretted not being able to bet my friends that I could open the chardonnay with only my shoe. Click here (and scroll to the bottom of the page) to read a recent blog that shows how you can turn a shoe into a corkscrew, too!