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Dunne on Wine: Day-sipping in the foothills

By Mike Dunne -- Bee Food Editor
Published 2:15 am PDT Wednesday, April 19, 2006
Story appeared in Taste section, Page F1

One of the impressive wines on a tour of western El Dorado County wineries was a Coulson Winery 2004 Matson Vineyard Reserve Barbera.

Two dozen wineries are scattered about the hills and hollows of western El Dorado County, from Mount Aukum in the south to Pilot Hill in the north, from Shingle Springs on the west to Camino on the east.

We moseyed about the area the other day, wandering from Pleasant Valley to Coloma, stopping at either new wineries or places we hadn't visited in years.

We returned home with enthusiastic notes on three of the stops.

Coulson Winery
In 1995, he acquired Eldorado Winery in Camino, rechristening it Coulson Eldorado Winery, since shortened to Coulson Winery.

The winery occupies a large circa-1925 fruit-processing warehouse set back from Carson Road just north of Highway 50 and west of Camino. A cat named Fred rules the joint, hopping from case to case under a high roof supported by beams hand-hewn from whole trees.

Why El Dorado: "In the late 1970s," says Coulson, "I was buying wines from Greg Boeger, Dick Bush and John MacCready (all pioneering El Dorado vintners), and I felt the quality they were producing was on par with what I was drinking out of Napa and Sonoma, but at a better price point."

He also felt that El Dorado's soils, climate, exposures and the like matched up pretty closely to the terroirs of northern Italy and the south of France, whose wines he also appreciated and was eager to emulate.

Focus: In line with those aspirations, Coulson is concentrating on black grapes such as sangiovese (largely responsible for Chianti Classico in Tuscany) and barbera (a staple of the vineyards of Piemonte), but he's also working with tempranillo and mourvedre, two other European black grapes showing potential in California. And he isn't ignoring zinfandel, the grape and wine primarily responsible for establishing the region's reputation for fine wine.

He doesn't own any vines, but leases two vineyards in the area and buys the rest of the fruit he needs from local growers. He makes about 2,000 cases a year.

Don't miss: Just how fruity is the Coulson Winery 2004 Matson Vineyard Reserve Barbera ($24)? Coulson was pouring it with a snack of peach marmalade and sliced almonds on a wedge of brie, the sort of sweet and complex appetizer that demands a wine with plenty of ripeness, fruit and spine, and this was one barbera that wasn't backing down.

The Coulson Winery 2003 Clarke Vineyard Zinfandel ($20), made with fruit grown at Latrobe in the far western reaches of the county, is a traditional foothill take on the varietal - ripe, round and robust. It takes a big wine to stand up to a chocolate truffle, and this zinfandel didn't shrink a bit from the challenge.

The Coulson Winery 2001 Sutter Ridge Vineyard Sangiovese ($15) shows that when the grapes are planted in just the right spot, this Italian variety may have a chance in California after all, especially when the fruit yields a wine this refreshingly aromatic, fleshy and spicy. Serve it as Coulson was serving it, with fine-grain meatballs in a vinegary marinara.

The particulars: Coulson Winery, 3550 Carson Road, Camino, is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; (530) 644-2854.

David Girard Vineyards
Pedigree: Walnut Creek attorney David Girard specializes in education issues, a calling that takes him to school districts throughout Northern California. That's how he discovered and subsequently bought 80 acres of rolling woodland along Cold Springs Road northwest of Placerville.

This was in the mid-1990s, when Robert Mondavi Winery was seeking growers willing to cultivate merlot. Girard began to clear brush and plant merlot, 20 acres of it in an area not particularly recognized for the varietal.

Nevertheless, it sold, and Girard found the business so promising he decided to get into winemaking himself. Last fall, he, his vineyard manager, celebrated Apple Hill fruit grower Ron Mansfield, and his winemaker, Mari Wells, formerly of Chathom Vineyards outside Murphys in Calaveras County, oversaw the first full crush at David Girard Vineyards, a handsome Tuscan-inspired structure surrounded by steep vineyards, a wedding pavilion, picnic area, stream and pond.

Why El Dorado: Though Girard initially was agreeable to planting any variety that would sell, he's since become convinced that the decomposed granite soils, sunny setting and elevation (1,200 feet) of his ranch is ideal for the sorts of grapes that have established France's Rhone Valley as a fine-wine region - syrah, grenache, mourvedre, viognier, marsanne and the like.

"The chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon market is tough to crack," Girard says in giving another reason for emphasizing Rhone varieties.

Focus: Girard's vineyard is now up to 40 acres. Not only is the additional acreage planted largely to Rhone Valley varieties, he's begun to graft his original plot of merlot to the same kinds of grapes.

"I'm not a big oak guy," Girard says when talking of his stylistic goals. In addition to the judicious use of oak barrels, he's keen on the finesse that intricate blending can produce in a wine, thus his interest in planting such obscure varieties as grenache blanc and vermentino. "I like the creativity of that," Girard says of blending decisions.

Don't miss: As a group, Girard's wines are notable for their expressive aromatics, clear fruit flavors, restrained oakiness and balance. Fruit from two prized El Dorado County vineyards - Wylie and Fenaughty - went into the David Girard Vineyards 2003 El Dorado Syrah ($28), which through its vibrant floral smell, juicy berry flavors, silken texture and persistent finish shows just why Girard, Mansfield and Wells are downright giddy about the prospects of Rhone Valley varieties in the foothills. And while the cabernet sauvignon market may be tough for foothill wineries to crack, the David Girard Vineyards 2001 El Dorado Cabernet Sauvignon ($25) shows why the varietal shouldn't be written off entirely. Aged in a mix of new and old French and American oak barrels - another strain of the blending that Girard relishes - the wine is as fresh, bright and friendly as a bowl of spring cherries, just waiting to be joyously savored.

Also especially impressive were the peachy and spicy David Girard Vineyards 2002 California Viognier/Roussanne ($18) and a barrel sample of a vivacious and complex 2004 mourvedre that won't be bottled and released until later this summer.

The particulars: David Girard Vineyards, 741 Cold Springs Road, Placerville, is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; (530) 295-1833.

Narrow Gate Vineyards
Pedigree: After 20 years in the fashion trade, largely selling women's accessories for Swank, Frank Hildebrand has returned to his agricultural roots.

Hildebrand - who grew up in Woodland, where his father was an agricultural electrician, sometimes calling on his son to help install lights on tomato harvesters - started laying the groundwork for Narrow Gate Vineyards six years ago, when he and his wife, Teena, also in fashion sales, moved from Huntington Beach to a piney slope in Pleasant Valley.

He had graduated from UC Davis in 1980 with a degree in agricultural economics and production management, but went straight into fashion marketing and didn't have much to do with farming other than making wine as a hobby while living in Huntington Beach.

Why El Dorado: They couple had been scouting the West in search of a weekend getaway when they meandered through the Mother Lode en route to Lake Tahoe in 1999. "The area reminded me of the Capay Valley (just outside Woodland)," recalls Hildebrand.

As they continued to explore the foothills, they got smitten with the region's wines, but in contrast to so many other wine enthusiasts drawn to the area, they gravitated to the local whites rather than the reds.

"We really liked Boeger's sauvignon blanc and Sierra Vista's viognier, and began to think that this would be great, to have a vineyard among the pines," Hildebrand says.

They began to plant their nearly 13-acre vineyard in 2001, and in 2004 released their first wines.

Focus: The Hildebrands make a chardonnay and a zinfandel, but they also are acolytes of Pleasant Valley winemaking pioneer John MacCready, who at his nearby Sierra Vista Winery champions the grape varieties of France's Rhone Valley.

As a consequence, the Hildebrands have planted their vineyard largely to such Rhone varieties as viognier, roussanne, mourvedre, grenache and syrah, as well as cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel.

Don't miss: The Narrow Gate Vineyards 2005 El Dorado Viognier/Roussanne ($22) is one husky white wine, plump with ripe peaches, thick through the middle and long in the finish; for a blissful dinner, pair it with chicken tossed with pasta in a light cream sauce, or even chicken curry.

The Narrow Gate Vineyards 2004 El Dorado Estate Cabernet Sauvignon/Syrah ($30) is a grand blend, packed with more of cabernet's cassis flavor than you'd expect in a wine that is nearly half syrah.

On Memorial Day weekend, the Hildebrands will release their flagship wine, the Narrow Gate Vineyards 2004 El Dorado Dunamis ($30), a luxuriously juicy and beefy blend of Rhone Valley black grapes, mostly grenache. ("Dunamis" is a biblical term to suggest the power of God, especially with respect to miracles; the Hildebrands use Christian references and symbols throughout their winery, from the name "narrow gate" - Matthew 7:13-14 - to an ancient cross-shaped vine over the main door.)

The particulars: Narrow Gate Vineyards, 4282 Pleasant Valley Road, Placerville, is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays; (530) 644-6201.


About the writer: Reach The Bee's Mike Dunne at (916) 321-1143 or mdunne@sacbee.com. Back columns: www.sacbee.com/dunne.

One of the impressive wines on a tour of western El Dorado County wineries was a David Girard Vineyards 2002 California Viognier/Roussanne. One of the impressive wines on a tour of western El Dorado County wineries was a Narrow Gate Vineyards 2004 El Dorado Estate Cabernet Sauvignon/Syrah.


Narrow Gate Vineyards & Winery - 4282 Pleasant Valley Road - Placerville, CA - 95667 - 530.644.6201

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