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.
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
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.
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
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.
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),"
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,"
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;
About the writer: Reach The Bee's Mike Dunne at (916) 321-1143 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.