When your business is importing wine from Europe it’s sometimes hard to remember that other places in the world make wine, too. People often ask me what California wines I like to drink, and there are a few I always recommend without hesitation, like Newton, Clos du Val, and Michel-Schlumberger. But my California wine education was sorely lacking. Luckily, Cy and I took a trip to California’s central valley to visit friends and we visited a bunch of wineries in the area, so now we have some new favorites to add to the list.
The central valley covers an enormous area and produces the largest amount of California’s wine. Sacramento Regional Wine Country has over 200 wineries in eight different counties. Yolo County, west of Sacramento, is about 50 miles northeast of Napa. On the eastern end of the region is El Dorado County, with wineries that are about 50 miles from the southern shore of Lake Tahoe. A wide range of terrains, and a lot of interesting wines to go with them.
With only two days, we didn’t cover the entire region, but managed to visit eight wineries/tasting rooms and get a feel for some of the styles of wine you can find there. Our friends, Barbara Shacklett and Jean-Jacques Lambert, live in Davis and work for the University. Jean-Jacques is, as you might suspect, French, and is a soil scientist in the Viticulture department. With them as knowledgeable guides we were able to customize the touring. Rather than walk you through all the wineries we visited, here are a few highlights.
First off, I have to say that it’s beautiful countryside out there. The levee roads along the Sacramento River are unlike anything I’d seen before. The Sierra foothills have a lot of windy roads that aren’t for the faint of constitution but the views are breathtaking. The central valley can be foggy, but once you climb into the foothills you get above the fog, which looks like a beautiful carpet in the distance.
Now to the wines. We concentrated on Rhône-style wines and Zinfandels. Some California wineries are making blends of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre, the three grapes found in most Southern Rhône wines. They don’t taste like Rhône wines, although they’re interesting if you approach them in their own right. What’s missing, to my mind, is the earthiness. In French Rhône blends, the earthiness comes from Grenache. The California Grenaches we tasted just didn’t have the same taste – they were fruity and even a little vegetal as opposed to flavors of tobacco and leather.
Holly’s Hill Vineyards, near Placerville in El Dorado County, makes single-varietal wines and blends. The Patriarche, made from 48% Mourvèdre, 46% Syrah, 5% Grenache, and 1% Counoise, is the owners’ richest blend, and it’s a tasty wine. Not like the Châteauneuf-du-Pape that inspired them to start their winery, but with some of the spiciness you find in Rhône Syrah blends. You won’t find that much Mourvèdre in a Rhône blend, so I was intrigued to try it – but it’s not the same ultra-tannic Mourvèdre you find in France. At Holly’s Hill it was much fruitier and less tannic, so it made a good basis for the blend.
Interestingly, we tasted some blends that I thought were more Rhône-like, even though they’re (mostly) not made with Rhône grapes. Bogle Winery in Yolo County makes Phantom, a blend of Petite Syrah, Zinfandel, and Mourvèdre (2007) that’s delicious. Rich and tasty, it has a nice base of earthiness that reminded me of some of the richer Rhône blends, although with more fruit up front. It’s definitely worth looking for.
The other blend I really liked was Real Deal Red from Boeger Winery in Placerville in El Dorado County. It’s made from Barbera, Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah. Sounds like everything including the kitchen sink, but it’s delicious. Lighter than the Phantom but with a similar earthiness, it’s more of an everyday red that I’d be happy to drink with almost any meal.
The Zins are a whole different animal. Zinfandel can be fruity, even jammy, along with some spice, or it can be spicier, less fruity/jammy, and a little bit earthy too. It depends on where (and how) the grapes are grown and, of course, the winemaking techniques. Both can be outstanding, and totally different than any other wine in the world. My favorite in the fruity/jammy category was Boeger’s 2007 El Dorado Zinfandel, lots of great ripe fruits, some pepper, and even a little light fruit in the very first sip.
On the other end of the Zin spectrum, we tried two that were absolutely wonderful. Dillian Wines, near Plymouth in Amador County, makes an outstanding 2006 Tre Fratelli Zinfandel. Dillian does mostly dry farming, no irrigation, and the wines have a lot going on. The Tre Fratelli Zinfandel has a minerality I really like, and there’s even a hint of smokiness too. Dillian produces less than 300 cases per year of most of its wines, so they’re rare, but worth searching for.
The other Zin I’d recommend isn’t quite a Zin, it’s Primitivo – an Italian grape that’s very close genetically to Zinfandel. We tasted Uvaggio Primitivo at the Lodi Wine Visitor Center. The Lodi area is becoming better known here on the East Coast, and I’ve tasted some other Lodi Zins I’ve enjoyed. Uvaggio’s Primitivo grapes are grown in Lodi, but the winery is in Napa. A fabulous wine, a surprise in every sip. It’s a rarity that I can conjure up the exact taste of a wine by thinking of it, but I can with this one.
You might think that I’d be at a loss for a recipe and a first vine wine pairing after all of those California wines. We brought some of the wines home with us to taste again. Back here in DC I find myself wanting to taste two of our wines for a comparison: Domaine Chaume-Arnaud’s Le Petit Coquet ($13), a blend of Grenache, Syrah, Carignan, and Cinsault, and Domaine Fond Croze Cuvée Shyrus ($20), 100% Syrah aged in oak. Both are earthier than the California wines we tasted, but the fruit flavors bring those California wines to mind (for me, anyway; of course I could just be crazy too). Once the California wines have settled down from their airplane ride in a couple of weeks we’ll open them up and give it a shot.
And what to serve with them? On the first part of our trip, Cy and I stayed in La Jolla, north of San Diego. We ate at a restaurant called Whisknladle with great food, including an appetizer that sounded too good to pass up: deep-fried dates stuffed with chorizo. We all had baked dates stuffed with blue cheese and wrapped in bacon back in the 70s and 80s. This is my version of Whisknladle’s grown-up appetizer, served with a roasted red pepper dip. I took a basic Tempura batter and added some bread crumbs – they give the dates a nice crunch once they’re fried. The recipe is scaleable, but I’d make a new small batch of batter for every 8 – 12 dates. The batter has to stay cold or it gets too heavy. So make the dipping sauce and stuff the dates first and be sure to heat up the oil, then make the batter just before you dip and fry the stuffed dates. You’ll notice I hedge on exact amounts, because there’s no telling the size of dates you’ll be able to find.
We don’t have the San Diego weather here in January, but we can have the food – or something close to it – and of course, good wine. With any luck, winter won’t last too much longer, so let’s hope the Groundhog gets it right!
Serves 4 as an appetizer
1 10 to 12-ounce jar roasted red peppers packed in water (I like Divina brand), drained
¼ to ½ teaspoon smoked sweet paprika
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper
Puree the red peppers with ¼ teaspoon of the paprika and a tablespoon or two of olive oil until the sauce is a nice dipping consistency. Put the sauce in a microwave-safe bowl and heat it up. Taste for seasoning, and add salt, pepper, and more paprika if you’d like.
12 large Medjool dates, pitted
4 to 6 ounces Spanish chorizo (fully cooked), casing removed
If the dates don’t already have one cut the long way to remove the pit, go ahead and slice them that way. Cut the chorizo into very small pieces, and briefly saute the pieces in a small skillet to render some of the fat. Pack each date with as much of the chorizo as you can. Press each stuffed date together to get the chorizo pieces well embedded and nice and sticky. Set them aside and prepare the batter
Oil: I use regular vegetable oil for frying. Heat at least 2 inches of oil to 375 degrees F in a large deep pot or deep fryer.
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup ice-cold water
1 large egg, cold from the fridge, lightly beaten in a small bowl
3 tablespoons dry bread crumbs, preferably Panko (they give a nicer crunch)
In a medium-sized bowl, mix the flour and ice water with the fork – just enough to have a not very smooth mixture with some lumps. Add the beaten egg and the bread crumbs and mix again. The lumps should just about disappear.
Add six of the dates the batter, stir them once to coat, then lift them out one at a time with the fork, letting the excess batter drip back into the bowl. Fry for a couple of minutes until brown all over, then set on paper towels to drain while you make the remaining six dates. You may need to make another batch of batter if you used a lot on the first six. Sprinkle with salt and serve hot with the dipping sauce (reheated in the microwave if needed).