David Girand Vineyards

Courting Acclaim

David Girand Vineyards

Twenty years ago when David Girard began to plant his 90 acres in El Dorado County outside of Placerville, people in the wine business were talking about the potential for great wine in the Sierra Foothills. Some of the oldest Zinfandel vineyards in the state were there, first planted by the Europeans who arrived after gold was discovered in 1849. The Italians among them planted other varieties that they remembered from home. Particularly Barbera developed an enthusiastic following as winemakers researched the past for clues as to what they might plant in this region, whose vineyards diminished after the Gold Rush and went into final decline after Prohibition.

In addition to certain Italian grapes, the newer thought was that varieties from the Rhone region of Southern France would be a good match for the area, especially the reds Syrah, Mourvedre, and Grenache, and the whites Viognier, Roussanne, and Marsanne. Hot daytime temperatures and cool nights, decomposed granite soils, high elevations, and the configuration that great rivers can impose on an area were similar in both places, here the coursing American River and in France, the Rhone, one of the major rivers of Europe. Those winemakers who acted on the information were proven correct as fine Rhone wines began to emerge from Sierra Foothill counties. But as everyone knows, timing is everything, particularly in a business as whimsical as wine.

Prompted by Napa’s fine wine and marketing acumen, California Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay began to dominate the imaginations of Americans, followed by Merlot, and more recently by Pinot Noir. As the clamor for these wines soared, Italian and Rhone varieties fell by the wayside and made little noise as their developing market share crashed. Big Napa wineries like Robert Mondavi were combing the state for fruit to satisfy demand. So what did David Girard plant on his El Dorado County land when Mondavi offered him a contract? Merlot, of course. But by the time the ten-year Merlot contract was nearing its end, David Girard had learned that, yes, “the climate, the soils, and everything else says to plant Rhones here.”

“We could have stayed with Merlot. We could have gone with Cabernet, but we said no. Does the world need another Cabernet? No. There’s enough wonderful Cabernet. Is there enough Chardonnay? Yes. So let’s roll the dice and see if we can make a first class Rhone.” At about the same time, he built a winery, changing his business model from growing grapes and selling them to using the grapes he grew, making his own wine, and developing his own brand. Now ten years later, he makes about 6000 cases of wine, focusing on Syrah, Grenache, Roussanne, Viognier, and blends of those varieties, selling most of his production to those who visit the tasting room, some to high-end restaurants, and a very limited number of cases in Ohio, Nevada, and Arizona. “As I sometimes say,” he jokes, “after ten years, we mastered the art of loosing money selling grapes, and now we’re mastering the art of loosing money making wine.”

David says that he is ahead of the curve in terms of what most wine drinkers are consuming. When people arrive at the tasting room, they’re likely to ask for sweet wine, probably looking for White Zinfandel. Next, they ask for Cabernet or Chardonnay.

“That’s half the market right there.” And most of the rest are looking for Pinot Noir and Pinot Grigio. “That’s 90 percent of the market,” he points out. “So what we’re hoping and what we have surmised is that as people become more familiar with wines, they’ll move to more experimentation. I think that’s going to happen here.”

Yet something else could occur that would draw a lot of attention to the Sierra Foothills and its attempt to gain traction in the market place with Rhone wines. The grape that is making news these days is Grenache, described as the new Pinot Noir. Grenache has many of the qualities that initially drew admirers to Pinot Noir, particularly its vibrant, fruity taste and smoother, lighter sensation on the palate. Grenache or Garnacha is the most widely planted grape in Spain as well as widely cultivated across the border in Southern France, but the grape is usually, although not always, blended with other varietals. In the Sierra Foothills, Grenache retains its elegance but can easily stand on its own with ample, layered flavors. If wine drinkers embrace Granache, the Sierra Foothills could claim the spotlight that has so far eluded it.

In the meantime, David Girard is hard as work. “What we’re trying to do,” he explains, “and I think with some success, is to emulate the French style of winemaking. We don’t over manipulate the wine. We use very little oak on the wines, and we’re experimenting with cement tanks as they do in the Rhone. And it’s a cliché, but we put a lot of attention into the vineyard. And I’ve got to tell you, having a vineyard is an expensive proposition. What we used to do when Mondavi would come in, we’d have to pick the whole vineyard. Then we’d have to average the brix and average the acid throughout the entire 40 acres. Now we can selectively pick lots when they’re ready, so what we wind up with is a vineyard that we don’t have to do much to. The result is a very natural kind of wine.”

There is no question that the wines are delicious. But if more people haven’t discovered them, part of the reason is that the Sierra Foothills do not have a nearby population from which to draw customers as Sonoma and Napa do. Along with wine, both counties entice the over seven million residents in the San Francisco Bay Area with world class restaurants and hotels. David says that local Sierra Foothills politicians encourage agri-tourism. “But agri-tourism is not me standing out in the vineyard with my arm around a cow’s neck. We need facilities that invite people to slow down, to come for a visit, to stay over-night, to have dinner, to have wine with dinner, and that part is yet to come.”

Nevertheless, the Foothills offer multiple attractions in addition to approximately 200 wineries. Sutter Creek is perhaps the most picturesque gold mining town among many, and the American River is the second busiest river rafting area west of the Mississippi. David Girard Vineyardss is just an hour away from South Lake Tahoe at the southern end of arguably the most beautiful body of water in California, whose surrounding peaks are famous for their ski resorts. The south side of the David Girard estate was the location of the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Colony, established in 1869 as the first Japanese settlement in the United States. After the colony lost its water supply in 1871, the group dispersed, leaving tea plants and various Japanese trees and shrubs behind. The property is now being restored, and the winery donates part of the proceeds of its commemorative wine, Okei San, to the restoration project.

In the past, David taught at the University of California, Santa Barbara and then later at Berkeley before practicing law in Walnut Creek and currently in Placerville where the winery is located. If he had to choose between teaching, practicing law, and winemaking, he says that he would choose teaching. “That was the most fun.” But between practicing law and winemaking, he would choose winemaking. “One of the truly wonderful advantages of the wine business is that you can touch it, feel it, taste it. And if you invest your money in stocks and bonds, none of that is available to you. This is real, and it’s just gorgeous.”

California Wines of the Month

Artisan Series

David Girard Vineyards – 2009 Grenache

Winemaker Mari Wells Coyle’s Notes

Complex aromas of spice, including clove, cinnamon, and sweet anise, fill the nose. Big bright fruit, cola, and black pepper create a huge mouth feel with nicely placed tannins and big structure for all the fruit. Lasting fruit on the palate ends with sweet grapefruit to punctuate the intensity of the finish. Aged in neutral oak for ten months (alcohol 14.2%, brix 25, total acidity 6.23 g/L, pH 3.37).

Anna Maria’s Notes

It gets increasingly difficult to avoid screw caps for California wines at $30 and under. Winemaker Mari Wells says that she finishes bottles with corks only if the wine is made to age. Otherwise, screw caps are more efficient. Mari Wells made 573 cases of the 2009 Grenache and intended it for drinking soon after the ten months it spent in barrel. Don’t let its light color fool you. Grenache has naturally pale pigmentation, but the wine is a mouthful of spicy, layered flavors that will entirely captivate you. I’ve long been a fan of Spanish Garnacha, more likely to be made as a varietal wine in Spain than in the Rhone where it usually appears in a blend. Finally, Grenache has arrived in the best California vineyards, destined for premium wine. The grape thrives in hot climates unlike Pinot Noir, which it is often compared to.

David Girard Vineyards – 2009 Coda Blanc

Winemaker Mari Wells Coyle’s Notes

Gooseberry, guava, melon, and honeysuckle give this wine a big juicy mouth feel, and heated wet stones fill the mid palate with fine phenolics. Flavors show signs of stone fruit and minerality. This wine finishes with nice crisp acidity (alcohol 13.5%, brix 22.4, total acidity 7.0 g/L, pH 3.30). Perfect for summer sipping!

Anna Maria’s Notes

Modeled after the blended wines of the Rhone region, this white is 47% Roussanne, 25% Marsanne, 13% Grenache Blanc, 12% Rolle, and 3% Viognier. The winery made just 432 cases of this charming wine. Serve chilled.

Winemaker Series

David Girard Vineyards – 2008 Syrah, El Dorado

Winemaker Mari Wells Coyle’s Notes

Huge aromatics of blueberry, loganberry, tobacco, pepper, soy sauce, and violets linger in the nose, while some nuances of oregano and peat moss define the earth tones. A lush mouth feel with well structured tannins invites the most enthusiastic connoisseur to cellar for the next five to seven years (alcohol 14.5%, brix 26, total acidity 6.3 g/L, pH 3.43).

Anna Maria’s Notes

This is a gorgeous wine, easily making its own case that Sierra Foothill Syrah is a great wine. Mari Wells made 445 cases of the 2008 Syrah. Robert Parker has this to say in Wine Advocate. “Sweet black cherries, plums, flowers and mint are some of the aromas and flavors that take shape in the glass. This, too, is a decidedly mid-weight style of Syrah, but it is the balance and textural finesse that are most convincing. Anticipate maturity: 2011-2016.” While Robert Parker’s highest scoring wines are highly extracted reds, David Girard goes in the other direction and uses a lighter hand but at the same time offers dense flavor. Enjoy!

David Girard Vineyards – 2008 Coda Rouge

Winemaker Mari Wells Coyle’s Notes

Complexity and approachability are the main ingredients to this blend, which is 49% Grenache, 21% Mourvedre, 16% Syrah, and 14% Counoise. This vintage uses Grenache for the main component of the blend, which provides the approachability. The complexity comes to those who are waiting for a very Rhone profile. Perfumed aromas are lifted from the glass, including hints of anise, sarsaparilla, cranberry, vanilla, and cedar. At the core of this wine is beautiful Rainier cherry and wet stone. The wine is very fleshy in the mid palate with soft tannin framework and perfect roundness (alcohol 14.2%, brix 25.5, total acidity 6.4 g/L, pH 3.55).

Anna Maria’s Notes

Part of the more natural winemaking that David Girard espouses allows the native characteristics of the grape to flourish in the wine. Because the wine is 49% Granache, it is lightly pigmented. But hold yourself steady when you take the first sip. The flavors are astoundingly pronounced and delicious. Antonio Galloni, writing in Wine Advocate says the following: “This is a very beautiful set of wines from David Girard Vineyards. All of the wines are very delicate and perfumed, and quite different in style from the overwhelming majority of other Rhone wines being made today in the Central Coast. Textural finesse and elegance are the qualities that jump out here.” Exactly my thoughts. Mari Wells made 432 cases of the 2008 Coda Rouge.

Menu of the Month


Menu of the Month

First Course

Mushroom ravioli, served with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of Parmegian cheese

Main Course

Trout with mushrooms, served with small boiled red potatoes,
dressed with olive oil and chopped parsley


Parmegian asparagus


Meyer lemon tart
Ricotta mousse with fresh strawberries and mint, drizzled with triple sec

Recipe of the Month

Trout with mushrooms

Spring teases us here in California with a gorgeous sunny day but then retreats from an angry rain. The menu above, light but warming, strives to satisfy regardless of what the weather gods deliver. Trout preparations are normally simple to highlight the sweet flavors of the fish. With the addition of aromatic vegetables and dried mushrooms, the fish gains substance. The recipe below is adapted from the Silver Spoon, Phaidon Press Ltd., my favorite cookbook these days.


4 trout, cleaned

1/2 cup dried mushrooms

1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme

1/2 onion chopped

1 carrot, chopped

1 celery stalk, chopped

1.5 cups dry white wine

Olive oil

Salt and pepper


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Put mushrooms in a bowl, add warm water to cover, and let soak. Season the cavities of the trout with salt and pepper and sprinkle with the thyme. Drizzle an ovenproof dish with olive oil, place the trout in the dish, and rub both sides of the trout in the oil. Add onion, carrot, and celery. Drizzle with a little more olive oil, cover, and bake for ten minutes. Drain and squeeze water from the mushrooms. Remove cover from the baking dish and add wine and mushrooms and bake for another 15 minutes. Serves four.