Traditional California Wines: The New Challenge
Terre Rouge Easton
Twenty five years ago, Bill Easton wandered away from his wine shop in Berkley, California and purchased 40-acres of land in Amador County in the foothills of the towering Sierra Nevada Mountains. In those days, Rhone varietals were developing a cult following, led by Randall Graham and his band of Rhone Rangers, who were promoting Syrah, Mourvedre, and Viognier among other varietals from Southern France. Bill Easton was part of this band of winemakers, convinced that these new California wines would take over the Foothill counties if not the greater U.S. market. But a funny thing happened along the road to maturity. Bill Easton developed a respect for traditional California varieties, especially Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Sauvignon Blanc, so much so that today his production divides equally between the two groups of wines, the Rhones under the Terre Rouge label and traditional varieties under the Easton label.
Although the home vineyard is located in Amador County’s Shenandoah Valley, Bill Easton grows grapes in three other Sierra Foothill counties as well, Placer, El Dorado, and Calaveras. He makes thirty different wines in small lots, including seven Syrahs and four Zinfandels. Over time, he has learned that the red volcanic soils of his mountain wine estate, so similar to the ones he had seen during visits to the Rhone, were also hospitable to the varietals that had been planted in various places in California 50 to 100 years earlier. In other words, this large region, 250 miles long and 50 miles wide, covering 2.6 million acres in eight separate counties grouped together as the Sierra Foothills, was sufficiently diverse that it couldn’t be narrowly defined by any particular group of wines. Its soils are in fact similar to those in the mountain appellations above Napa Valley on Mount Veeder and Howell Mountain.
Zinfandel was the heritage vine of the Foothills. It had been planted initially by the immigrant hoards who rushed there when gold was discovered in 1848 at Sutter’s Mill near Coloma. “But a lot of people quickly realized that gold wasn’t the easiest thing to work with and fell back on occupational paths that they had when they were living in Europe,” Bill says. Growing vines and making wine was one of them. Zinfandel appealed because its lighter tannins allowed people to take it from the tank to the table. It didn’t require barrel aging to be palatable.
Nearby Sutter Creek is just one of the historic towns that grew out of the gold mining boom, a Victorian village with elevated boardwalks, where gold dazzled the minds of the population, and law was an impressionistic guide that was sometimes enforced by those with an innate sense or justice and at other times by self-interested bullies. Today, tourists wander the streets, imagining the past, enjoying fine restaurants, and tasting delicious wine.
This singular landscape is different from coastal wine regions, whose breezes and fog blow in from the ocean to cool down the growing season so that grapes ripen slowly enough to develop complex flavors. Here, cool air drifts down from the mountains at night to perform the same function. “As the crow flies, we’re 50 miles from the Sierra Crest, which is at 10,000 feet. Our soils warm up much later in the spring than coastal soils, so our vines bud out much later. We have a different arc to the whole grape growing season.” Consequently, Foothill wines differ from coastal wines although Bill points out, “It’s hard to generalize about coastal areas because there are a lot of differences between wines that grow there. But I think our wines generally have more intensity, more minerality. The whites have definitely more minerality, a more European flavor profile, not just fruit driven flavors. We have other layers of complexity” Bill says, that come in part from stony mountain soils and vineyard sites as high as 3200 feet.
Bill describes his farming methods as “sustainable,” without commercial fertilizers or systemic herbicides, basically organic farming practices without the organic certification. Grape waste or “pumice” fertilizes vineyards along with green waste compost, and barn owls housed in pole boxes keep the rodent population in check. Bill says that many of his neighbors are doing the same. “We’re doing it because we think it’s the right thing to do to be a good community partner growing grapes, but we also think that we make better wine from fruit that’s grown this way, because there’s better flavor in the fruit.
Just as Bill pursues excellence in his vineyard practices, he does the same in the winery. He buys only the best French oak barrels for his wines even though American oak barrels are much less expensive. Even some Europeans are using American cooperage. He also ages wine at the winery for as long as he thinks it requires to show its best even though holding back wine is equivalent to holding back income, something most wineries are not willing to do.
Proudly, Bill claims that 90 percent of the winery’s electrical power to run pumps, presses, and cooling units, and to maintain temperatures in the cellar is provided by solar panels. His wine bottles are manufactured using at least 25 percent cullet, the name for ground up recycled glass. He sends all of his wine bottles from the tasting room to Amador County’s waste transfer station. They are then shipped to Anheiser-Busch and ground into cullet to make beer bottles. Bill was one of the first to implement such practices, and others in the Foothills are following.
After 25 years in the Sierra Foothills, Bill Easton’s Terre Rouge is the iconic winery of the region, specializing in the Rhone varietals that Bill knew would be happily at home there just as Zinfandel was. But the traditional California wines under the Easton label point to a future for Bordeaux varieties that is as yet undefined. Bill is making beautiful Cabernet Sauvignon, and as others move into the area and continue to experiment in different locations at different altitudes with different soils, the future for Bordeaux varieties, especially for Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot will define itself more completely. Pinot Noir is now making an appearance in the area. At this time, there are 300 wineries in Foothill counties exploring the potential of the region. “We wanted to make our wine in the Sierra Nevada Foothills because we felt that it was one of the most expressive places in the world to make wine, comparable to a lot of the best European appellations.”
California Wines of the Month
Easton – 2009 Zinfandel, Amador County
Winemaker Bill Easton’s Notes
Our Amador County Zinfandel is made from grapes that grow on our beautiful, rolling mountain sites that have the classic vermilion-colored, Amador decomposed granite soil. The 2009 has full black cherry and blackberry fruit aromas with a beautiful balance and a big sumptuous and juicy mouth-feel. It also presents complex spicy aromas with a creamy texture derived from 10 months time in French oak barrels. This wine has become our popular, but serious cru Beaujolais-styled Zinfandel that has found its way on to many great restaurant wine menus where it is often listed “by the glass.” It is consistently rated one of the top Zinfandels in its class and one of the best value Zinandels available. Although drinkable now, it gains complexity with bottle age. It is a great introduction to our Easton line of four distinctly different Zinfandels (14.5% alcohol, 3.52 pH, 6.5 g/l total acidity).
Anna Maria’s Notes
Easton Zinfandels all retain the lighter mouth-feel that is typical of Zinfandel and one of its many charms. This is a wonderfully versatile wine that you’ll be able to serve with almost any winter entrée. Enjoy!
Easton – 2008 Sauvignon Blanc, Sierra Foothills, Monarch Mine Vineyard
Winemaker Bill Easton’s Notes
Our Sauvignon Blanc is made from estate grapes grown at the Monarch Mine Vineyard, overlooking the American River Canyon at 2,500 feet near the town of Foresthill in Placer County. We planted a four-acre vineyard at this severely rocky site to two different selections of Sauvignon Blanc. Clone One is the original Bordeaux selection in California from Chateau Yquem, and the Musque clone was imported from the viticultural station in Pont-de-la-Maye near Bordeaux around 1962. Compared with clone One which has an herbaceous, green character and crisp acidity, Musque has better viscosity and shows floral and tropical fruit aromas. We find these two clones complementary. We cold ferment these two varieties together and then age them for nine months in neutral French oak barrels before bottling. The complex and exotic fruit flavors suggest key lime, casaba melon, and papaya. The wine finishes with brisk mineral notes. It has neither the excessive herbaceousness of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc nor the creamy richness of some California Sauvignon Blancs that lean towards a Chardonnay profile. It is the perfect foil for all seafood and absolutely satisfying as an aperitif (13.5% alcohol, 3.46 pH, 6.6 g/l total acidity).
Anna Maria’s Notes
As Bill Easton points out, Sauvignon Blanc comes in various styles from grassy and crisp to tropical and round and everything in between. If you like this round style of Sauvignon Blanc, look for the Musque name on a bottle. Some Sauvignon Blanc is actually named for the clone instead of the varietal.
Easton – 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Estate Shenandoah Valley
Winemaker Bill Easton’s Notes
Our Cabernet Sauvignon is from the Baldinelli Vineyard which was planted in 1972. This is an old, low bearing, small-berry cluster clone. Our growing season is longer and cooler than what many might assume. It is comparable in many ways to the Howell Mountain region of the Nava Valley. Red, iron-laden soils of grainy decomposed granite, warm days moderated by afternoon Delta breezes, and cool night air from the high Sierra peaks just 50 miles to our East all contribute to the terroir where the vines grow. Closer to harvest as the days become shorter, fruit cooled overnight takes half the day to warm again and matures slowly. Aging takes place in 100% French Bordeaux barrels from Taransaud cooperage. The wine is in barrel for two years prior to bottling and is aged in bottle for an additional four years prior to its release. Color is dark purple with complex aromas of cedar, tobacco, and Asian spice box. The fruit is blackberry and cassis with a pleasant St. Julien-like texture, mineral infused flavors, and sappiness. The wine has good balance, intensity, a plush texture, and length. It is a youngster now and slow to open, which bodes well for age ability (14.5% alcohol, 3.64 pH, 6.3 g/l total acidity).
Anna Maria’s Notes
Bill Easton spares nothing on his jewel-like wines. He uses the finest French barrels and holds back the wines until they show the way he wants his customers to taste them. These days, winemakers rarely hold back bottled wines for four years before release from the winery. Most couldn’t or wouldn’t delay income for that long. This is a Cab that will keep your internal fires burning throughout a cold winter night.
Easton – 2003 Zinfandel Estate-Bottled Shenandoah Valley
Winemaker Bill Easton’s Notes
This is the sixth release of our estate-bottled Zinfandel. The fruit can originate from one or two estate vineyards surrounding the winery, the old Dickson-Miller property and the Baldinelli property that was planted in the early 1970s. We choose the best lots. Vines are head-trained and un-irrigated. The vineyard is rigorously suckered for proper cluster spacing and sun exposure to get full flavor development. Flavors are full, rich, smooth, and gutsy. This wine has huge brambly blackberry fruit, big cedar, spice-box aromas and flavors. It has a smooth creamy finish from aging in Francois Freres and Taransaud barrels. 2003 was a particularly great year in the Sierra Foothills and the Shenandoah Valley. Our spring was cool, so fruit set was late. Harvest was dry. Hang time was long (15% alcohol, 352 pH, 6.6 g/l total acidity).
Anna Maria’s Notes
What Bill describes is exactly what you get in this delicious wine, “huge brambly blackberry fruit, big cedar, spice-box aromas and flavors.” By “head-trained” vines, Bill is describing the way old vineyards were organized. Vines were not strung on wire trellises but instead grew independently like small trees. Because the vines are 40 years-old and well established, they need not be irrigated, so fruit flavors are very concentrated. Notice the beautiful brick color of the wine, typical of Zinfandel, which is not heavily pigmented.
Menu of the Month
After the Theater Buffet
Assorted fresh-baked breads, seeded whole wheat, rye loaf, & white baguettes
Artisan goat, cow, and sheep milk cheeses
Prosciutto di San Daniele or Parma
Thinly sliced Fra Mani salami, made without nitrates
Dolmas, grape leaves stuffed with rice
Spinach ravioli, dressed with sage braised in olive oil
Grilled eggplant, zucchini, and red bell pepper slices
Sliced orange rounds & red onions, dressed with olive oil & salt,
& garnished with chopped parsley
Mini ricotta cannoli
Recipe of the Month
Late Evening Buffet
Except for the ravioli and probably the sliced oranges, every plate can be prepared ahead and assembled on serving platters before you leave for the theater, as long as you cover the platters tightly with plastic wrap. If you’d prefer to avoid cooking ravioli while your guests are gathered in the living room, you can simply avoid the dish, although ravioli are great for both stand up or sit down parties. They don’t require the use of a knife and just several, even at room temperature, can be deliciously satisfying along with all of the other foods. The colors of this menu are truly beautiful, especially bright green Castelvetrano olives, red bell peppers, orange rounds, dark green dolmas, and brighter spinach ravioli. Wonderful wines are the ultimate complement for such a meal, especially sparkling wine, still whites, and light reds. Happy New Year to all! And may more of our dreams begin to come true.