Calaveras Winegrowers Seek AVA Status

Vineyard tour highlights new Rhône, Italian and Iberian varieties

by Jon Tourney
Dragone Ranch
The 60-acre Dragone Ranch Vineyard in Calaveras County ranges in elevation from 1,600-2,000 feet and is planted with 16 different varieties.
Murphys, Calif. -- Calaveras County winegrape growers hope to have their own American Viticultural Area. Vineyard consultant and Calaveras Winegrape Alliance (CWA) board member Steve Collum announced at the annual CWA Vineyard Tour on July 30 that an application is in progress with the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau to establish the AVA.

About 70 people, mostly local growers and vintners, attended the daylong tour, which visited six vineyard properties. Attendees learned more about new varieties being planted and the challenges and benefits of grapegrowing in the county. The tour is organized and presented by CWA along with the University of California Cooperative Extension. Extension viticulture specialist Dr. Jim Wolpert of the University of California, Davis, presented information from his statewide perspective to accompany comments and information from Collum and the vineyard owners at each location. Scott Oneto, extension farm advisor for Calaveras and Tuolumne counties, who recently assumed viticulture duties after the retirement of long-time county farm advisor Ken Churches, helped provide local perspective.

Collum, a former vineyard manager with Kendall-Jackson, in California's North Coast, has lived and worked in Calaveras County since 1996. His consulting and management company, Vineyard Concepts, currently works with seven vineyard clients in the area. Collum said about 900 acres of vineyards are planted in the county. A majority of production goes into wines produced and sold locally and into Sierra Foothills AVA wines produced in nearby counties. He said the intent of the Calaveras AVA application, which is currently framed to include all of Calaveras County, is "to help get the word out about the Calaveras wine region and provide it with more recognition with consumers and within the industry."

Calaveras vineyards range in elevation from about 200 feet to 3,300 feet. Vine and wine production include traditional varieties such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. Calaveras also has dry-farmed, old vine Zinfandel (commonly associated with the Sierra Foothills) at the Ghirardelli Vineyard, a portion of which is more than 100 years old.

During the past 10-15 years, newer vineyards have seen more varietal diversification with a move toward Rhône, Italian and Iberian varieties such as Syrah, Mourvèdre, Petite Sirah, Grenache, Barbera, Sangiovese, Tempranillo and Graciano for reds, and Viognier, Marsanne, Roussanne, Pinot Grigio, and Albariño for whites. Collum explained, "We haven't been pigeon-holed for Zinfandel as in some Sierra Foothills locations, so we can try new things."

Many Calaveras wineries are boutique operations that sell wines direct through local tasting rooms and wine clubs. The CWA promotes 23 tasting rooms, most in and near Murphys. The county is a tourist getaway destination for Gold Rush history and wine tasting, and a stop for visitors enjoying summer and winter recreation in the Sierra Nevada. Collum said, "The quality and uniqueness of Calaveras fruit is a selling point. Since much of our wine production is a hand-sell through the tasting rooms, we have the opportunity to educate consumers about new varieties."

Open to experiment
An example of the move to try new varieties is the 9-acre Clondaire Vineyard west of San Andreas. Owned by Bill and Antoinette Griffin, the rocky property with scattered oak trees and a view of the Sierra Nevada, has been developed over the past 10 years. The Griffins prefer white wines, and with Collum's assistance, selected varieties suitable for warmer climates that include Marsanne, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Verdelho, and the even more rarely planted Southern Italy varieties Fiano and Greco di Tufo. The only red variety planted is Dolcetto.

Collum said, "I'm a big proponent of planting varieties for the climate and location, and we now have many new options available (through grapevine nurseries and Foundation Plant Services), so we're in the process of discovering what works up here."

Wolpert, who has made recent trips to Italy, Sicily and Spain to look for warmer climate varieties suitable for California, agreed with the idea. "I've found some white wines in Southern Italy and Sicily that are fantastic, and I think there will be a revolution in the near future in the white varieties planted and produced in warmer climates," Wolpert said. Hatcher Winery (4,000 cases) in Murphys produced 27 cases of varietal Fiano from Clondaire: It was well-received and sold quickly. Clondaire is being farmed organically and hopes to be certified organic in 2011.

Grower Jim Dalton moved to Calaveras County 10 years ago after looking for property to grow grapes in California's coastal wine regions. Dalton bought a secluded property north of Murphys that offered "peace and tranquility." With assistance from Collum, he developed the 30-acre Dalton Vineyard planted to nine varieties that now are sold to six local wineries. The vineyard is managed organically (certification is planned for 2011), with mechanical in-row weeding, organic sprays for pests and fungal problems, and cover crops between vine rows. Varieties include Syrah, Petite Sirah, Zinfandel, Marsanne, Roussanne, and Bordeaux red varieties.

Describing a unique aspect of the Calaveras wine experience for consumers, Dalton explained: "The main street of Murphys has nearly 20 tasting rooms. A visitor can come into town, rent a room, walk from tasting room to tasting room, have dinner in the evening and go back to his room without ever using a car. I don't think there are many places in America you can do that." 

The 60-acre Dragone Ranch, perhaps the county's most topographically dramatic vineyard, is planted to 16 different varieties, and ranges in elevation from about 1,600 to 2,000 feet with hillside slopes of 20% and more. Dragone was originally planted in 2000 by former vineyard and winery owner Barden Stevenot, with consultation from Collum. Stevenot Winery was the first major post-Prohibition winery in the county when it was started in the 1970s.

The Stevenot family sold the property and winery in 2006. The subsequent owner filed bankruptcy in 2009. The Dragone Ranch is currently owned by lender Bay-Sierra Financial Inc., but still is managed by Collum, and the grapes are sold to local wineries. The warmer, more exposed higher locations in the vineyard have varieties such as Syrah, Barbera, and Petite Sirah, but the lowest and coolest area near the bottom of the drainage can produce Pinot Noir. Other varieties planted here include Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, Pinot Grigio and Muscat. The vineyard was one of the first in the county to plant Iberian varieties that include Tempranillo, Graciano, Verdelho and Albariño.  

Winemaker Chuck Hovey, who started Hovey Wine Consulting in 2007, makes wine for several Calaveras brands including his own. He probably has more experience working with Dragone fruit than anyone, because he was the Stevenot winemaker for 24 years. Hovey was one of the first winemakers in the county to produce Tempranillo.

Hovey said, "We tend to get grapes with high pH due to high temperatures, but we blend in Graciano that maintains a lower pH and has a brightness that lifts up the Tempranillo to give it better depth." Hovey also will be making wines for the Stevenot label again, as the Stevenot brand, wine club and Murphys tasting room were acquired earlier this year by the Oliveto Family of Oliveto Distributing, which has distributed Stevenot wines since the 1980s.

Other vineyards visited during this year's CWA tour were Gerber Vineyard, the county's largest at 93 acres; the 300-case artisan Ayrael Vieux Vineyard & Winery, a 2-acre vineyard planted in 2004 with Sangiovese, Montepulciano and head-trained Zinfandel; and 850-case Broll Mountain Vineyard, which produces 100% estate- grown ultra-premium wines from its 12-acre vineyard.

The tour enabled attendees to ask questions about viticultural issues of concern in the area, including frost protection, soil nutrition, gopher control, preventing crop loss to birds, weed control in both organic and conventional vineyards, rootstocks, pruning, trellising, and irrigation. As in most of California, water is a major issue in Calaveras County. All new vineyards are installed with drip irrigation, and must rely on underground wells, or winter rains and onsite ponds as water sources, because there is little water supply infrastructure for agriculture. 

Wolpert, who has participated in several Calaveras Vineyard Tours, praised the CWA and the county winegrowing community, noting that they are not afraid to identify and discuss vineyard and winemaking problems in order to address issues and improve product quality for the entire area. Wolpert summarized, "I've found that the growers and winemakers here are very open about sharing information. They take the approach, and they realize that when everyone does better, then everyone does better."

Posted on 08.11.2010 - 08:56:53 PST
We took part in this, once again, very educational and interesting tour. Jon is to be commended for his very thorough and accurate account of this great day.
Murphys, CA USA