Joel M. Fisher’s From the GrapeVine: Three Women Winemakers

Dr. Joel M. Fisher

Dr. Joel M. Fisher is a renowned wine enthusiast, educator and columnist.  He also leads Los Angeles’ biggest and most prestigious wine, brew and spirits festival LA WineFest.  This week Dr. Fisher discusses three impressive women winemakers from California.

We rolled out of town last Saturday and headed north. When we arrived in Paso Robles, we moved out to the west of 101 looking for our first interview: with Amy Butler, one of my favorite winemakers. A graduate of the UC Davis wine program, Amy initiated her winemaking career in Napa, before moving south to Paso Robles some 10 years ago. When we met, she was the winemaker for Edward Sellers and, as such, one of my favorite winemakers. I loved what they produced.

She and Anthony Yount, now winemaker for Denner Winery, co-produce some wines, and while waiting for Amy we tasted some Denner product. We began with their 2010 Viognier, a taut, young wine, with fruit, pineapple and moving to vanilla. Their 2010 Therese was a good blend, and the 2010 Rose was full of apricot. Very nice.

Amy Butler, Winemaker at Denner Winery

The winery is up to 5,000 cases moving to 7,000. The winery is 156 acres, with 106 planted. Ron Denner, the owner, like many of his compatriots, came from the business world.

We continued with their reds, starting with the 2006 Ditch Digger, a Rhone blend full of raspberry and blackberries. At .15.4% alcohol, this wine sells for $75,00 The 2009 Ditch Digger is 15.3% alcohol and sells for $45.00

Then we changed areas to taste Amy’s Ranchero Cellars releases. Her 2010 Chrome (a blend of 77% Grenche Blanc and 23% Viognier) is lean, shows the mineral quality of the grape and sells for $28. I was stunned by the taste of the wine.  It was really impressive. Her 2010 Viognier comes from the same vineyard, but is more citrusy, with more texture from red wine included with skin in the barrel. This is 1/3 concrete, in texture terms, and drinking well.

The 2008 Carignac is sold out, but the 2009 should be released soon (also selling for $28), and is a dry, high tannin wine. Imagine this with Flat Iron, lamb chop, or pork rib. But, please remember, you need to find Amy Butler’s wine and taste it.

We headed north to the Bay Area, arriving at Chez Larsen in the Oakland Hills on schedule. Next day we trekked in to Fort Mason, on the SF Bay, and spent the day at Family Winemakers annual event. On that, more later.

Monday am we headed off to Napa. Here I was pursuing a wine that I had not tasted but which had been discovered by Kay Tornborg and Veronica Cartright (yes, she of Birds and a lot of other movies). They asked me to find this new favorite of theirs, a 2004 Malbec from Paoletti Vineyard. Well, that’s gone, but I talked to winemaker Gabriella Gazzano and got her to agree to this interview that Monday. The 2009 Malbec was, indeed, a surprise, very fruit forward, good finish, and I liked the mouth feel of it.

This is a gorgeous winery, owned by the chef-owner of Peppone’s in the Brentwood part of Los Angeles. A beautiful building, a lovely tasting room, and a wonderful cellar. Place very much reminds me of Veneto and that area of Italy. The winery itself is producing around 5,000 cases, or nearly so, and will increase its output regularly. Gabriella began her career at Fritz Winery, in Sonoma, at the same time as legendary Helen Turley. She followed Turley to Napa’s Pahlmeyer, and served as Associate Winemaker for four years. Then, Gabriella moved to Pezzi King Vineyards in Sonoma and within one year was Vice President. She then came to Paoletti, and I think is doing a wonderful job there.

Winemaker Gabriella Gazzano of Paoletti Winery

I clearly loved the Malbec, but we also tasted some others — the 2009 Sangeovese,($22) also fruit forward, a bit spicy, but with a full mouth feel and a food friendly wine

The Nero D’Avila 2008 ($32), opened with strong raisin influences then moved into other fruit, with thin skinned components, and like pinor noir a tempremental wine to grow. The raisin influence persists, and this is a product terrific with food.

The Bella Novello Cabernet 2008($28) is named for Chef Paoletti’s mother, was lighter in style and moving more to a malbec style. The wine had good tannins, and a sweet finish. Paoletti produces more than a dozen varietals, is located on the Silverado Trail south of Calistoga and I seriously recommend you visit the facility. Well worth your time, and I will go visit Peppone’s, Gianni Paolettis restaurant in Brentwood.

Then, it was Wednesday, and we raced south from Paso Robles to Santa Barbara, and up the short cut to Firestone Winery.  Its been a long time since I’ve visited there, but was so pleased to be reuniting with one of my favorite winemakers:  Amy Freeman.  When we met, she was winemaker for Saucelito Canyon, up Lopez Lake in the Arroyo Grande AVA. When we walked around that afternoon, looking at the old zinfandel vines, I tasted her newest product.  It was terrific!  That night I met the family at a San Luis Obispo event at Avila Bay.  She brought me one of her sauvignon blancs.  It really was one of the best, including from New Zealand, I’ve ever tasted.  So, in a couple of glasses, I had been wowed by a young lady never met before.

From a winemaking family, Amy earned her first degree in nutrition from the University of Minnesota, before coming to California.  She worked at Byron Vineyard first, and then moved herself to Rusack Vineyards, where she was a cellar worker.

Winemaker Amy Freeman of EOS Estate Winery

Back to Byron, she became assistant winemaker and then winemaker and vineyard manager for Saucelito Canyon in Arroyo Grande Valley.

Four years later, Amy became assistant winemaker for Foley Family Wines, and in June 2011 became winemaker for EOS Estate Winery.  She certainly is enjoying being back in the Central Coast, and is a member of the Board of Directors for the Central Coast Vineyard Team.  She has been to at least two of the LAWineFest events, and I’ve invited her to be on the wine maker panel for the 2012 LAWinefest next June.

We tasted a few of her new wines (none of them yet made by her, including the 2009 Chardonnay which was lean and very Burgundian.  I also enjoyed the Muscato Canelli, with fruit from the Arciero winery.  Very nice, and brought back memories of the first time I enjoyed it at Narsai David’s restaurant on San Pablo in Berkeley.  The 2008 Zinfandel, from Paso Robles, sits with 14.8% alcohol, and sells for $14.00.   The 2008 Cabernet is also from Paso Robles, and has 14% alcohol. We can all look forward to seeing her results next year.  Remember, its less than two hours from Los Angeles.  Make the time.

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