An Overnight in El Dorado
This weekend I was lucky enough to spend an overnight in the Sierra Foothills exploring vineyards and a few of the wines of El Dorado county. The stay began with Hank Beckmeyer and Caroline Hoel of La Clarine Farm, then ventured over to the predominately Rhone program of Skinner Wine. The next morning we did a tour of some of the interesting vineyards of El Dorado. Finally, I was able to taste through a beautiful collection of North Coast Pinots from Sonoma and Mendocino counties with Gros Ventre Cellars. I’ll be writing up profiles later but in the meantime, here are photos from the weekend.
La Clarine Farm with Hank and Caroline
Hank Beckmeyer and Caroline Hoel grow 2 acres of head trained, low to the ground vines in a melange of grape types including Tannat, Tempranillo, Grenache, Syrah, and Cabernet. In their Home Vineyard blend, the grapes are cofermented into a wonderfully ambiguous red. Their other wines are sourced from grapes grown within a 5 mile range of their own property from sites whose farming practices the pair can get behind.
view from the top–Hank Beckmeyer at the top of La Clarine Farm
The smaller vine profile of their home property means less water need, and less overall tending — a practice inline with their overall philosophy of “stripped to the bare essentials” farming. The two have drawn inspiration from a wealth of interests ranging from their background in music, passion for cheese making, and study of a range of cultural influences. Ultimately, their goal with La Clarine Farm wines has been to make wine they’d enjoy drinking themselves.
Hank Beckmeyer and Caroline Hoel
Beckmeyer and Hoel both worked in the music industry and took root, for a time, in Germany as a result. Eventually they desired to set out on their own with a parcel that they could develop in a series of projects. The Sierra Foothills offered affordable access to such property, so in 2001 they relocated to California, beginning too to plant vines in El Dorado in 2002.
The pair’s label is driven by Beckmeyer’s love for experimentation. The overall approach includes ambient yeast without additives. The labels motivations include exploration of what grapes do well in the region — a fairly new path of discovery for the Foothills in general. Documentation shows that vines were planted in the region during the Goldrush of the 1800s, but even so, what vines do best in the unique soils and microclimates is a newer question.
In listening to Beckmeyer describe his own winemaking, it is clear that a sense of playfulness also drives his choices. Such verve shows through as the wines seem to match the character of the couple — quietly jovial with an easy going whole lot of interest.
The pair have also kept goats on the property, tending over a hundred head at the height of the venture. For three years Caroline made La Clarine Farm cheeses as well. No longer focused on producing artisanal cheese, today the herd is smaller
Ghost Face deciding if I’m okay to visit
the youngest of the herd, Number 1
Tasting at Skinner Wine with Chris Pittenger
Skinner Wines carries legacy to winemaking in the gold rush. The family ventured into the area seeking gold and eventually planted vines and made wine in the region as well. Carey and Mike Skinner established their vineyard and winery property in 2007 with the help of winemaker, Chris Pittenger. The project has supported the view that the region holds a talent for Rhone varieties, as well as Petite Sirah.
Skinner’s wine program focuses centrally on Rhone varieties, including whites. Grapes come primarily from two Skinner vineyard locations but also source fruit from a few choice vineyards through El Dorado county.
Chris Pittenger had worked in wine in Australia and throughout Napa and Sonoma counties when he was recruited to help establish the Skinner project. When purchased, the property was already planted to Syrah and Viognier, and has since expanded to include vines of Grenache, Mourvedre, Counoise, Petite Sirah, Grenache blanc, Picpoul and others.
Tasting through the Skinner Rhone reds collection there is a beautiful consistency of quality, with vintage variation. The winemaking utilizes natural yeast with no additives, with a focus on picking to retain acidity. Pittenger is especially excited about the Grenache they are producing from the region.
I fell in love with the Mourvedre, especially the 2010 Estate.
One of the nice surprises was the Skinner 2010 Petite Sirah. This wine carries the burly-shoulder heft of Petite Sirah with gracefulness. It’s a grape that is easily, and often over done, but Skinner’s version marries a delicate touch with the stoutness of the grape. I like it.
Touring El Dorado Vineyards with Chris Pittenger and Hardy Wallace
Our first stop was Fenaughty Vineyard at 2600 ft elevation. The morning sun is more intense through the region than the afternoon sun. With East-West oriented rows, leaf thinning is done to shade the morning sun, and open up the afternoon, the reverse of canopy maintenance in many other locations.
Many of the vineyards through this portion of El Dorado circle the American River Canyon, and are managed or owned by Ron Mansfield.
At the edge of the American River Canyon Ron Mansfield farms Grenache (among others) in a unique vertical cordone method — the plants appear head trained yet branch in a circular pattern around the stock in a sort of coat tree pattern that is a rotating version of a ladder cordon. The effect gives dappled light throughout the canopy with tons of airflow.
Chris and Hardy standing in the Grenache
The site hosts an intense red volcanic dusty loam.
The #1 Vineyard* in America stands at 2000 ft where Hardy Wallace began sourcing Pinot Blanc in 2013 for an exciting new venture from Dirty & Rowdy.
Hardy and Chris checking the Pinot Blanc
Hardy psyched about his Pinot Blanc
Across the street grows another excellent spot — some of the only Gamay in California, Barsotti Vineyard — one of two locations that RPM Wines (yummy) draw from. The vines grow over the crest of a hill and down to the edge of the American River Canyon with only blackberry bushes marking the bounds of the last step before Hill Tumble-down. Here: Chris and Hardy stand in the Gamay on the side of the slope.
Looking from above — Chris takes a pic of me standing in the Gamay in the last row before the Canyon edge
Standing around 2000 ft, ElenRidge Vineyard provides Rhone varieties for a number of yummy California labels including Skinner and Donkey & Goat .
Hardy and Chris walk in to inspect Mourvedre at ElenRidge Vineyard
Chris stands within Skinner’s Roussanne rows, with their Mourvedre rows on the Western facing slope in the background
Tasting the Northern Coast: Gros Ventre Coastal Pinots
Chris and Sarah Pittenger started their Pinot Noir label, Gros Ventre Cellars, in 2009 sourcing fruit from a few choice vineyards on the North Coast from Sonoma and Mendocino counties. Here: a vertical 2009-2011 of Cerise Vineyard Pinot (especially enjoyed the 2009)
A number of their vineyard sites count within the “West of the West” profile, clutching the rim of the Pacific on the Western reach of Sonoma county. Here: a 2011 horizontal — Cambell Ranch Vineyard, Sonoma Coast, and First Born.
The Baranoff Vineyard (here: 2009 and 2010) sits at the Western stretch of the Russian River Valley.
The Gros Ventre Pinots offer a beautiful delicacy with great structure and tension. The wines tasted consistently gave a beautiful center of focus with light touch winemaking, and flavor variation based on location. Beautiful.
Chris and Sarah Pittenger
* claim substantiated only by the personal opinion of a handful of very good people.
Thank you to Chris and Sarah Pittenger for extending the invitation.
Thank you to Hank Beckmeyer and Caroline Hoel for sharing time and having me.
Thank you to Carey and Mike Skinner for hosting such a wonderful dinner.
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