Friday, June 27, 2014

Staggs MY back yard?

Tintoria; Dark and Naughty!
Year three of my personal research journey as a wine blogger has taught me much about all things grape, and I have finally reached a pinnacle...or, as some would say, a boredom with the repetitive flavors of California wine. It didn't help that a recent invite to a private tasting in San Francisco at the exclusive Four Seasons Hotel, introduced me to Greek wines, and that their winemaking style is something to definitely pay attention to. (Not going to mention that the food provided was to die for! Nope, not going to say anything.) Greek wine is sooooo different from California wine, or, from any other wine region that I have experienced, so much that, oh wait, I'm writing about a new place in the Sacramento Delta. We'll talk about Greek wine later.
Meanwhile,  to alleviate the boredom, the repetitive, never ending barrage of all things California grape juice, I have had to dig deeper into the nooks and crannies of the California wine country to find that elusive, unique, dark and naughty wine that I love so dearly.

The Journey Continues!

Because I am still a full-time student/freelance photojournalist/wine blogger, I'm cash pour, but passion inspired. Translation; the car eats better than I do, which enables me to visit those out of the way, difficult to find, rare, hidden, gems so far from where I live.

After putting five dollars in my car, Kenji's gas tank, (Yes, folks, it's like this, I'm BROKE!) me and my ever so willing to ride shotgun cousin, Sojo, departed for a day of exploration and new adventures.

We began our day, roughly twelve miles from my front yard, by visiting an old favorite haunt in Clarksburg, The Sugar Mill. Sojo needed to check on her wine club at a winery that I will write about soon, and after sampling a few wines at this unnamed facility, we decided to check out a winery on the eastern side of the Sacramento River.

As we drove away from the Sugar Mill, and as luck would have it, we spotted a sign just ahead, on the levee road, about the size of a standard piece of copy paper, perched atop what appeared to be a street barrier, behind some roadside scrub weeds. I have no idea how Sojo spotted the sign, and once I slowed Kenji (That's what I call my car) to a crawl,  and put on my 2+ power reading glasses, the sign jumped out in plain view for me to see as well.

New Winery!

The sign says it all...sort of?

Initially, the sign did not indicate how far one would have to drive on this desolate back road,and not seeing anything except endless dirt and the occasional field of unknown crops, we nearly turned around twice. But Kenji, (That's what I call my car) running on fumes by now, persevered, and we continued onward to seek out this new promise of wine.

As we drove west, the road became dotted with full, heavy fruit laden vineyards bathing in the delta sunlight. Having traveled these back roads many times, I was reminded of the days of endless sugar beet and tomato trucks ferrying their loads along the nearby winding and precarious levee road. It gives me great joy to see grapevines planted in these fields, and even more joy to see the area become a new destination for wine and tourism.
Julietta Winery

 Squinting through the glare of my windshield, we arrived at Julietta Winery, unsure if they were still open. (The Sugar Mill had just booted us for a wedding taking place at five.) Pulling into the gravel driveway, we were greeted by a couple who genuinely were glad to see us. How do I know this? Gravel driveways kick up a ton of dust, which is not good for grapevines. On more than one occasion, I have been reprimanded for driving two miles per hour on the often posted five miles per hour signs on gravel driveways that many wineries have. Thus, I was prepared to be spanked for kicking up dust...again! Anyhoo, we were spared the verbal tongue lashing for kicking up dust and greeted warmly by the owners, Craig and Julie Russell.

Julie and Craig Russell, in their tasting room

Craig Russell, born and raised in Napa, is a retired general contractor. Tending to newly planted grapevines along the driveway, as we drove in, he and his wife Julie, the director of charter schools for the State of California, warmly invited us to come in for a taste of their wines. This caught both Sojo and I by surprise. We both have a lot of experience working winery tasting rooms, and we  know what it's like for the last visitor to pull in the parking lot at closing time. Nonetheless, we took note of this genuine warm greeting and parked in the ample parking lot.

Note: Having recently completed a course in liability and risk management, I was particularly pleased to see that the parking lot was one of the most professionally ADA compliant designed features that I had ever seen at a winery. This gave me the warm and fuzzy's to know that the owners were cognizant of their duty to provide for those with disabilities.
We parked and marveled at the charming, rustic building, the westward, fast approaching  sunset and the meticulous new landscape. The air was full of warmth and the delta breeze had just begun to blow, cooling the air and beckoning us to stay a bit longer. We instantly fell in love with the atmosphere, but were just beginning to experience what real hospitality is all about.

Sign at entrance of Julietta Winery
In the world of customer service, and more accurately, in the wine least at wineries that I have worked at, when a customer arrives at closing time, you serve them. You do not EVER make them feel as though they are not welcome, or worse, that you have something better to LEAVE, because it's two minutes till ??? I know this all too well;  in my experience, I once was asked to re-open a closed winery tasting room to facilitate customers who had been delayed due to some un- avoidable issue. Did I like doing this? No, but hey, it's what you do to take care of guests...and you do it with a genuine smile.

Craig and Julie did just this, and it was with a genuine warmth that gave Sojo reason to begin planning her birthday bash, to be held at this rare delta gem.

The Monet inspired tasting room
Leading us into the large, well lit, warm and cozy tasting room which had been a former corrugated steel building, the inviting layout held numerous opportunities for large gatherings, private dinners or just a day to watch the game on the wall mounted flat screen television. Leather chairs, located at the double door exit to the large covered patio were available for intimate conversations, and the western facing window provided a perfect opportunity to watch the delta sunset.
Julie assured us that they would be putting up a shade to control the vast amount of sunlight that entered through the windows, but would still allow guests to experience the view.

The room is designed with a then not known Monet inspiration that Craig had somehow mentally conceived. Perhaps it was a spiritual manifestation? He was soon given a book about artist Claude Monet's studio. While leafing through the pages of the book, one cannot help but notice that the architecture, material and fixtures are nearly identical to the design in Julietta's tasting room. The spiritual manifestations do not cease here, but I'll allow the Russell's to share the story of how the winery got its' name when you come for a visit.

Sauntering through the front door, I was enthralled by the outdoor fire pit. This feature alone would be enough to encourage me to visit often. (I should also mention that there is a slough that careens next to the winery with a promise of bass fishing. Just sayin'.) Craig, who was attentive and gracious at all times, offered the use of the fire pit for late evening date nights, or just a way to unwind with a bottle of wine as long as we gave prior notice that we would be on the premises. Similar to the days when folks left the keys to their house under the doormat in case you needed to get in while they were out, honesty and trust have become relics of the past. However, the Russell's have decided that this will be how they operate their winery; good old fashioned customer service.

The Wine

Dark and Naughty!
 Customer service aside...and they had already hooked us to the point of becoming regular visitors, the wine is...well, PHENOMENAL! Remember when I said that I was bored with California wine? Not any more!

Introducing Tintoria! Sometimes referred to as Alacante Bouschet, is a teinturier wine grape. Unlike most red grape varietals that have white flesh innards, teinturier, a French word meaning "tinter" or 'dyer" grapes have red tinted flesh that make significantly richer colored wines. Originally used as blending grapes, these dark and naughty (because they have flavors that are sometimes elusive and complex) high - yielding, easy to grow varietals are not for the faint of heart.

Widely planted in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of France, Spain and Portugal, and to a lesser extent in parts of Italy, Israel, Chile, Africa and California, the varietal is a clone of Petit Bouschet and Grenache first cultivated by viticulturalist Henri Bouschet in 1866. One of the grapes more historical contributions is that it was used to help rebuild the 19th century Phylloxera epidemic that devastated the European wine industry. During prohibition in the United States, Alicante Bouschet was grown in California and sold on the east coast as table grapes. For wine production, its' thick skin allowed wine makers to press the grape several times to make sure every drop of color and tannins were extracted to give wines their rich color and texture. Alacante Bouschet has always been one of my favorite varietals and is becoming more difficult to find. With a little prodding, Craig unselfishly allowed us to sample this wine more than once...lest we not be sure that we like it.

Blue residue from the Tintoria
As a bonafide Rhone wine connoisseur,  Syrah is also another favorite. Julietta winery does not disappoint with this palate puckering varietal. I'll avoid the over described fruit forward, smokey, yada, yada, yada, wine speak.  This wine was...Orgasmic! Yes, a bottle of this, a Teddy Pendergast CD and the outdoor fire pit...can you say, "Date Night!"
In the words of Teddy P., "Come here!"

Winemaker Brian Brown, formerly of Trefethan and Round Pond Wineries, and now at Onyx in Paso Robles, knows what he is doing when it comes to creating wine that Craig and Julie enjoy sharing with their guests. Because they are not winemaker themselves, they entrusted Brian to do his thing in the process, but he on the other hand, was more interested in creating what they enjoyed drinking and wanted to share with their guests. This made Craig a bit uneasy in the beginning, but he soon understood that winemaking is a visceral art form and that passion is one of the most important components in the formula. Brian was able to translate their passion for wine, life and sharing of their blessings through the creation of a selection of both red and white wines that are sure to impress the most astute wine drinker or the novice who just wants to enjoy a great day on the delta.

Speaking of Staggs Leap?

Craig samples, "The Cab!"
 Remember when I said that I was bored with California wine? Pulling out all of the stops, Craig allowed me on a second visit to sample their Staggs Leap Cabernet Sauvignon. This Napa Valley/Oakville/Saint Helena grown wine is 96 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 1/4 percent of a unknown to Craig white wine varietal. That quarter percent of something proves that Brian is a master at making red wine. It is not uncommon to add white grape varietal juice to red wine as most red grape varietals have white flesh. The skins are what give red wine its' color.
Drooling in anticipation, Craig produced the professionals choice for wine retrieval, a turkey baster, to draw a sample for me to taste. Sniffing, swirling and sniffing some more, the wine was beyond good from this standpoint. Now it was time to introduce it to my over saliva filled mouth. Boo Yeah!  Unbelievable, and indescribable! I was too engaged with my glass to get minor details such as when the wine will be ready, how much did they produce and what will the price point be. Call them and ask for yourselves, or better yet, visit! I'm still thinking about this amazing wine!

Click on label to enlarge
Another special wine, and quite nice to drink on any given day, is the red table blend aptly called, "Beverly's Legacy." The wine was named in honor of Craig's mother, Beverly. According to Craig, his mother enjoyed a popular Napa wine blend that inspired the creation of this wine. However, the most unique thing about the wine is the dual year marked on the label. This is a rarity, as the TTB (Tobacco, Tax and Trade Bureau) do not allow two vintage dates...or any date on a non-vintage wine label. Again, you will have to visit the winery to get the full story on this.

As I wrapped up my second visit, the Russell's  filled me in on future plans for the winery. A bocce ball court, dog park and small pond are in the works, and they plan to add a VIP tasting parlor to their nearby home.

For now, the warm, genuine hospitality, creative operational hours (Remember, date night?), outdoor fire pit, covered patio, large tasting room (Don't forget the careening water better known as "Duck Slough...bring a fishing pole. Just sayin') and excellent wine provide guests with enough reasons to make this new winery a destination worth visiting. I give this location three "slaps upside the head," and that's a good thing!

Julietta Winery, Get in there, Damn it! (Julie's words)

Until next time,

51221 Clarksburg Road Clarksburg, CA 95612. Tasting Room Open Thursday - Sunday, or by appointment. 11:00 a.m. - 6:00 p.m.

Date night for sure!