This is a column I wrote for the Reporter that was published on May 22, 2012.
Mike Anderson is one of the partners of Berryessa Gap Vineyards, a business that grew out of a rootstock nursery begun by his uncle Ernie Peninou and Dan Martinez, whose children are also partners in the winery business. Their vineyards are planted on hills that were once dotted with the Suffolk sheep of the Cobel family, early ranches in Yolo County. Land like this, unsuitable for most crops and relegated to sheepthat could navigate the rocky hillsides, became good for wine grapes, once drip irrigation could be managed.
It was easy to miss the winery, situated as it is in the middle of working ranches and looking out on the break in the mountains for which it is named, Berryessa Gap. If it weren't for the patio and the explosion of flowers, you might take it for a fruit-packing plant, which is exactly what it used to be. This area, west of Winters on Highway 128, is a refreshing change from the monoculture of other wine regions. When I turned onto a side road to double back, I found not just grape vines, but oranges, nuts and grapes, all growing within a few feet of each other.
The link to the past is not lost on Berryessa Gap winemaker Mike Anderson,. "I have a respect for the history of California, and look toward that for inspiration," he says. Inspiration is one thing, science another. Anderson, a viticulture researcher at UC Davis, knows the difference. "We try to learn from the people before us but that doesn't mean we're going to stop learning," he says. "If science tells me something different than tradition, then we'll move it forward."
What makes this winery distinctive is a wine labeled Durif, something rarely seen these days in California wine. For most wine geeks, Durif is synonymous with petite sirah, but Anderson demurs.
In the old days, growers weren't so fussy about the genealogy of their wines. Before Americans became infatuated with varietals, those named for grapes, such as chardonnay, pinot noir, and cabernet sauvignon, wines were often made from field blends. Vineyards were filled with a mix of grapes that were harvested, crushed and fermented together. Until the advent of DNA testing, it was uncertain what exactly was in the old vineyards called petite sirah.
"In order to have a petite sirah vineyard you need to have other stuff such as zinfandel and syrah," explained Anderson. "And by the way, a lot of people don't agree with me," he added with a smile.
To illustrate his point, Anderson makes a 100 percent Durif wine and a field-blended petite sirah. In my side-by-side tasting, both were rounder, more supple versions of the bold and rustic flavors associated with these wines. The petite sirah delivered a slightly more pronounced and peppery kick, no doubt courtesy of diversity of the varieties in that vineyard.
I love these inky tannic reds but, if you prefer, there are other wines to try, including malbec, barbera, temperanillo, syrah, zinfandel and verdelho. The Horseshoe Chardonnay was memorable for its bright, sweet apple and tropical flavors, a nice summer alternative to oaked and buttery chards. With more than nine wines, not a loser or weakling among them, Berryessa Gap Vineyards is a great value; most prices are under $20. If you want the full experience, including a hilltop view of the Berryessa Gap, check out their Springtime in the Vineyard party on Saturday.