I had been looking forward to the Sierra Foothills Barbera Festival all year. I missed the chance to go last year because I found out about it too late. So this year, I was not going to miss it.
This early summer mountain festival is a place where California Barbera producers can gather together and showcase their Barberas all at once. Since its inception in 2011, it has taken place at Cooper Ranch in the Shenandoah Valley of the Sierra Foothills.
This is a great location because, in my opinion, the Sierra Foothills appellations are the most suitable places to grow Barbera in California, and the Cooper Ranch—if you don’t already know—is pretty famous. While it wasn’t home to the very first Barbera vineyard in California,* it is today perhaps the most acclaimed and influential Barbera vineyard in California. Dick Cooper, son of Hank Cooper who originally planted the vineyard in the 1970s, enthusiastically manages this vineyard and is responsible for supplying many Sierra Foothills wineries with Barbera grapes. He also counsels many growers in the Sierra Foothills on how to grow a successful Barbera vineyard. His official handbook lives in the Cooper Vineyards tasting room for anyone to browse.
Dick Cooper’s vineyard is a peculiar site to see, at least for this Californian, Piemontese-wannabe whose wine knowledge is ironically rooted in Piemonte, not California. His vines remind me of Snuffaluffagus because of the way they are shaped.
By this, I do not mean one ounce of disrespect, but compared to Barbera vines in Piemonte, they do look like Snuffaluffagus! They are head-pruned and the foliage is allowed to grow out in all directions, creating a canopy to shade the grapes. This shape is perfectly suited to the Sierra Foothills climate: hot!
And if they looked like the Piemontese ones, with the grapes exposed like a nude sunbather in the California sunshine, they would surely shrivel up and fall to their deaths before July ever hit. So the Coopers obviously know what they’re doing.
It seems like every time I go to Cooper Ranch, the temperature is in the 100’s. And unfortunately for me, this year’s Barbera Festival was no exception. As the festival approached, I watched the forecasted temperature creep slowly up and up. I wished every day that it would go back down, or that the weather people would be drastically wrong. But they weren’t. The high was 106°F.
Some people (the crazy ones) like this kind of weather. Me? I’m programmed for life in a soggy, wet bog. My Irish genes afford me about 30 minutes in the sun before my skin starts to burn. My internal systems start shutting down when the temperature passes 84°F. But I’ve done stranger things for Piemontese wines and varieties. And I taste quickly. So I went anyway. Like I said, I could not miss it.
My husband agreed to go with me, and while he hates the heat, his Pakistani heritage gives him a real hot-weather advantage. Luckily I had him with me to park the car, find me water, find me shade, and tell me I had better eat when I started getting crabby.
Needless to say, I didn’t last more than two hours. But I tasted everything I wanted to taste. I didn’t take detailed notes but tried to get an overall picture from the tasting, while focusing on a few key producers. Unfortunately some producers didn’t realize they couldn’t just keep the bottles out in the 90°-100°F + ambient air. The bottles heat up quickly and not only are the flavors bad when the wine is hot, if kept that way for very long, the wine will spoil. Some of the wines I tasted are probably nice wines, but were way too hot that day to assess. They are noted below.
I’ve listed my reviews by producer, starting with standouts. Click on each producer name to be taken to their website. If you’d like an explanation of my star rating system, click here.
I’ve known of these wines ever since I worked at a wine shop in Tahoe City back in 2002 but have never visited the winery and haven’t had a lot of recent experience with them. But I remembered that they were always good.
Good is an understatement. I was genuinely impressed. (And needless to say, grateful the wines were on ice!) They have two different Barberas: Monarch Mine Vineyard, a 15 year old vineyard near Auburn, California at 2,400 feet in elevation with decomposed granite and volcanic soils. The other one comes from Cooper Vineyard but is labeled simply as Shenandoah Valley. The Easton site on the Cooper Vineyard is south-facing with volcanic soils, sits at 1,700 feet, and the vines are 40 years old.
Monarch Mine Vineyard Barbera 2008. Sierra Foothills. Spicy with red fruit instead of the usual Foothills dark fruit. Light and not cloying; balanced and quite pleasant. ★★☆
Monarch Mine Vineyard Barbera 2007. Sierra Foothills. Spicy also with a red fruit character. Seemed to have a little more alcohol than the 2008, but certainly not over the top. Still a standout for its grace, compared to many others. ★★☆
Shenandoah Valley Barbera 2007. Shenandoah Valley. A little vegetal with dark fruit. Mossy. Not as good as the Monarch Mine, but still good.
Shenandoah Valley Barbera 2005. Shenandoah Valley. Not my favorite of the group but still good for 8 years old.
This was a new find for me! And their style is probably exactly opposite from Easton. But what struck me about the Yorba wines was their overall equilibrium, even while being totally Californian. They are certainly in the California style—fruity, concentrated, and robust. But there is that special “Je ne sais pas” in these wines that makes them interesting and gives them depth.
Shake Ridge Vineyards Barbera 2009. Sierra Foothills. Intense with dark and ripe fruit. Dark chocolate and earthy undertones carry through to the finish. Exotic spices give it an extra layer of interest. ★★
Shake Ridge Vineyards Barbera 2008. Sierra Foothills. Similar but more mellow than the 2009, with the oak influence a little more prominent but still well integrated. ★
I discovered Hovey last year via their Petite Sirah at Grounds restaurant in Murphys. I like all of the wines they make, and the Barbera is no exception.
Walker Cuvée 2011. El Dorado County. Lush and velvety but bright and balanced. Lots of ripe, wild blackberry fruit entwined with a touch of vanilla. ★★
I still like Runquist wines but I just don’t love them as much as I used to. Still, I think they are one of the better producers in the Sierra Foothills. I took the time to taste through all of the Barberas they had there. Luckily their table was well placed under a big tree that provided lots of shade for my quickly withering self.
Barbera 2011. Amador County. The oak stood out to me the most in this wine but that is just how the Runquist wines are. Vanilla and blackberry syrup leap up and out of the glass. On the palate, the wine is pleasantly tart. ★
Cooper Vineyard 2011. Shenandoah Valley. A little light and tart. Surprising and contemplative. Still, nothing off-putting in this wine but I think it just needs some time in the bottle. ★
Ambra Vineyard Reserve 2011. Amador County. This vineyard has a south-west exposure, has the same red soil as Cooper Vineyard, but sits at a higher elevation. The wine gives off a bouquet of intense vanilla and sweet oak with currants and plums but the tannins are a little bitter. Needs aging. ★☆
Concerto Barbera 2010. Fiddletown. Appealing overall but the alcohol seemed a bit high. Aged in French oak; 15% alcohol (although, I am sure that many others at the festival were this high or higher.) ★
Reserve Barbera 2011. Fiddletown. This version is more balanced than the 2010 Concerto. Aromas of piney herbs and sweet vanilla offset opulent blueberry and plum flavors. Big bodied, but nice acidity to help harmonize. ★☆
Rosato Barbera 2010. Shenandoah Valley. Beautiful color with the scent of a freshly-chopped-open watermelon. Pleasant cranberry and pomegranate flavors are light on the palate. ★
Barbera 2010. Shenandoah Valley. This wine stands out for its chalky tannins, of which Barbera usually has none. The wine maker told me the soil in the vineyard is almost all decomposed granite and they use neutral oak. These two conditions, to me, allow the fruit and minerals to shine and make this into a well-structured wine with lots of personality. ★☆
Barbera 2010. Amador County. Fruity nose; a little bitter but still refreshing on the palate. ★
The Thomas Fogarty Oleta Vineyard Barbera from the Fiddletown AVA in Amador County impressed me but I didn’t write any notes.
I could not accurately assess the Barberas from the following wineries because thier wines were too hot: Renwood, Vino Noceto, and Miraflores. I would like to try them again—perhaps in an environment that is cooler that 106°F!—because I’ve had great experiences with these wineries’ wines in the past.
For many years one of my favorite California Barberas was the Scott Harvey Mountain Selection Barbera but unfortunately not this year. I don’t really care for the Reserve either. They both just seem thin, bitter, and tart. But I’ll try again with the next vintage. I couldn’t actually find them at the festival but I stopped by their tasting room the next day.
And for the record, I was not a fan of any of the wines from these producers:
Dillian (boring), Christian Lazo (fruity, hot, “cocktail wine”), Boeger (imbalanced and thin), Portalupi (imbalanced and strange), Frog’s Tooth (too much acid), and Villa Toscana (too much vanilla). Interestingly Villa Toscana had a White Barbera but I found it to just taste like a sweet Sauvignon blanc.
A few last ones either disappointingly didn’t show, or I couldn’t find them in my heat-induced stupor: Palmina, Jacuzzi, and Nevada City Winery.
I can’t say I tried every wine at the festival so I probably missed a few good ones. I’ll have to go back next year and try new stuff. Hopefully it won’t be the inferno it was this year!
* Barbera is one of the most prominent grapes of Italy; it ranks second in planted acreage and is prolific in the Piedmont region, where it is thought to have originated. John Doyle was the first to import the grape to California and planted the first Barbera vineyard in Cupertino. His first vintage was in 1884. In the 1890’s the Italian Swiss Colony Winery used Barbera successfully for table wines. Yet after Prohibition, it did not gain popularity again until the rapid acreage expansion in the 70’s and 80’s when it was used for bulk wines and blending. Today there is a renewed interest in Barbera in the coastal and foothill districts of California.
The above text is from Wine Grape Varieties in California. Oakland: University of California Div. of Agriculture and Nat. Resources, 2003.