At the seventh annual Barbera Festival in Amador County’s Shenandoah Valley earlier this month, my self-appointed assignment was to taste first all the barberas I could find made solely with grapes from Dick Cooper’s nearby ranch.
Why? For one, Dick Cooper is the Johnny Appleseed of barbera, the first Shenandoah Valley grape grower to plant ambitiously this under-appreciated Italian variety. As his confidence in the grape subsequently was affirmed by the quality and value of barbera wines that began to emerge from his vineyard in the 1980s, cuttings of his vines were used to establish numerous other vineyards through the Sierra foothills.
More to the point, Dick Cooper’s own stand of barbera is so highly regarded that some 20 vintners from throughout the North State buy his grapes each harvest. Thus, I wanted to find telltale currents in each barbera made with his fruit that would explain the growing stature of barberas with “Cooper Ranch” on the label.
This is a tricky prospect, given that each winemaker applies to the grapes his or her own personality and artistic aspirations. In addition, more than one vintage of barbera was being poured across the festival grounds.
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Nevertheless, this rather pleasant exercise found that barberas made with grapes from Cooper Ranch almost without exception stood out for their fresh and forward aromas, mostly suggestive of blueberries, raspberries and cherries but occasionally wildflowers, and sometimes nettles. This alluring opening generally was followed by refreshing and juicy fruit. Other common threads were tolerant astringency and edgy acidity, but those are traits traditionally expected of barbera, regardless of whether it is grown in California or in its native Italy.
Of the 39 barberas I tasted, just five were made solely from Cooper grapes, though several others included a portion of his fruit that could range from 15 percent to 60 percent.
My favorites with “Cooper Ranch” on the label, which meant 95 percent of the fruit was from Cooper’s vineyard, included a release from the Cooper family’s own winery, the concentrated and liberally oaked Cooper Vineyards 2014 Amador County Shenandoah Valley Estate Barbera ($29).
Three additional favorites were the ripe, medium-bodied Urban Legend Cellars 2014 Sierra Foothills Cooper Ranch Barbera ($32), the rich Prospect Cellars 2015 Cooper Ranch Barbera ($32) and a barrel sample of the Feist Wines 2016 Cooper Ranch Barbera, not yet released but already showing fetching signs of savory fruit to go with its spunky acidity.
The fifth is for wine enthusiasts who want an uncommonly mature and muscular barbera, the Easton Wines 2010 Shenandoah Valley Cooper Ranch Barbera ($28).
The overall standout of the day to this palate was the Dillian Wines 2015 Amador County Barbera ($28). It was all breezy fruit, its blueberry, cherry and plum lines punctuated with a note of pomegranate. In its combination of unabashed fruit and chiming acidity, it was a veritable hybrid of California frankness and European sculpting. The wine consists of 60 percent barbera from Cooper Ranch, 30 percent from the Sleeper-Crain Ranch and 10 percent from the Dillian’s home ranch, all in Shenandoah Valley.
Once we finished our hunt for barberas made solely or largely with Cooper grapes, we explored releases from elsewhere, mostly from vineyards and wineries in the Mother Lode, where barbera is rising in such prominence that it someday may challenge zinfandel as the variety most closely identified with the region.
Decades ago, barbera was planted extensively in California’s Central Valley, in large part for the bright acidity it contributed to blended jug wines. Today, the state’s cultivation of barbera stands at little more than 5,000 acres, a slight increase over the past decade. During that same time, land planted to barbera in Amador County has grown from 174 acres to 208 acres, while acreage in neighboring El Dorado County has risen from 92 acres to 109 acres.
Barbera’s allure may be growing faster among consumers than it is among farmers, to judge by the 2,100 persons who attended the Barbera Festival, held on the grounds of Terra d’Oro Winery, which in its earlier incarnation as Montevina Winery was where the variety first was cultivated in Amador County during the modern wine era, starting in 1971.
From our tasting at the festival, our favorites aside from those already mentioned could be grouped into three broad styles:
▪ Beaujolais Style
All from the 2016 vintage, these were the friskiest and most buoyant of all the barberas on the premises. In addition to the 2016 Feist already mentioned, other exceptionally youthful and refreshing barberas were the sweetly fruity St. Amant 2016 Lodi Barbera ($18), the brilliantly colored and surprisingly long Leoni Farms 2016 Amador County Barbera ($25), and the forward and layered Sobon Estate 2016 Amador County Barbera ($17).
▪ European Style
Nothing was more gratifying than to find an uptick in the number of producers who are emulating barbera as it historically has been made in Italy. That is, they are emphasizing fresh and direct fruit, a lean structure, understated wood and the kind of spry acidity that makes the wine such an engaging and versatile companion at the dinner table.
Favorites along this line were the complete and vivid Miraflores Winery 2013 El Dorado Estate Barbera ($29), the strapping yet polite Scott Harvey Wines 2014 Amador County Reserve Barbera ($38), the clear, direct and angular Wilderotter Vineyard 2014 Shenandoah Valley Barbera ($31), the intense yet giving Bella Grace Vineyards 2014 Amador County Barbera ($32), and the Vino Noceto 2013 Shenandoah Valley Linsteadt Vineyard Barbera ($28), an uncommonly complex and persistent take on the variety, and a reminder of the elegant barberas Linsteadt Vineyard has yielded over the years.
▪ Rich and Layered Style
Bolder and heftier takes on barbera, these were purely Californian in their sunny and striding expressiveness, distinguished by gregarious fruit, reinforcing oak and big builds:
The concentrated and unusually earthy Boeger Winery 2015 El Dorado Barbera ($22) was one of the better bargains of the day for all the drama it delivers.
The forceful yet elegant and persistent Jeff Runquist Wines 2015 Reserve Barbera ($48) shows by its exuberance and balance why Runquist has been such an effective ambassador for barbera from the foothills.
The up-front, briary and mature Terra d’Oro 2015 Amador County Barbera ($18) is a fitting tribute to the winery’s long and pivotal history with the variety.
The deeply colored, solidly built and anise-accented Yorba Wines 2012 Amador County Shake Ridge Vineyard Barbera ($32) is a grand yet mannerly representative of one of the more adventurous vineyards in the foothills.
The Helwig Winery 2014 Frenchmen’s Creek Barbera ($28) frames lush sweet fruit with ample oak and enough vital acidity to please enthusiasts who want their barbera both full and spirited.
The Shenandoah Vineyards 2014 Amador County Estate Reserve Barbera ($24) is a finely honed take on a style of the varietal made to please palates at first sip – jammy with sweet fruit, broad with oak, relaxed in tannins.
The expansive and richly textured La Chertosa Wines 2014 Amador County Winemakers Remembrance Barbera ($50) is the first barbera under the La Chertosa brand from proprietor Sam Sebastiani, whose grandfather and father were celebrated for their early ways with the variety at the family’s Sebastiani Vineyards of Sonoma.
Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at email@example.com.