A Central Valley Surprise, Mariposa Wine Company

wine-trip-april-09-097So the two of us are driving north to Calaveras County on California highway 99, and we’re looking for a good spot to snag some lunch, stretch our legs – the usual sort of road trip stop.  The 99, if you’ve never been on it, runs up the middle of the San Joaquin Valley (aka California’s Central Valley), to the east of Interstate 5, which also runs through the San Joaquin Valley.  This is the state’s massive agricultural region, and they’re growing a little bit of everything out here and lots and lots of raisins, fruits, nuts, cotton and other veggies.  They also grow a lot of wine grapes – in fact, more wine grapes are grown in the San Joaquin Valley than anywhere else in California.

In any case, while these are rather interesting facts, scenery-wise, it’s not too exciting.  Especially when you’re on the road and the only stops are the usual fast food folks and gas stations.  When we’re on the road, we try to avoid places that we have at home.  There were, however, a couple signs for Wine Tasting.  The first didn’t come up at a good place to stop.  But the second came up at a good time to be stopping, in Madera, California.  It didn’t look like much, just a big factory-style building out in the middle of nowhere with a small, red clapboard building next to it advertising produce and nuts.wine-trip-april-09-093

Hmmm.  Mariposa Wine Company.  The yard out in front of the tasting room was nicely decorated.  Next to the parking lot was a whole lot of giant crushing machines and some stainless steel tanks.  It had the right smell.  The tasting room was lovely.  Margaret Ruiz, the tasting room hostess, was delightful and chatty and full of good information about the wines, although Mike’s more technical questions caught her a little off-guard.  They were good questions, just not the kind most folks ask.  And Margaret was able to answer most of them.

The winery and tasting room have been open since 2003 and they produce just under 5,000 cases a year, under three different labels.  But Ruiz said they are all made by the same winemaker.  They do get their grapes from the better known wine regions in California.  However, they are part of a growing network of small wineries in the Madera area.

Coming up next, we’ll be looking at a couple of the wines from the company’s mid-range label, Carmichael.  In the meantime, you can check out the winery here.

wine-trip-april-09-095

From Whence Comes the OddBallGrape

Ken Volk doesn’t know this yet, but in a way, he is a major inspiration for this site.  The president and director of winemaking for Kenneth Volk Vineyards, Volk has a long history of experimenting with grape varieties that no one else has even heard of, let alone tasted.

Ken Volk with his negrette (Photo courtesy of Kenneth Volk Vineyards)
Ken Volk with his negrette (Photo courtesy of Kenneth Volk Vineyards)

Some years back, when Volk was still at Wild Horse, the Paso Robles winery where he made a name for himself, there was this little red called blaufrankisch.  Most folks were a little wary of it.  We dove right in and discovered what a joy trying something really new and different can be.  Ever since then, finding those odd ball grapes has been one of our passions.  And when this site came together, it seemed only natural to name it after that passion.

Volk sold Wild Horse in 2003 and the next year bought the facility he has now in the Santa Maria Valley.  His first wines under his namesake label rolled out in 2006.

Mike’s first experience with the Kenneth Volk product occurred as the last stop on the bus tour from hell.  Anne was working.  The weather was beyond miserably hot.  The wines at the other wineries were all over-oaked.  And the rest of the winemaking club was cranky, to say the least.  But Volk not only took the time to talk to the group, the wines (13 different bottles) were a revelation.  Pinots, cabs, chards, maybe even a negrette or a tempranillo or something like that.  Mike didn’t take notes that day.  But it was an impressive tasting both in terms of the scope and the really good flavor.  When the wine tastes that good at the end of the day, you know you’ve got something special.

We also recently spoke with Volk at the Family Winemakers event in Del Mar, California, and yes, he will be producing some blaufrankisch starting as early as this year.

“I’ve got an acre and a half of blaufranckisch, which I’ll be getting a crop off of this year,” he said.  “It was a graft that I did last year, so I expect it to…  I’ll probably get two tons of it this year.”

But we’ll still have to wait another couple years or so before anything gets bottled and/or released.

But what drives his interest in different…  Okay, odd ball grapes?

“There’s so many interesting grape varieties out there that have interesting flavors and unfortunately, the industry is dominated by a handful of them,” Volk said.  “Every year I try to do a new variety I’ve never done before.”

Negrette (photo courtesy of Kenneth Volk Vineyards)
Negrette (photo courtesy of Kenneth Volk Vineyards)

And we’ll be featuring his negrette and his verdelho over the next few days.  You can find out more about Volk and his winery at his website, volkwines.com.

An American Winery, Ceja Vineyards

This is the American story.  In the early to mid 1960s, Pablo Ceja joined thousands of his country-men to leave their native Mexico and work in the brasero program in California, picking crops and otherwise working in the fields.  Ceja landed in St. Helena, picking grapes across the Napa valley and dreaming of owning his own vineyard.

The family, including mama Juanita, immigrated to the U.S. in 1967, and Pablo’s two sons, Pedro and Armando, caught the dream from their father.  In 1983, Pedro and his wife Amelia, pooled resources with their parents and Armando, and the family bought their first vineyard.

Since then, they’ve gone well beyond just growing grapes in Napa’s famous Carneros region to producing up to 10,000 cases of premium wines.  And the third generation of Cejas are helping out with the family business, including two tasting rooms, one at 1248 First St., in Napa, itself, and another open by appointment only – a small house that’s been made over into a gorgeous facility perfect for groups.

The family may be dead serious about producing their wines, but even with the beautiful appointments of the tasting room and almost slick atmosphere there is a sly sense of humor.  Check out the business cards.  We talked with Ariel Ceja, who is listed at General Manager of the winery and “Da Little Guy.”  Wine Educator Javier Hernandez is also the Papi Chulo.  Problem is, there really isn’t a good translation for it, but it’s something along the lines of Pretty Boy or Hot Daddy (both of which Javier is).  He is such a sweetie and very passionate about sharing wine.

“You have to learn the philosophy of the winemaker,” he told us.  “Ours is to produce wines that go with any kind of food.”

Javier was also quick to point out that not all Mexican food is spicy – heat not usually being a flavor component that goes well with wine.  And, in fact, he offered up several examples of traditional dishes, such as mole, that go very well with certain reds.  You can check their website for several other examples.

While Javier conceded that most people associate beer with Mexican culture, he rightfully reminded us that most of the laborers in California wineries came (or come) from Mexico.

“We also know how to do it,” he said.

And they do.

Ceja Vineyards’ website can be found here.

Anne Louise Bannon

Mike Holland

Odd Ball Grape

Up and Running With Twisted Wine

The crush pad.  The tasting room looks better.
The crush pad. The tasting room looks better.

Drat the folks at Sunset Magazine.  According to Twisted Oak Winery Owner Jeff Stai, the magazine’s article on the winery had the money quote: “If Monty Python started a winery, this would be it.”

wine-trip-april-09-113Pirates, rubber chickens, and symbols for language not suitable for sensitive ears.  It’s all part of the Twisted zeitgeist and fun at Stai’s winery in Vallecito, California.  It’s not a winery for the uber serious or for people who do the “nice” thing.  But if you don’t mind the silliness, you can get some lovely, food-friendly wines.  And if you do like the silliness, you can have a grand old time there.wine-trip-april-09-107

Now, keep in mind, Anne has known Jeff for years via the FoodWine email list – an electronic world-wide kitchen table.  But we first met Jeff – or El Jefe, as he is known – last year when we decided to check out the joint after hearing good things from fellow FoodWinos Tina Vierra and Penny Gadd-Coster.  Mike liked the wine so much he immediately joined the Twisted Few wine club, and then earlier this year won the Write the Label contest for this year’s bottling of Ruben, the white wine blend that’s named after Ruben the Rubber Chicken mascot.  So, we are getting a case of it as our prize, but that was before we decided to start the blog.

El Jefe at work on the bottling line - yeah, he really does work!
El Jefe at work on the bottling line - yeah, he really does work!

Schtick aside, it’s all about the wines, first.  The production is relatively small (although we keep having so durned much fun there, we keep forgetting to ask), and the focus is on locally grown, Calaveras County grapes.  Scott Klann (aka El Fermento) has the responsibility of turning it all into wine, using such methods as co-fermenting some viognier with their syrah.  Sadly, the result of this traditional technique from the Rhone won’t be available until next year.

Making wine in the dark, when the grapes are cool
Making wine in the dark, when the grapes are cool

You can check back with us on Wednesday for the first of Mike’s tasting notes.  In the meantime, you can find out more about the winery on their website, TwistedOak.com, the blog, El Bloggo Torcido.  There is a Twisted Oak page on Facebook and you can follow Jeff on Twitter.

Anne Louise Bannon and Michael Holland

Odd Ball Grape