Karen – Ken
Check out their tastes and Bios here
1) View more information for the Yosemite Sierra Wine Road on their Association listing on the Winery-Sage.com main web site.
2) To view more information for the Wineries of Madera County (the local regional association), click here and type “Madera” in the “quick search” field to see their listing on Winery-Sage.com.
3) View more information for the larger Madera Wine Trail on their Association listing on the Winery-Sage.com main site.
4) More information can be found for each Varietal that we’ve listed by clicking on the link that we’ve created the first time the Varietal is listed in each post.
Believe it or not, vineyards and wineries in Madera County produce approximately 10% of the wine grapes grown in California. Most of those find their way into the hands of the mass producers but there are a number of smaller wineries that create artisan wines. Three of them are located on the Yosemite Sierra Wine Road in eastern Madera County. The Wine Trail is in the hills, on the way to Yosemite rather than the Valley where most other Madera County Wineries reside. Heading north from the highway 99 – highway 41 junction the first winery, Fasi Estates is about 20 minutes outside of Fresno on highway 41. Westbrook Wine Farm is another 15 minutes from Fasi and Idle Hour is 30 minutes from Westbrook. In other words, this isn’t a trip for those who want to hit a winery every 5 minutes. However, if you have the patience, the wines and the views are worth the trip.
First stop, Fäsi Estate Winery (note the “ä” in Fäsi although from here on, we’ve replaced the ä because US search engines don’t quite know what to do with it). Fasi Estate is a “new” winery that specializes in Syrah. “New” is in quotes because the facility is new even though Fasi Estate has produced Fasi Crest wines since 2003. Its Syrah comes from a portion of its 40+ acres, which are farmed organically and then sold to other wineries
Both Karen and I like Syrah but it’s not even close to one of our favorite Varietals. It varies so much in California – everything from big, inky and tannic to lighter and fruit forward, like many of the Australian Shiraz that is made from the same grape. The scant few that we really like have enough tannins to counter balance the fruit but not so strong that you feel like you just ate shoe leather. They should have enough gravitas to remind you that you’re drinking something substantial. With that in mind, we gave Fasi Crest wines a shot.
The first Syrah was a dual year vintage, 2005/2007 and it was good – really good in fact which was surprising considering our general lack of enthusiasm for Syrah. Then came the 2007 – Holy crap! That was one of the two or three best Syrah’s that I’ve had – almost a perfect blend or what a Syrah should be. Karen felt the exact same way. Somewhat longingly, we finished the rest of the 2007 and then we had the 2008. It was also exceptional although we both preferred the 2007. They also make a completely Organic Syrah. This isn’t like wines from other Organic vineyards. The wine itself was also made Organically, meaning it had no artificial additives like sulfites. It’s totally different than the standard 2008 but both were good.
We finished with a 2011 Malbec imported from Argentina. It was good but frankly, after the 2007 and 2008 Syrahs, almost anything else would have been a let down. And now the biggest disappointment…Jane, the tasting room manger (very helpful and friendly by the way), informed us that their production is “limited”. After a minor calculation error, we arrived at 800 cases as their production, not 80 cases as we first thought. 80 cases? Geez, I know people who spill more than that on a long weekend. 800 cases is a better number but it’s just not enough. I never thought I’d say this but, “Please make more Syrah!”.
Westbrook Wine Farm was stop number two. Some wineries offer wine tastings. Tasting with Ray (owner and winemaker of Westbrook) is a full on wine immersion. Picture it this way. If a normal wine tasting is kind of like dipping your toe in the shallow end of the pool to test the water, tasting at Westbrook is a big ass cannon ball into the deep end, happily splashing every one in sight. Now before you get the wrong impression, it’s not because of anything as mundane as a bunch of samples or really big pours – neither of which are key to a great wine experience. Most wineries explain how a wine was made (75% cab sav, 10% merlot…yada…yada…yada). At Westbrook, you learn why it was made and then move on into the how. Each wine has a story and by the time the tale is spun, you understand why the wine tastes like it does.
First up was a California Riesling – none of that sweet dessert Riesling that virtually every one else in California produces. This is one of the few dry Rieslings made in California, “bone dry” in Ray’s words. It was delicious. I’ve always equated California Rieslings to a four-letter word, synonymous with something you really don’t want on the bottom of your shoe (use your imagination and if you’re actually counting the letters in R-I-E-S-L-I-N-G and coming up with eight letters rather than four, just delete the bookmark for this site now because any future irony will be lost on you). The few good ones that I’ve had, were in Europe. This was very much a Rhine style Riesling.
Next up was a Sauvignon Blanc. Now before I go any further, let me get one thing off my chest. Damn it Ray – I had actually just written the next post for our blog entitled “The Sauvignon Blanc Rant” (click here for a link to it). Neither Karen nor I particularly like Sauv Blanc and generally consider it a waste of space in the cellar and a waste of effort to drink. The only thing better than free Sauv Blanc is no Sauv Blanc. You get the idea. However, soldiering on as good wine tasters should, we gamely gave it a go. Uh oh…furtive look at Karen…this is actually better than “not too bad” (the best that we’ve characterized a Sauvignon Blanc before). Another sip and a quick look to see if she is as surprised as I am (apparently so) although she is trying hard not to show it. It was really good. Yes we actually bought a bottle – strictly in the interest of further research, mind you. With our wine world now turned upside down, we tried a very good Chardonnay – light oak and with some body that a lot of newer Chardonnays don’t exhibit because it was kept on the yeast for longer than most others.
On to the reds where the two standouts were the Fait Accompli, an estate Bordeaux style blend, and the Museum Red, an estate Cabernet Sauvignon blend. Westbrook was able to source cuttings from the 8 oldest clones of in California for the Museum Red (it pays to have connections – Ray has been in the industry a loooooong time). We bought a couple of bottles of the Museum to sit on for a few years and see how it matures. It was really good now and should be better in a couple of years. The Fait Accomplis was the highlight of the tasting though. It contains the six most common Bordeaux Varietals. In an almost unheard of practice in California, Westbrook harvests all six types of grapes at once and then crushes, and co-ferments them. Listening to the winemaker, it’s clear that it’s a labor of love. Strictly in the interest of science we also bought a few bottles of the Fait to lie down. I’d like to think that they’ll rest quietly for a few years and then we’ll pop one each year and see how well they matured. In reality, they probably won’t last 12 months and after finishing each one, we’ll be kicking ourselves because we didn’t wait. It sucks being weak like that but what the hell.
After lunch, our last stop was Idle Hour Winery. This is definitely one of the most unique wineries you’ll visit. It’s located on the grounds of the Queen’s Inn in Oakhurst and is just 30 minutes from the south entrance to Yosemite. If you want to taste some great wines, stay in a killer boutique inn and then be ready for a trip to the most beautiful scenery in the West, there is no other place to be. During the summer, there’s even live music late into the night in the Inn’s wine bar… but I digress…this blog is about wine and Idle Hour’s is special. So many winemakers produce “clone wines” that are big and bold. It often seems the goal is to coax every bit of flavor and aroma from the fruit, the stems, the seeds, the oak barrels, the fruit flies and anything else that might happen to fall into the fermentation tanks. It becomes an all out assault on your taste buds bordering on a mugging. Anna Dos Remedios, Idle Hour’s winemaker and owner, practices a more subtle art. First, rather than controlling the fermentation process by inoculating with specific strains of yeast, Anna uses native fermentation. In other words, she throws the tanks open and lets whatever yeasts are present “have their way with the wine”. In know, it sounds a bit sexy (or sleazy, depending on your perspective) but it really works. It’s also the way that wine was made for thousands of years so it’s an honest, natural way of making it. Whatever bits of alchemy she employs, the results are an appealing selection that is designed to seduce your taste buds rather than bludgeon them. Most of the wines are lighter in structure than their typical California brethren. Anna has a preference for Rhone style wines but offers Burgundy and Bordeaux styles as well. There’s even a Tempranillo from Spain and in homage to her Portuguese grandfather, a Touriga Nacional.
The white’s are good but being familiar with Idle Hours wines, Karen and I both prefer the Reds. Today (and pretty much every other time we’ve had it) the Tempranillo was a stand out. It seems to win gold medals almost every year and the 2009 that we tasted was no exception. Karen grudgingly admitted that the 2010 Cabernet Franc was tasting very good as well and considering she’s kind of “gone off” of Cab Francs, that had to hurt (even more so now that it is in black and white). Staying true to form, Idle Hour’s Petite Sirah had nice balance but was a little lighter than most, which allowed some of the spice to show through. After the Tempranillo, I liked the 2008 Touriga Nacional (Karen still says the Cab Franc was her next favorite). Touriga is rarely produced as a Varietal. It’s one of the main components in most Ports so the vast majority of it becomes a blending agent. It’s been described as Portugal’s Cabernet Sauvignon. True to form, Idle Hour’s was slightly lighter than its reputation hinted but was marvelously balanced. Anna mentioned that the 2009 would be bigger. I can’t wait to try it. Bottom line, if you want excess, go to almost any other winery in California. If you want restraint, come to Idle Hour. By the way, because the wines aren’t tannin and acid bombs, don’t sit on them for years. Anna says drink them when I release them. My favorite kind of winery – one that rewards instant gratification rather than patience!
If you are in the area, these Madera County Wineries are definitely worth a visit. There is a bit of a drive between them but if you finish at Idle Hour, the town of Oakhurst presents a number of good restaurants and hotels if you are stopping off before moving on to Yosemite. If you’re going on to the park, pick up a couple of bottles, find a secluded place, and have a glass amongst some of the best scenery on earth.