Sometimes I wonder why we don't just chuck it all and go off to California and make wine. Like See Sobon. In 1977, when the urge struck, he was 42. Five years later, his wife says he's a happier man. He did have the advantage of already being in California, working in the aerospace industry at Palo Alto. But he still had to move, in his case to start Shenandoah Vineyards in Amador County, Calif.
It's good old gold rush country up there in the foothills of the Sierras. It's also good old zinfandel country. And nowadays there's more gold old zinfandel country. And nowadays there's more gold dust in the grapes. Some of the most appreciated zins have come from Amador County. The zins that have blackberries and brambles, chocolate and spice, are Sutter Home in the early 1970s and Ridge's Fiddletown.
Lee Sobon is a chemist by training and had been a home winemaker for several years when he changed careers, so he wasn't quite as idealistic an amateur as most of us. He's also got Shirley, his wife, and six kids, which gives him another enormous advantage: built-in labor. The winery's not expanding beyond the 1982 production level of 7,000 cases, because that's as much as the family believes it can handle on its own.
Sobon buys all his zinfandel grapes from growers. These vines of Amador County are so old, some approaching a century, that he prefers to buy their high-quality fruit than to plant zinfandel. He has planted his own sauvignon blanc, the first release coming into our market later this year, and cabernet sauvignon due out in two years' time.
The non-vintage White Zinfandel, $6, is salmon pink, marginally fruity and very smooth, a characteristic of Shenandoah's wines. It has an attractive new floral design label, with the word California prominently displayed to avoid confusion with Virginia's Shenandoah winery.
The most unexpected wine in the range is the '79 Chenin Blanc, $6. It's a chenin for lovers of chardonnay, being barrel fermented, barrel aged, velvety smooth, full bodied, and un-chenin-like in every aspect.
The red zins were the stars among the table wines. The '79 regular bottling, $6, is deep in color and nose, full of blackberies and tannin. Give it two years to soften and there'll still be the fruit and a little of the bite that distinguishes an Amador zin.
The '79 Special Reserve Zinfandel, $8, has all the qualities of the regular release, at twice the intensity, plus the new floral label. It will mature into a rich wine to drink with cheeses or on its own after a meal.
When all's said, making wine on a commercial basis is probably like owning a pub. It sounds great, but it's not all beer and skittles. Yet Sobon looks as content as his wife says he is, and he hasn't lost his amateur enthusiasm. He still has a wine hobby: making tiny quantities of unusual dessert wines.
THe Mission-Del Sol, $6, is made from mission grapes that are dried in the sun for a couple of weeks before being pressed, thereby raising their natural sugar level. The rare black muscat grape is used for a fortified, immensely smooth and sweet after-dinner wine, $8; and zinfandel for a port, $7.50, bottled after one year in barrel, which is still to throw its crust.