Yorba Wines: Sutter Creek’s premier label

Ann Kraemer crafts Italian, Rhone varietals on Shaker Ridge Ranch

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Ann Kraemer’s 2011 Barbera can be served with a host of entrees, including pizza. Love its easy drinking style.

With a family farming tradition, dating back to 1769, the Yorba name has been associated with cattle, grain and oranges. Today’s Sutter Creek Yorba Wines brand, while still linked to the cattle days by the brand on their bottle, is all about farming sustainability and remarkable wines in Amador County.

When Ann Kraemer and family bought the Shake Ridge Ranch in the Sierra Foothills region in 2001, the family took on the name for their Amador County label. They planted their first vines in 2003.

As owner and vineyard manager of the family winery, Kraemer applied her previous experience of vineyard management for wineries like Cuvaison, Clos Pagase, Swanson and Domain Chandon and has transformed the area’s Zinfandel success into a highly successful winery which includes Rhone, Italian and experimental varietals.

I’ve met up with Ann a couple of times in the past and, during a quick visit to Sutter Creek, I was again drawn to the tasting room the vineyard manager occasionally occupies. I was in luck; Ann was pouring.

Today’s post is to pique interest and encourage visitors to drive up California Highway 99 northeast of Lodi, California, and head toward Old Highway 49 to Sutter Creek. And while I could not stay long enough for a trip out to her 46-acre plot of vineyards, Kraemer’s passion for farming and fine tuning her Zinfandel and Barbera varieties clearly got me reacquainted with her grapes so many other wineries crave.

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Ann Kraemer and her family purchased the Shake Ridge ranch in 2001, planting vineyards by 2003. On this day I was lucky to taste her 2007 and 2010 Zinfandels side-by-side.

Of course we tasted through her Barbera and Italian varietals many times in the past and, even as she was pouring us a taste of the 2011 Barbera, I set a bottle aside to take home. I love its light spice, easy drinking and already smooth texture. It’s almost a Grenache-like mouth-feel. This wine can be served with most any food except for fattiest cuts of meat. I love its sweet berry jam, juniper, earthiness and spice beginnings to cranberry and rich blueberry and herbs on the finish. This wine is downright delicious and elegant.

As we chatted and reacquainted, Kraemer shared her love for her family and how grateful so many participated in the daily workings of Yorba Wines. As I listened, she shared how extended family members worked in the vineyard to the tasting room. And as they have grown, especially over the last few years, she admitted Yorba Wines and the Kraemer family will have to hire more folks. She beams sharing how her sisters, cousins and others all help out, creating memorable wines.

She then pulled out her 2007 Zinfandel and the 2011 version, her most recent release. The joy was all mine as we chatted about the intense dark fruit of the Amador County ’07.

I am a sucker for wines that are given time to relax and opportunity to smooth out, becoming silky with essences of chocolate, blackberry and cedar and a hint of coffee. The 2007 is lush, rich, balanced and plenty of structure. I slurped up the whole pour. And while the 2010 were so freshly minted, I loved the opportunity to taste the sheer skill Ann and Yorba winemaker Ken Bernards who also produces a private label: Ancien.

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Talking with Yorba Winery’s Ann Kraemer is so engaging. She drew me into discussions ranging from Graciano, Tempranillo and Greco di Tufo to expanding her efforts at Shake Ridge Ranch. I can’t wait to return for a vineyard visit.

The 2010 Shake Ridge Vineyard Zinfandel was brighter than the 2007 with notes of plum and raspberry. However, this wine is not for the faint of heart. There is so much depth awaiting to be realized. I grew up picking blackberries and raspberries as a kid and this wine is all about wild blackberries and its brambly and herb flavors.

The spice, bright raspberry flavors and cedar are there but subdued and not yet fully developed. Actually, many might prefer this wine now as it is fruitier than its 2007 cousin. In a very difficult year, Bernards and Kraemer have created an Amador County gem in the making. This Zinfandel would be perfect with roast chicken and turkey.

Her vineyards are right in the heart of Gold Rush country. Much of the land has quartz, volcanic rocks, ocean bottom, and metamorphic rock. Miners dug through the hills looking for gold and now Kraemer grows liquid gold.

Our chat veered off to her Rhone and other Italian varietals–Petite Sirah, Graciano, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Greco di Tufo and others– and touched on her commitment to low- input, organic and biodynamic methods in the vineyard. Winemakers from all over California want her fruit and Ann sells up to 80% of it to wineries like Favia Wines, Keplinger Wines, Newsome Harlow, Turley, Dirty & Rowdy Family Winery, Gallica, Forlorn Hope and Buccella.

Our last tastes were from her Shake Ridge Amador County 2010 Red Wine–definitely a wine and taste of The Ranch. The 2010 version of Shake Ridge Red is like no other! The big, brawny structure of 50% Petite Sirah is balanced by 25% Graciano and 25% dainty Malbec. Kramer says imagine a sumo wrestler balancing two dainty ladies on his shoulders.

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Yorba Wines are one of nine tasting rooms in Sutter Creek on Old Highway 49 in Amador County.

She talked how Graciano is a fiery redhead on one side and Malbec is a prim lady on the other. I love the big flavors of black raspberries, juicy plum, black cherry and savory notes. This is to be enjoyed with earthy, savory meats and roasted veggies.

See what I mean? Who talks like this? Kraemer has creative story characters to help describe her wines.

So, I need to set aside another full afternoon or morning and meet Ann in her vineyards. I want to see her immaculate and almost cult-like rows that so many revere. She has such a passion and sets her standards so high that I know her wine is made in the vineyard.

In only 20 minutes of discussion beyond the tasting, I want, no need, to see the results of her crop management, irrigation practices, harvest timing and, more often than not, risk taking. She has earned the respect not only of her Amador County vintners but those over the hills to Napa, Sonoma down to Paso Robles and beyond.

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The Shake Ridge Amador County 2010 Red Wine is a blend of Petite Sirah, Graciano and Malbec.

Yorba Wines is one of nine tasting rooms in Sutter Creek. There is plenty of free parking nearby at a lot next to the post office. There are so many still to talk about and this post is just an introduction. Ask Kraemer about her Rhône—Syrah, Grenache, Viognier and Mourvèdre along with her Zins, Italian varietals and experimental vines. You will need to stay the night and return for a couple of visits. I need to return to know more about this respected Rhone Ranger.

Yorba Wines are located at 51 Hanford St., Sutter Creek, California 95685 in Amador County. Call the tasting room (209) 267-8190 or the vineyard (209) 267.5055, visit the Yorba Wines website and/or email them at info@yorbawines.com. Tasting room hours are Thursday – Monday noon-5 p.m.

Be sure to read TalesoftheCork’s previous blog post, “Changing Lodi Zin culture: Klinker Brick Winery.” And if winemakers, wineries or restaurants are interested in a TalesoftheCork wine and/or food review on the blog, InstagramTwitter and/or Facebook, please send us a request via email: talesofthecork@gmail.com or use DM on social media. TalesoftheCork also offers social media seminars for businesses.

Caliza Winery: Bowker turns horticultural focus into viticulture dream

Carl Bowker passionately pursued entrepreneurial opportunities in the trade show and convention business for 26 years while living and working in the San Francisco area. But in 2001, a Wine Spectator/Mondavi-sponsored, tour of Tuscany, convinced him to transform his horticultural focus into a viticulture dream. Who knew nine years later the same magazine would honor the rookie winemaker with their Pick of the Month.

Just before the 2012 harvest, I visited with Carl for nearly three hours on the outdoor patio at Caliza Winery. We sat underneath a couple of umbrellas, overlooking the Syrah vineyards, while he shared his journey with me.

Bowker was born and raised in Kailua, Oahu, Hawaii, and began his farming experiences tagging along with his father, an irrigation specialist on the Island. According to the Caliza web site, the time spent time on Island farms, working the soils beside his father, shaped young Carl’s career aspirations.

After decorating conventions and trade shows with plants and flowers for 26 years, Carl Bowker switched careers from horticulture to viniculture after two European wine tours.

After graduating from the University of Hawaii in 1980, Bowker left the islands at 23. He landed in California, and put his business degree into practice, working in the convention services industry.

The former Hawaii resident then decided he was willing to strike out on his own after three years. He literally decided to grow his own plant rental trade show business.

“I began my business renting plants and flowers for each convention, coordinating the setup and removal of decorations only to repeat the process time after time,” Bowker said. “I loved the process of creating memorable esthetics. However, it didn’t take long before I realized that there really wasn’t someone who was dedicated to trade shows. So I created my own business: Exhibit Plant and Floral. Instead of renting plants and flowers, I provided my own plants and flowers for conventions across the country.”

Bowker traversed the country for 23 years, moving freight as he coordinated the installation of plant and food decorations for trade shows. After each convention and post show clean up, he moved his gear to another destination. This endeavor later became ‘top shelf.’ He ensured a first-rate presentation by owning all the live green and cut floral arrangements in the displays.

“I loved the creative part of the business,” Bowker said. “It was fun. My wife, Pam, and I met a lot of great people and we loved to travel. We liked to put things together so our business thrived. We had horticultural green houses and plants all around the U.S. so it kept us pretty busy.”

Despite the success of Exhibit Plant and Floral, Carl Bowker and Pam’s food and wine trips to Napa and Sonoma began to transform their interests from plant rental to winemaking.

Despite the success, Bowker was not convinced he would retire as a trade show businessman. While the couple loved to cook, Pam and Carl had been introduced to wine and food pairings on dinner trips to wine country. Conveniently for them, the Bowker’s business was headquartered just outside of San Francisco, So the couple made frequent trips to Napa and Sonoma for weekends to wine and dine.

“While we hadn’t previously been interested in wine and foodies,” Bowker said, “Pam and I loved to entertain and cook. And we found there were great restaurants in the Napa/Sonoma area, so we made time to get over there, even if it was just for dinner.”

However, the event which changed the course of his life was the 2001 trip to Italy’s Tuscany region.

It was during a Italian wine tour that the couple expanded their appreciation for world class wines and for what the land could produce. While in Tuscany, Carl and Pam spent time with many of the region’s finest wine-producing families. The couple attentively listened to the details of wine production and noticed the special connection the families had with their land. From this experience, Carl vowed that he would make this the way of life for himself and his family. He wanted to become a part of the groundswell of excitement of Central Coast winemaking.

With the Tuscan hillsides in the back ground, Carl and Pam Bowker hang out along side a vineyard on a foggy morning during their 2001 trip to Italy.

“We almost did not get to go on the Tuscany trip,” Bowker said. “After the 9/11 attack, the trip was moved back two weeks. We decided to go but with a lot of concern. Now it is amazing to think how one event provided direction and changed the course of our lives.”

Even as he was interested in moving to a wine region like Paso Robles, it didn’t take long before Carl knew he needed to go back to school. He knew his horticultural focus in the trade show and convention business would not help him create acclaimed wines. After he returned from Italy in the fall of 2001, he began attending Napa Valley College to learn about viticulture and enology, completing an associate program in 2004. He believed these went hand in hand; grapes and wine are created from the ground up.

“I loved what I was doing with the plant business and I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be neat to do this with the wine business?'” Carl mused. “I already had a green thumb so why not get the education I needed work to with grapes? So I took wine science and the chemistry of wine classes.”

Lowell Zelinski, left, of Precision Ag Consulting, consults with Carl Bowker each week at Caliza Winery. He provides vineyard management and technical services and has done so since 2008.

Our time was briefly interrupted by Lowell Zelinski of Precision Ag Consulting who has been working with Caliza Winery since 2008. They briefly spoke about the irrigation plans for the day. Zelinski often checks in with Carl and provides vineyard management and technical services to Caliza and many other wineries in the Paso area.

Later I caught up with Zelinski who enthusiastically endorsed Bowker as someone who was quick to offer winemaking suggestions to all who asked in the region. In fact, Zelinski shared that Carl had often been a resource for his own small winery: First Crush Cellars.

“Carl is the real deal,” Zelinski said. “He is generous and generally interested in my recommendations concerning the Caliza vineyards and he is a hands-on guy. He is a consummate professional who seems to care and is passionate about winemaking.”

While their interchange lasted less than five minutes, Carl and Lowell’s banter was upbeat, to the point and ended with a chuckle.

Already on a quest to start a new life in fall of 2001, the Bowkers decided to travel to San Diego County where his mother and father lived. They drove down California Highway 101 and initially planned to stop in the Carmel Valley, near San Luis Obispo. It was a late November night and the drive was cut short by fog.

Carl and Pam Bowker found the Paso Robles wine region quite by accident after a foggy evening drive to SoCal prevented them from going any further south. Today Caliza Winery in the Templeton Gap west of Paso Robles creates award-winning wines.

“As the weather was deteriorating, we hoped to go as far as San Miguel,” Carl said. “In fact, as we drove near the town any further travel proved to be unsafe. Once we decided to stop, we hoped the town would have a motel. In fact, it was the first glow we saw–the only motel in town. It was a simple place and gladly stayed there that night–the evening before Thanksgiving.”

Early the next morning, the couple left, looking for great cup of coffee. They took the first exit: Paso Robles.

“We got off the Highway 101, looking for Starbucks, but Paso didn’t have one at the time,” Carl said. “We drove down Spring Street to the Paso Robles Inn. We had breakfast at the counter but no espresso. I remember Pam saying, ‘this is a cute little town–a little like downtown Sonoma. A cool town.’ We liked it so much and felt it was a wine town and deserved an extra night.”

After Thanksgiving, the Bowkers stopped in Paso Robles on way back to San Francisco and stayed another night. Ingtrigued by the country and the people, the couple made frequent trips to the area, checking around Templeton and eating at McPhee’s Grill.

“Next door to McPhee’s is a real estate office where we would check the listings,” Carl said. “Pam saw our winery property listed in the office and it got us interested. But at the time we both agreed to look at something else. In fact, I began spending a lot of my time–a week at a time–looking at property in the Paso Robles area. It became my … it became our focus. And it took us about a year to settle on our property here in the Templeton Gap. I love the country feel of Paso.”

Carl actually found the first property without Pam. He made an offer on the 50-acre Peachy Canyon site in late 2002. The Bowkers bought the first parcel and continued farming its 23 rows of Cabernet and bottling a Cabernet/Syrah blend called Companion.

Carl Bowker creates 200 cases of Caliza Companion as a blend of estate grapes, using 50% Cabernet Sauvignon from the Peachy Canyon property. The rest of the blend comes from the Anderson Road vineyards: 30% Syrah, 10% Mourvedre and 10% Tannat.

“Pam had faith in me,” Carl said. “I originally came to look at the Peachy Canyon site on my own.” Later Pam came down and it didn’t take long and she charmed the sellers, sealing the deal. “We were city people, out of the area and the previous owner was a little nervous about selling to outsiders. But we approached this opportunity as our land, our home. It was after Pam arrived and we all talked that the deal was completed. Pam helped the previous owner be comfortable with us taking over.”

Her faith in her husband’s ability continues to pay off and, while Caliza Winery is not necessarily known for Companion, the 2006 vintage received a 90+ points from Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate (June 2008) in Issue #177: California’s Rhone Rangers.

Carl says he feels fortunate to have “discovered” Paso Robles, and at the time, believed it to be a new frontier in winemaking. They kept looking for superior vineyard property and added a second land purchase on Anderson Road in 2003. This 60-acre piece of land had an old declining 25-acre vineyard planted mostly to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but the Bowkers felt strongly that this land could become the cornerstone of the new Caliza Winery and vineyards with some major modifications.

“We bought for location as we wanted to be in the Templeton Gap area west of Paso Robles,” Carl said. “We chose this location to be a part of this amazing land, region and culture. We also wanted to be a part of the Paso wine movement and  its huge upside. However, I knew I needed a special place to grow Rhone varieties and there is no better place than here.”

While a first trip to Italy help create an obsession for winemaking, a tour of France’s Rhone Valley solidified Carl Bowker’s vision for old world wine in the new world. In 2005 he planted 20 acres on their hillside property on Anderson Road, joining cutting edge winemakers in the famed Templeton Gap.

While their newly purchased Templeton Gap winery was producing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, Carl Bowker was not convinced his vineyards would develop world class wines. A fall 2004 trip to the Rhône Valley convinced Carl to make the hardest decision he’s ever had to make in his life. Please return in a couple of weeks to TalesoftheCork for “Caliza Winery: Templeton Gap nets a Rhone Ranger” and Carl Bowker’s tale of “making wine that will grab your attention!”

For other stories from TalesoftheCork, read the October 12, 2012, blog post, Guinness confirms Napa Valley owns wine relay record (VIDEO).