Dunne on Wine: Windwalker's Lady in Red worth a spin
Windwalker Vineyard and Winery at Fair Play in southwestern El Dorado County generated a bunch of buzz this summer when its primitivo from the 2008 vintage was named Best of Show Red Wine at the California State Fair.
That wine bears the proprietary name Shady Lady, a veiled reference to the long and twisting mystery concerning the origin, movement and identity of primitivo, which only in recent years has been found to be genetically identical to zinfandel.
Shady Lady is just one of several ladies in Windwalker's extensive portfolio. Another is Lady in Red, the name chosen to designate a wine made from black grape varieties historically associated with France's Bordeaux region.
At a dinner at the winery not long ago, I had an opportunity to taste many of Windwalker's wines. Windwalker's winemaker since 2003, Dominic Mantei, makes a heck of a lot of wines some varietals, some blends. He crushed 29 varieties last fall.
From the winery's long and varied lineup, my favorite clearly was the Windwalker Vineyard and Winery 2006 El Dorado Lady in Red. Not to take anything away from Shady Lady, but Lady in Red was a shade more to my personal preferences, meaning it was more lithe, complex and harmonious.
Bordeaux grapes like cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc have a spotty record in the Sierra foothills, with the wines they yield often disappointing in their shallowness and their lack of complexity. At Windwalker, the grapes are grown on the estate, giving Mantei and the winery's owners, James and Alanna Taff, total control over cultivation and harvest.
That could explain at least in part why the Windwalker 2006 Lady in Red is such a striking exception to so many cabernets bred in the foothills. From the outset, I was won over by the wine's smell of cherries and a faint thread of mint. Tobacco leaves were in there as well. While aged in new French oak barrels, traces of wood were more supportive than intrusive.
Mostly, it's one gracious wine, wiry in build but not thin, with a sturdy backbone, lingering flavors and refreshing acidity. Its accessibility, harmony and depth are unusual for cabernet-based wines out of the foothills, where high temperatures and dry growing conditions often leave grapes and resulting wines rigid with tannins that are difficult to stretch and soften.
Mantei says there are three keys to making a balanced and clearly enunciated wine with Bordeaux varieties grown in the foothills.
First, the fruit has to be allowed to ripen fully; anything less than complete maturity runs the risk of producing a wine with "green" and harsh flavors. Second, when the grapes are brought in they need to be pressed relatively lightly to avoid ending up with too many fierce tannins in the juice. Third, the winery's use of only "the highest quality French oak barrels" helps smooth out the wine without adding wood tannins.
The 2006 Lady in Red is a blend of 44 percent cabernet sauvignon, 23 percent merlot, 21 percent cabernet franc and 12 percent malbec. For the 2007 and 2008 versions of Lady in Red, Mantei added a bit of petit verdot. While those wines have been bottled, they won't be released until the winery's inventory of the 2006 is exhausted. And when they are released, there will be a lot less of them than there is of the 2006. As the country's economic recession began to intensify in 2007, Windwalker cut its production of more expensive wines.
The Taffs are the fourth owners of the winery now called Windwalker. It was founded as the L.W. Richards Winery in the mid-1980s. The Taffs are longtime home winemakers based in Placerville, where they also keep a vineyard. They were married on the Windwalker deck in the spring of 1995.
To broaden their understanding of the commercial wine trade, they worked as volunteers in the winery's tasting room for 12 years. In 2007, they figured they'd learned enough of the business to run their own winery, so they bought the place. Today, they're producing 7,000 cases per year.
WINDWALKER VINEYARD AND WINERY
2006 El Dorado Lady in Red
By the numbers: 13.9 percent alcohol, 240 cases, $20
Context: At the Windwalker dinner, the Lady in Red was poured with a mushroom and prosciutto tortellini, whose earthiness was a precise match for the fruit, weight and acidity of the wine. At other times, winemaker Dominic Mantei likes it with grilled beef, in particular steaks.
Availability: Retail sales of Lady in Red are at the winery only, the practice for most of Windwalker's releases. Wines can be ordered through the website, www.windwalkervineyard.com.
Information: The tasting room at Windwalker, 7630 Perry Creek Road, Fair Play, is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.