Category Archives: Sierra Foothills AVA

Winning Big at Casino Mine Ranch

We have been big fans of Amador County wines for a long time. Awhile back, we connected on Instagram (@appetite_for_wine) with @casinomineranch, a relative newcomer in the wine landscape of the Sierra Foothills. During our early online chatter, we expressed an interest in visiting. We learned that visits to Casino Mine Ranch are by appointment only. Alas, our frequent trips to the area are often spontaneous, so, embarrassingly, we went several months without scheduling a visit. 

Thankfully, that negligence came to an end earlier this month. We were planning a trip to Amador County wine country, and Kent remembered Casino Mine Ranch. After a quick DM on Instagram, Chief of Staff Mackenzie Cecchi confirmed our reservation. 

It was a lovely November day when we arrived at Casino Mine Ranch. Rather spring-like weather, in fact. (Sorry, not sorry to our East Coast family and friends.) Up a winding, nondescript driveway (even with GPS, we missed it and had to turn around), past Lola’s vineyard, until we saw Casey’s tree fort, and we knew we had arrived.  

Mackenzie greeted us as we entered the house. Yes, house. Casino Mine Ranch’s current location is the owners’ second home. Mackenzie said they are in the planning stages of a tasting room down the road near some other tasting rooms, but for now, welcome to this beautiful home! 

Mackenzie poured us our first taste. There would be eight total during the hour-long tour and tasting. The 2017 Vermentino. Simply stellar! Plenty of pineapple and citrus, with bracing acidity. Just the way we like it. If the Vermentino was any indication, we were in for a very special, and tasty hour. (Spoiler alert: the Vermentino was definitely an indication!) 

All of the wines in Casino Mine Ranch’s portfolio are 100% estate fruit. The ranch is 60 acres, but currently there are only 14 acres under vine. However, they are planning to plant more vineyards so they can increase production.

The second tasting on the tour was the 2017 Grenache Blanc. Mackenzie said the 2016 wasn’t quite what they’d hoped for, and asked our opinion of the 2017. Ironically, Kent had taken a wine survey just the day before, and had to respond in the negative to the question: have you tasted a Grenache Blanc in the past six months. Timing, people. Timing is everything! And so is this Grenache Blanc. Straw color, aged in 30% new French oak, with flavors of apricot and peach, with hints of butter and caramel. Exquisite. 

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As we moved outside, and prepared to enter the mine, Mackenzie provided a history lesson. Casino Ranch Mine was founded in 1936 by Simone Shaw. Simone was born in Belgium, and with her family escaped the 1914 German invasion. Her father had a mining operation in Alaska, where Simone spent time in her younger days. Always stylish and worldly, Simone caught the eye of many a suitor. The family eventually moved to New York City, where Simone met Sam Shaw, Jr., hotelier and art patron. It was a match made in heaven, and the two were soon married. 

As socialites, the Shaws spent time in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and Paris. Somehow, they found their way to what was then the middle of nowhere…Amador County. (Let’s be real, Amador County may not be the middle of nowhere today, but it’s only just outside the border! We love it that way.) Simone bought the property, with the intention of mining for gold. Always the realist, she felt that striking it rich in gold mining was a gamble, hence the name: Casino Mine Ranch. 

Simone’s instincts were right. Nothing more than a modicum of gold was discovered in their mine. However, what they did find was as precious as gold in the remote Sierra Foothills: water. Under the lava caps on the property were reserves of water. The Shaw’s excavated and dammed the springs, and even today they are used for irrigation on the ranch. 

Into the mine we went. The water was located only a few yards beyond the entrance, so the tour does not go deep into the mine. Here, we tasted the 2018 Rosé, a blend of Grenache and Mourvèdre. Another exquisite wine. Three-for-three! Pale pink color, with flavors of strawberry and raspberry. Bone dry and zesty. 

From the mine, we went back through the house, and downstairs to a beautiful cellar room. Here we tasted the 2017 Grenache Noir; 100% Grenache, aged in 30% new French oak. This wine recently received a score of 90 points from Wine Spectator magazine. A luscious, spicy wine, with bold red fruit and licorice notes. There was an ashtray on the counter, crafted from a bear claw. (Not the pastry, but an actual claw from an actual bear!) Mackenzie said legend has it, that Simone herself shot that bear! 

Venturing outside through the back of the house, we made our way to the pool house. Pool house? Pool house. Not too many wineries have a pool and a pool house! But this was just the beginning. The two-story pool house is a home unto itself, complete with kitchen and entertainment. Upstairs there is a full-scale shuffleboard table, and down the spiral staircase to the lower level, you will find a pinball machine, video arcade game, and an air hockey table. In case you were wondering, as we were, the answer is yes. At wine club events, members have the opportunity to use these games! 

Back outside and down a grassy hill, Mackenzie continued the family tale. Shortly after World War II, Sam passed away. Sam’s brother, Hollis Shaw, came to stay on the property to help the widow with the ranch. Hollis initially lived in one of the small mining shacks on the property. However, after some time, he moved into the main house. Not long after, Simone and Hollis were married. 

During the 1960’s and 70’s, Simone’s grand-nephews, Rich, Jim, and Steve Marryman, would come to the ranch for visits. They were intrigued by their aunt, living in such a remote area but still being so glamorous, serving the children their meals off fine china, and dressing for dinner. In 1999, Rich Merryman bought Casino MIne Ranch. 

In 2011, Rich called brother Jim to tell him he is going to plant a vineyard on the property and wanted to make wine. Jim thought Rich was crazy, though he eventually joined the venture. They hired winemaker Andy Erickson, and in 2015, produced their first vintage. 

Mackenzie escorted us to a large, metal building at the bottom of the hill. She referred to it as the “midlife crisis building.” This, she said, was to be the Casino Mine Ranch winery production facility. However, their winemaking team is in Napa, and they didn’t want to have to come all the way out, almost to the border of nowhere, to produce the wine. With construction started, what is one to do with a massive building that now has no purpose? Turn it into an NBA regulation basketball court, of course! 

Several NBA stars have visited the ranch to play on the court. In addition, college flags adorned the back wall. These are the alma mater of wine club members. Joining the club earns one the right to display their school’s flag. Guests on tour are invited to go downstairs onto the court to shoot some hoops, but we decided to stay topside and just watch. 

Back up the hill to the house, and onto the patio with breathtaking views, where we enjoyed the rest of the wines. Next on the list was the 2017 Mourvèdre. Another 100% varietal wine, this medium bodied red has spicy red fruit, raspberry, cherry, and cranberry, with baking spice and a long finish. 

The 2016 Simone, obviously named in honor Great Aunt Simone, is a blend of 52% Grenache and 48% Mourvèdre. This is a big, powerhouse of a wine, with red fruit and spice on the nose, and flavors of raspberry, bing cherry, baking spice, and mineral notes. Big, chewy tannins and bright acidity lead to a very long finish. 

Next was the 2016 Tempranillo, one of only two non-Rhône style wines in the portfolio. This wine pours inky purple, and has flavors of blueberry, spice, and a bit of raspberry. The tannins are very soft and smooth, balanced with medium acidity. 

The final wine on the tour was the 2016 Marcel. Wait, we sense another story here. Marcel Tiquet moved to Casino Mine Ranch after World War II. He was just 19 years old at the time. Marcel and his wife didn’t intend on staying long, but raised their family there and they loved the place so much, they just never moved away. Making a life here, Marcel became the heart and soul of Casino Mine Ranch. Sadly, Marcel passed away in September 2018, at the age of 93. 

The wine in his honor is 80% Tempranillo and 20% Teroldego. Here is another big, bold red wine, worthy of such a man as Marcel. Inky purple color, with aromas and flavors of blueberry, raspberry, baking spice, and white pepper on the finish. Big, firm, chewy tannins mingle with medium acidity, leading to a long finish. This is a wine that wants a rib-eye or grilled lamb. 

Alas, the tour was over. Nevertheless, we were so impressed with the wines, the story, and the property, that we decided to join the wine club. So, as they say…we’ll be back! 

If you’d like to visit Casino Mine Ranch, and you know you do, you’ll need to make a reservation. You can do this on their website. They are open for guests Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, with appointment times at 11 a.m., 1 p.m., and 3 p.m. When you go, tell them Robyn and Kent sent you! 

Cheers! 

  • By Kent Reynolds and Robyn Raphael-Reynolds

El Dorado Passport Weekend 2018

Off again on another exciting wine tasting weekend! This time we were headed to El Dorado County, for the El Dorado Passport Weekend. El Dorado County is right in our back yard, just about an hour from home. As guests of the El Dorado Winery Association, who provided us with complimentary VIP passes to the event, we were looking forward to a deeper exploration of the region. While we’ve lived nearby for many years, quite honestly, our ventures to the land of gold discovery had been few.

 

El Dorado Winery Association represents nearly 50 wineries. About half were participating in the annual Passport Weekend. With so many wineries to choose from, we had to map out our strategy. Compounding the mathematical quandary was the fact that we had only Saturday to attend. We had other commitments on Sunday! Clearly, we needed a plan.

El Dorado County is located east of Sacramento, and runs from the valley floor all the way to the peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountains. In fact, the town of South Lake Tahoe is in El Dorado County. The highway that one travels from Sacramento to South Lake Tahoe is U.S. Highway 50, part of the historic Lincoln Highway. As it happens, Highway 50 bisects El Dorado wine country, with the Apple Hill area wineries on the north side, and Pleasant Valley, Mount Aukum, and Fair Play regions to the south. Of these regions, Fair Play is perhaps the most well-known, at least in the area, and is the part of El Dorado County we’ve explored the most. With that realization, our plan was established. We would delve into the Apple Hill area, on the north side of Highway 50, and visit wineries that were completely new to us! Well, mostly, as you will read.

Passport-2018

Image Credit: El Dorado Winery Association

The El Dorado Passport Weekend actually spans two weekends. We attended the second. The first weekend was met with sunshine and unseasonably warm temperatures. The second weekend was, well, more seasonable. It was overcast and chilly, with an often biting wind at outdoor venues. Nevertheless, even cold weather would not prevent us from enjoying the day and sampling some fantastic El Dorado County wines.

High elevation wines are what sets El Dorado Wine Country apart from other California regions. The growing region varies from 1,200 to more than 3,500 feet above sea level! That’s some serious altitude! Some 50 grape varieties thrive here, from Gewürztraminer to Cabernet Sauvignon, to Barbera, to Chardonnay, to Zinfandel, and many others. Rhône and Bordeaux varietals do especially well here. There are many soil types, including volcanic rock, decomposed granite, and fine shale, each providing its own influence to the terroir.

El Dorado Grape Varieties

Image Credit: El Dorado Winery Association

From here, please enjoy the photo montage along with brief descriptions of each winery we visited. We quickly learned that El Dorado Winery Association knows how to host a party, as each winery had food pairings for almost all of their wines. We did not go hungry!

Our first stop was Fenton Herriot Vineyards. Perched atop a hillside with spectacular views, Fenton Herriot is located just outside Placerville, a quaint Gold Rush era town. The wines were as amazing as the views, and we enjoyed the catered food pairings as well. As part of the VIP experience we were invited to a three-vintage vertical tasting of their Sangiovese.

 

 

Next was Lava Cap Winery. This is the one I intimated above; we’ve been familiar with Lava Cap for years, because their production is such that they can be found in Sacramento area restaurants and even grocery stores. Don’t let this dissuade you, however, their wines are first-class! As part of our VIP experience, we tasted a flight of library wines, including a 12 year old, oak aged Viognier. Yes, you read that right – a 12 year old Viognier! It was spectacular!

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Moving on, we stopped at Madroña. Established in 1973, Madroña is one of the oldest El Dorado County wineries. I even remember them being there when I visited Apple Hill as a child! Here was tasted a flight of Cabernet Sauvignon including a 1985. That’s the year my daughter was born! The wine has aged and mellowed as much as my daughter has. Amazing! They also have a red blend, El Tinto, composed of 25 different grape varieties. Delicious!

 

 

Next we stopped at Via Romano Vineyards. Via Romano specializes in Italian varietals, and they do them exceptionally well. Check out the Pinot Grigio paired with mango, peach, and apple bruschetta! Simply ethereal!

From there, we stopped at Bumgarner Winery. Any San Francisco Giants fans in the audience? Owner Brian Bumgarner did some genealogical research, and found at least a distant relation to starting pitcher and future Hall of Famer, Madison Bumgarner. Even if baseball is not your thing, stop on by their rustic tasting room for some rich, full-bodied red wines.

At the recommendation of one of the staff at Bumgarner, we next ventured just south of Highway 50 to Chateau Davell. There we were reunited with owner and winemaker, Eric Hayes, who we had met at the Wine Bloggers Conference a few months earlier. Eric is a skilled winemaker, and also an accomplished painter. Each label is adorned with a portrait of a family member, lovingly painted by Eric himself.

As you can imagine if you’re keeping score, by now we were getting palate fatigued. Nevertheless, we had some time to kill before we would be meeting friends in Placerville. So we forged on to one last winery, Sierra Vista Vineyards and Winery. Another early pioneer in El Dorado Wine Country, established in 1979, Sierra Vista was also on the forefront of the Rhône movement in the area. Their dedication to the craft is evident in each sip.

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With a renewed fascination and enthusiasm for our backyard wine region, we are determined to return soon and continue our adventure of discovery. If you are planning a trip to Northern California, perhaps to the more famous wine regions like Napa, Sonoma, or Lodi, you owe it to yourself to plan a little detour to the east, and come discover the fantastic wines of El Dorado County.

Cheers!

  • By Kent Reynolds and Robyn Raphael
  • Unless otherwise credited, all photos by Kent Reynolds and Robyn Raphael