Looking at the two men, one wouldn’t notice much in common; except maybe the worn out pair of jeans each wore and the purple stains under their finger nails. But these two men share the same passion – wine.
“Some kids went to preschool,” said D.J. Latcham, a 24-year-old third generation winery owner and operator at Latcham Vineyards. “I went to the tasting room. There is wine in my veins. Some zin is in there somewhere.”
For Mount Aukum winemaker Michel Prod’hon, a native of a tiny French village who moved to the U.S. 31 years ago, wine was a part of growing up. “When I grew up, we didn’t wait to drink. I have been drinking wine since I was little.” His childhood memories involved picking grapes during the harvest and helping relatives crush by hand.
But what makes both of these men’s stories so unique is the opportunities to actually hear it from them directly. For most wine enthusiasts, a trip to a Napa Valley winery may involve a tasting fee, the exchange of half dozen words with a salesperson, and a few pours in a tasting room.
“Napa isn’t personal. You just don’t see the winemaker,” said Mount Aukum Winery assistant winemaker Bill Dishman.
The El Dorado Winery Association changes that with Bring Out the Barrel, taking place January 29- 30. This annual event featuring 26 wineries in El Dorado wine country is a rare experience to not only sample vintages yet to be released, but to meet the people behind the wine.
Napa Valley is home to legendary wineries – Robert Mondavi Wineries, Grgich Hills Estate, Stags’ Leap Winery – to name a few. But how often does one get to ask the winemakers of these icons their philosophy on making wine? How do they decide when is the right time to pick the grape from the vine? What wines do they enjoy making the most? Is the port better with brownies or ice cream?
Both Latcham and Prod’hon will tell you that for their wines, elevation matters. El Dorado wine country provides one vineyard with fog and clay based soil and another granite. Pleasant Valley wineries enjoy nearly identical conditions to France’s Rhône river valley. The climatology, geology and history of the region, or the terroir, provide a great variety and opportunity for these winemakers and owners.
“We have access to the best grapes in the world,” says Latcham. “ El Dorado County offers so many microclimates. We have wines with an altitude.”
At Mount Aukum Winery, they produce wine the old fashioned way by hand-pressing during fermentation, but the vines themselves are only about four to five years old. This 7-year-old vineyard offers quality over quantity: about 14 red wines, four white wines and a port. While barrel wine tasting the 2008 Malbec, one enjoys the simplicity of this very smooth red wine to be released in summer 2011. This vintage is no blend; 100% Malbec grapes. And knowing 2008 only produced 55 tons of grapes for Mount Aukum Winery compared to the 120 tons in 2007, one also realizes now is the time to grab these bottles.
In addition to the extraordinary experience of sampling from the wine barrel and talking to the winemakers, one also has a chance to purchase futures, or vintages not yet released, during Bring Out the Barrel.
“Wine futures are like the stock market, but with better odds,” said Latcham.
At Latcham Vineyards, there are two things a visitor notices in their tasting room; all the medals and ribbons along the walls and the crowd of people hovering over the homemade brownies. The brownies contain a secret ingredient that has people returning to the tasting room on a regular basis – their port.
Port appears to be a favorite of both wineries. Prod’hon enjoys making blends such as ports because it truly shows off the talents of the winemaker. “It’s a challenge,” he says. Latcham agrees.
D.J. Latcham’s grandfather, Frank Latcham, bought the land in 1980 after realizing his dream of quitting his tax attorney practice and the fact that owning a vineyard in Napa was out of his reach. During a visit to his sister in Placerville, Calif., a few local winery owners talked him into planting some vines in El Dorado County. After about ten years, the Latchams went from growing grapes to crushing them.
When talking about what he likes most about Bring Out the Barrel, Latcham replies, “This is something all winemakers wish they could do all the time. This is our product. This is what wine tasting is all about.”
Latcham Vineyard’s will be featuring a 2009 Gold Rush White for barrel tasting. Considered their table wine with a blend of chardonnay and pinot grigio, it is just a little sweet and produced with no filter. Past vintages sold out fast. But it is the people as much as the winemaking experience that Latcham enjoys the most.
“We hug 75 percent of the people that walk out of here.”