Amador to Host Barbera Wine Fest

Organizers hope event will become annual celebration; entry is free for all California wineries

by Jon Tourney
Dick Cooper Barbera
Grower Dick Cooper with Barbera vines on his Cooper Ranch in Amador County, the site of the 2011 Barbera Festival on June 11.
Plymouth, Calif.—More than 80 California wineries have signed up to participate in and pour their Barbera wines at the 2011 Barbera Festival scheduled for June 11 in Amador County. Festival organizer Brian Miller has identified more than 200 California wineries that produce Barbera. About 55% of those participating in the festival are based in the Sierra Foothills AVA, but other areas of the state will be represented such as Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino, Lake and Ventura counties; Paso Robles, Lodi, the Santa Cruz Mountains and Suisun Valley.

Although Amador County has the highest concentration of Barbera producers—the majority of the county’s 48 wineries produce a premium varietal Barbera—Miller emphasized that the festival is a California event, and he encourages more participation from wineries outside the Sierra Foothills. There is no charge for wineries to participate. Miller is expecting 1,500 paid attendees, plus an additional 300 people including vendors and volunteers.

Miller recently planted a small vineyard on his ranch in Fiddletown, Amador County. He works at a local tasting room and coordinates the Fiddletown Wine Competition to highlight wines sourced from the Fiddletown AVA. He said the idea of a Barbera festival was kicked around locally in recent years, and he finally took the reins to get the first event up and running this year.

Organizers expect the festival to become an annual event that will evolve over time, perhaps with the addition of educational sessions and wines from international producers in future years. Based on his experience, Miller said, “Consumers are excited about Barbera, and the variety plays a big role in Amador County’s wine business.”

The outdoor event will be held at the 120-acre Cooper Ranch in the Shenandoah Valley, adjacent to the ranch’s Barbera vineyard. Owned by grower Dick Cooper—known locally as the “Godfather of Barbera” due to his long association with the variety—Barbera was first planted on the ranch in the early 1980s; about 35 acres are now in production. Cooper sells most of his grapes to other wineries, and many have produced award-winning wines. He began producing wines under the Cooper Vineyard label (4,000 cases per year) in 2004, when he opened a winery and tasting room on the property.

Wine educator and California State Fair Wine Competition chief judge G.M. “Pooch” Pucilowski is providing organizational assistance and consulting for the festival. Pucilowski pointed out that two Amador County Barberas have earned top honors as “Best of Show” red wines at the state fair in recent years—one from Wilderotter Vineyard in the 2007 competition, and one from Jeff Runquist Wines in 2009. Both were produced from grapes grown at Cooper Ranch. “Not enough people know about Barbera, but those who do really love it. I think this event will help introduce a lot more people to the varietal,” Pucilowski said.

He noted that the number of Barbera entries in the state fair competition has gradually increased during the past 20 years. There was no Barbera category in 1992; there were 19 entries in 2002 and 45 entries in 2010. Pucilowski, who has been involved with the competition for more than 30 years, said, “The Barbera category is trending nicely in relation to other varietal categories, and I suspect it will continue to grow in the next few years.”

Barbera in California

Barbera is an Italian grape variety and the most widely planted grape in the Piemonte of Northern Italy, where its reputation and quality have also been rising in recent years. Barbera is believed to have first been planted in California in the 1880s. Louis Martini and Sebastiani produced varietal Barberas in the 1960s, and wineries with Italian heritage have grown and produced small quantities. Since Prohibition, Barbera has been grown primarily as a red blender in California, because it retains good acidity even in warm locations. The bulk of California’s acreage and production continues to be in the San Joaquin Valley, where it is blended to add acid into value-priced wines for better balance.

In spite of increased interest in producing varietal Barbera, total acreage in California has decreased in recent years. Total statewide acreage exceeded 12,000 acres as recently as 1998, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) California Grape Acreage Report totals for 2009 showed 6,931 planted acres, with Fresno and Madera counties accounting for almost 5,700 acres. Small increases in planting are occurring in premium production locations, and 2009 NASS totals showed Amador County with 163 acres, El Dorado County with 81 acres and Mendocino County with 72 acres. 

Winemaker Scott Harvey has worked with Barbera since the 1970s, when he was a winemaker at Amador’s 220,000-case Montevina Winery. He later produced wines for Santino and Renwood in Amador County before moving to Napa Valley. He continues to make Amador Barberas under his 10,000-case Scott Harvey Wines label, which will be poured at the festival. Harvey noted that Barbera buds out earlier and ripens later than Zinfandel (Amador County’s best-known variety) to produce grapes at lower pH and full, bright acidity. He believes Barbera will eventually become known as Amador’s best variety.

Barbera is considered a versatile, food-friendly wine with good acidity, lower tannins, bright fruit and berry flavors that can be consumed at a younger age than other red wines.

A green and charitable event

The Barbera Festival will also feature food vendors and local artists and is being planned as a “green” event, with all containers, utensils and plates being recycled or biodegradeable. All wine bottles will be recycled. Organizers strongly encourage carpooling and are promoting bus group packages. The festival will purchase carbon credits to offset the carbon footprint of the event through Terrapass, a carbon offset retailer. Net proceeds from the festival will go to the Community Foundation of Amador County, which provides grants and funding to county nonprofit and charitable organizations.

More information is available at the event website, barberafestival.com, including sign-up information for wineries to participate.

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