There’s a line in the tourism industry that experts are using to highlight the Mother Lode’s outdoor splendor, laidback rhythms and wealth of winemaking virtuosity. The phrase goes like this: “The Gold Country: Red wine, white water and blue jeans.”
Emphasis on the wine.
In recent years, Mother Lode vineyards have expanded the marks they’re leaving in the public’s imagination. Travelers and tourism experts are beginning to agree that while foothill tasting rooms may not have the global fame of Napa’s sampling spots or the financial investment of Paso Robles’ ventures, they retain an understated authenticity that’s all but vanished from the rest of California’s wine scene. The word is out: From the rolling hills of northern Amador County to the western rooftops of Tuolumne County, Gold Country wines are all about masterful achievements sold at working-class prices.
Now, as more and more people discover the region – the rustic elegance of its tasting rooms, the sweeping vistas of its vine-laced hilltops – a new question is beginning to emerge in Amador, Calaveras and Tuolumne counties. Who are the vintners behind these rare species of wineries? Who are these artists, these men and women who blend sunshine, shifting soil and wind-touched vines into their own special creations? What are their stories?
Now we delve deep into the backgrounds of a handful of the most interesting personalities in the industry, pulling back the veil to examine the forces in life that ultimately helped forge their businesses.
Of rebels and survivors
“It’s the wild wine that sets the wisest man to scream at the top of his lungs,” Homer proclaimed. “It temps him to blurt out stories that have never been told.”
When it comes to that life-affirming lift from vino, Milan Matulich has always conjured the wildest notes in the Shenandoah Valley. Like Homer, he was a child of the Mediterranean, raised on the same Dalmatian Coast that gave birth to the Zinfandel grape three millennia before. Zinfandel arrived in New York Harbor in the 1840s. Matulich arrived at Ellis Island a century after that. When the two finally crossed paths in California, Matlulich found his moment to make the vines start to sing. Today, his Dobra Zemlja Winery is known as one of the most festive wineries in the region. But the journey of the man who brings that energy, in the words of Homer, is a story that’s never been told.
Bombs were falling. It was 1943 and Croatia was being attacked from the sky by the German Luftwaffe. Matulich was 7 as he witnessed the carnage. There was danger everywhere. His father had already been locked away in an Axis prison camp. His family finally managed to escape the smoke and rubble on a fishing boat. They came ashore on a coastline of Italy that had been liberated by the Americans. From there, the family was shipped to a refugee camp in Egypt.
“It was a great sandbox for kids,” Matulich remembers, “but not that much fun for the adults.”
Ultimately, the family was sponsored to come to the U.S. by an uncle who lived in Sacramento.
One memory of Croatia that has never left Matulich was what wine brings to daily life. He knew it was a perennial part of his homeland’s dinner parties. Matulich started to experiment with fermenting grapes, oranges and any other fruit that he scrounged up.
“I made wine out of some of the most godawful stuff,” he admits, laughing.
In 1968, Matulich moved to Amador City. He soon cast his gaze on a graceful, hillside hideaway outside Plymouth that would become Dobra Zemlja. But it didn’t look that way at the time.
“It was a terrible mess – just a piece of property with car parts and beer cans,” he says. “I turned its grain barn into a house.”
Back then, there were fewer than 12 wineries in the entire Shenandoah Valley. Matulich began growing Zinfandel and Syrah grapes to sell to surrounding winemakers. Around that time, DNA testing proved that Zinfandel had originated from the same rocky, sundrenched coastline as Matulich. The revelation made Amador a national hot spot for Zin.
It was Matulich’s neighbor, winemaker Charles Spinetta, who finally talked him into creating his own winery in 1995.
“Because misery loves company, Charlie says, ‘Why don’t you start one?’” Matulich recalls.
When Dobra Zemlja opened its doors, it was clearly a different tasting experience than anyone in the area had known. Rather than attend standard courses on the science and chemistry of winemaking, Matulich simply took the homemade Croatian method he’d known since childhood and applied it to a larger scale. The untamed, muscular wines that resulted branded him a rebel – and earned him a lot of fans.
“The grapes are fermented on their own yeast,” Matulich explains. “They’re called ‘wild yeasts,’ and that scares a lot of winemakers … I don’t do anything magical. The grapes do whatever they do.”
Matulich’s Zinfandel has been called the “bold” product of man who does his outdoor work barefoot. He’s also renowned for his Barbera, which brims with boysenberry notes, hues of brown sugar and a deep, earthy tingle. And then there’s his famed dessert wine known as Kikas; it’s an agile, Port-like pour of crimson bliss made from Syrah grapes fortified with grappa.
Matulich’s madcap antics around the winery inspired his wife, Victoria, to create a series of art renderings. For years customers described Matulich’s appearance as a hybrid of Mark Twain and Albert Einstein, with a dash of Wyatt Earp. Yet when the winemaker appeared one day behind the counter wearing a ballet tutu, Victoria saw a chance to frame his personality with a drawing she called “Tutu Man.” The image is now the bottle art for Dobra Zemlja’s Milan Ruz.
Victoria soon embarked on a more surreal, Kafkaesque depiction of her husband. Hanging in the tasting room, it envisions him as a pale, crazed, crawling gremlin. It’s titled “The Golem.”
The same sense of mischief is present in Dobra Zemlja’s official slogan: “No Lightweights,” a handy reminder that Matuluch offers wines with the most alcohol in the Shenandoah. For Mutlich and his crew, that keeps the mission aimed at providing fun, easy-going entertainment.
“My staff, I think they’re just as crazy as I am,” he notes with a smile. “None of us take this winery business very seriously.”
A life grows from grocers’ shelves
There are plenty of Californians who love wines crafted by C.G. Di Arie Vineyard and Winery, though few fans know that the man behind those bottles has likely had products in their shopping carts for quite some time. That’s because winemaker Chaim Gur-Arieh also happens to be one of the most indirectly famous food scientists in the nation.
It’s 2 p.m. and a small crowd ventures into a well-lit tasting room outside Plymouth. They’re there for a class taught by the master himself, a man of many cultures and even more accomplishments. Born in Turkey, Gur-Arieh moved to Israel when he was a teenager. He joined that nation’s threatened armed forces during a tumultuous period in the Middle East.
“That’s where I really became a man,” he recalls.
Gur-Arieh soon earned a degree in chemical engineering at the Hebrew homeland’s most prestigious institute. The academic ladder then led him on a trip to the American Midwest, where he obtained a doctorate in food science. It was 1963 and the fresh-faced graduate was recruited into research and development at Quaker Oats. Little did Gur-Arieh realize, he stepped into the middle of a cereal war. Quaker Oats, the manufacturer of Life cereal, was being sued for patent infringement by Ralston Purina, owner of the Chex cereals. Quaker was on the losing side and officials there scrambled to get a new breakfast product on the market.
“Many different events in my life have happened just by serendipity and timing,” Gur-Arieh said. “When a window of opportunity shows up, you have to be able to recognize it and take it.”
Gur-Arieh launched a volley in the cereal battle by inventing Cap’n Crunch – those sweet, crackling cubes of gold that became an American breakfast icon. Fifty years later, Cap’n Crunch remains a financial treasure for Quaker. But at the time when Gur-Arieh had his Cap’n Crunch breakthrough, he already felt the need for a new challenge.
He moved to the Bay Area and landed a job with Del Monte Foods. Another game-changer was on the horizon: Gur-Arieh invented the first canned pudding to ever hit the world market. In 1983, he further cemented his place in American pop culture by creating Hidden Valley Ranch salad dressing.
“I worked on it for about a year or so, and then I had it,” Gur-Arieh recalls of cracking the code for the best ranch dressing in history.
Throughout the success, Gur-Arieh also discovered a deep love of wine. It grew because of the influence of his wife, Elisheva, a professional dancer who had toured through Europe. When the couple found themselves retired in 1998, they saw a chance for a whole new adventure. They bought a large piece of land north of the Shenandoah Valley and planted grapes. Gur-Arieh soon relied on his food science ingenuity to make his own specially fitted tanks to use to make wine.
“The skins never go to the top during the fermentation,” he stresses as part of his signature process. “I want the smell to be pleasant. I want the wine to look nice, and I want it to have a good color. And, I just want it to feel right.”
So far, fans of C.G. Di Arieh wines believe his bottles hit those aims. And so, Gu-Arieh continues to spend his afternoons playing his accordion, writing his wine blog and trying to further understand an art that was born on the Old World shores that produced him.
“In winemaking, it’s one thing to be good, but another thing to be excellent,” Gur-Arieh observes. “I know it’s hard, but I enjoy challenges. When it comes to taking on those challenges, I’ve done it my whole life.”
Travelers take root near Murphys
Murphys draws visitors from around the globe, but in a rustic barn past its Main Street, two cultural Argonauts are using their own style and experience to bring the world to Calaveras County.
A dry summer wind sweeps over Val du Vino Winery as Johnathon Phillips lifts a barrel into his truck. Beyond the tipping poppies and lavender, the serene French accent of his partner, Jeannine Hebel, drifts through the cellar door.
Hebel converses with guests who laugh and idle the afternoon away. The slow-paced sensibility is what Val du Vino is all about; it’s a vibe that comes directly from Phillips and Hebel. Phillips is a California-bred biochemist who specializes in small-batch winemaking. Hebel is a master chef who was forged in San Francisco’s culinary revolution of the 1970s.
Before Phillips and Hebel ever contemplated opening a winery, they traveled countless miles together as a team, documenting the foods and grapes of the world. From the chic avenues of Paris to the balmy backstreets of Bangkok, the two immersed themselves in a bustling, universal love of life. Since opening Val du Vino, they’ve earned a fan base by bringing their international insights to the heart of Calaveras.
Hebel was born in North Africa and spent her teenage years in central France. In the early 1970s, she started work as a chef in the United States. Given her deep foundation in French techniques, she eventually landed cooking jobs in the City by the Bay, where there was a demand for chefs who could match the innovations of Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower.
“Food in the U.S. had not been great in the ’70s,” Hebel admits. “But then suddenly everyone wanted to eat well and was open to trying fusions, and you could be so creative in San Francisco. It was a fantastic time for me.”
Hebel soon arranged dishes for political powerhouses like Nancy Pelosi and Diane Feinstein, as well as tech moguls like Tom Perkins and acclaimed writers like Amy Tan. She eventually met Phillips, who’d been carefully honing his skills as a winemaker in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Hebel and Phillips started a business together to produce travel documentaries. She analyzed the flare in international dishes and he reviewed the vibrancy of the wines. In 1997, they started a new venture together, Val du Vino. They brought their years of wandering Europe and Asia with them.
Val du Vino’s wine club parties have since become legend. Phillips brings out bottles like his signature Zinfandel, which offers a swirl of fruit on fudge accented by cool, clean vanilla notes and nuances of jammy perfection. Hebel then pairs such wines with her own sublime, seven-course meals.
“It’s like art,” Phillips said of Hebel’s dishes. “Some people say, ‘I can’t eat this, it’s just too pretty.’ ... I’ve learned a lot from Jeanine about presentation. It’s even made me want to make my wine barrels look perfect.”
From Hebel’s perspective, Val du Vino’s events are about trying to combine elegant extravagance with an easy-going atmosphere. The fact that so many customers say that they’re hitting the mark is hugely rewarding.
“When they’re spending time with us, they tell us that they feel like they’re in their own living room,” Hebel says with a smile. “That’s the relationship we have with them … When John and I look back at our lives and careers, this winery has really brought all the elements together.”
A voyager among varietals
There’s a proverb Gary Grant keeps close to his heart: “Adventures may hurt you, but monotony will kill you.”
That’s been a guiding principle for one of Calaveras County’s most intrepid winemakers. Grant is an expert at taking wine aficionados on unexpected journeys using the rarest grape varietals grown in the Sierra to help them tour the world. And he does it all within the cozy confines of his Murphys tasting room. It’s been that way ever since Grant started to dabble in the mysteries in the barrels. He has never tried to compete with other Zin, Syrah and Barbera vintners, chosing instead to focus on opening entirely different doorways for wine lovers, adding new shades to the colors of their red and white dreams.
Looking back, Grant knows he was always a city kid who dreamed of being a farmer. In 1999, he finally decided to take the plunge into rural life and bought property in Calaveras County’s Salt Springs Valley. He and his wife, Sue, planted grapes. Like some of the best winemakers, Grant spent his formative years in the industry learning how to be a good steward of the vines. He sold his grapes to different outfits in Calaveras, but that experience put a new seed in his mind.
“Every time I’d come up to Murphys and talk to them about grapes, everyone was partying and having a good time,” Grant recalls. “And then I’d go back to the vineyard and start doing all the work and I’d think, ‘Wait a minute, I want to be part of the fun group.’”
Grant learned the art of winemaking from luminaries like Rich Gilpin of Lavender Ridge Vineyard and Winery and Matt Hatcher of Hatcher Winery. By the time he was ready to start his own label, he had a plan that no one saw coming. Grant reasoned that with more than 30 wineries in Calaveras County, there was little need for another artisan to weigh in on the run-of-the-mill varietals. Instead, he began some detective work; he wanted to know who grew grapes with international reputations but still had no marketing influence on the West Coast. That quest eventually led him to a farmer who harvested Nebbiolo grapes, an obscure Italian varietal rarely known to American wine coinsurers. Nebbiolo is considered one of the hardest grapes to grow and ferment in Europe. Cultivating it requires highly specified temperature controls.
When Grant rolled through Angels Camp with his first load of Nebbiolo, he was forced to grab as much dry ice as he could find and throw it into a barrel with the grapes.
“It was totally amazing to watch what it does,” Grant remembers. “It started bubbling and smoking like a witch’s brew.”
Grant soon poured that brew for friends. He has since mastered the wine. A glass of Grant’s Nebbiolo pops with strong cherry brightness; it’s a warm wine that leaves an impression with its lively snap and delicate hints of licorice.
Experimenting with more elusive grapes has become the hallmark of Grant’s new winery, Gossamer Cellars. In 2013, he released a Teroldego, an Italian grape almost never grown or offered in California. The same year, Grant bottled some Negroamaro, another wine impossible to find in the Golden State. Next, he perfected Verdelho, a white varietal from Portugal and the Island of Madeira. Then Grant dived into making Riesling, that German conundrum that leaves many Mother Lode vintners backing away. He’s currently taking a hard look at South African varietals.
Grant says his most enthusiastic customers tend to be younger wine-drinkers. They’re excited to try new things and often don’t feel tied to preconceived notions.
“It’s all about whether I can get people to try something different,” Grant says. “I tell my customers, ‘I’m going to take you on a little world tour.’ The whole emblem of our winery involves looking at this gossamer wing gliding off in search of new things.”
History at the homestead
In the mid-19th century, so many immigrants from Liguria and Genoa poured into the Mother Lode that it became a virtual “Little Italy” of California’s wide open spaces. These ranchers, farmers and merchants proved to be innovative – and tough as nails. Their sweat and sacrifice helped bring the Gold Country into the modern era. Two of those sojourning families, the Roccas and Gianellis, had a lasting influence on the rise of Jamestown in Tuolumne County.
That streak continues. In recent years, Ron and Lorie Gianelli have given Tuolumne County its best-known wine haven, and have provided a direct link through wine to the Italian story woven into the land.
According to the Gianelli family, the tale starts with a scrappy teenager named Giovani Rocca, who arrived in America in 1859. He was just 14 as he made his way into the rough traps of the goldfields. These days, the family refers to Giovani as “quite a character,” due to rumors that persist that he fed the marauding bandit Joaquin Murrieta in the heyday of the outlaw’s infamy. What’s known for sure is that Giovani married into another immigrant family, the Gianellis, and bought a sweeping piece of land near Jamestown that looked like a mirage of Italy. That property has stayed in the family ever since.
The Gianelli homestead has been everything from a gold mining camp to a working cattle ranch over the decades. In 1980, Ron Gianelli saw a new possibility for the spread, one that would honor a basic element of joy within the culture of his roots. The possibility he saw was wine. Ron bought the property from his grandaunt, Edna Collard, and planted a vineyard. A laboratory study determined the soil makeup of the Jamestown acreage was almost identical to the rolling hills of Tuscany. Ron and Lorie began to explain their dream as “creating a piece of Italy” in the Mother Lode. To make it happen, they took research trips back to the land of Ron’s ancestors to learn everything they could about traditional varietals and fermenting techniques.
Today, stepping into the Gianelli Vineyards Tasting Room on Main Street in Jamestown is like wandering into a wine bar in Florence. All the defining varietals are offered: Dolcetto, Fiano, Pinot Grigio and Sangiovese Grosso.
Ron and Lorie’s winemaker, Cody LaPertche, knows how to make Italian grapes sparkle. For proof, look no farther than the Gianelli Primitivo. It hits the palate as a flame of spicy blackberry over subtle nuances of nutmeg ended in an earthy ribbon of tannins.
The concept of making Italian wines on land owned for generations by Italian-Americans is paying off, both in reputation and awards. The Gianelli 2012 Montepulciano and Aglianico earned Gold medals at the prestigious San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition and the Nino blend won a Bronze. Their bottles have also made marks at every county-level competition in the region.
Beyond the accolades, visitors to Jamestown are often delighted to find a tasting room that proves the Mother Lode wine region doesn’t end at New Melones Reservoir. Even the late Huell Howser, star of the Public Broadcasting Service TV show “California Gold,” toured the Gianelli vineyard with Ron and Lorie.
Looking back on all the success, Lorie gives much of the credit to her husband.
“Ron had a lot to do with how it all came together,” she said. “He played such a big role in all of this.”
The Gianellis’ dreams mirrored those of many wine-producers in the Mother Lode. Like Matulich, Gur-Arieh, Phillips and Hebel and Grant, they sought to bring a little of themselves to a time-honored tradition, and offer wine lovers a lot of happiness along the way.