We recently had the opportunity to meet and taste with Jonathan Lachs, winemaker and co-owner of Cedarville Vineyard and Winery in Fairplay on our recent visit to El Dorado County. For Jonathan and his wife Susan Marks, creating Cedarville has been the fulfillment of a lifelong dream the two have shared. We met with Jonathan to hear firsthand how they were able to achieve that dream.
In a most fitting beginning, Jonathan and Susan met at UC Davis, at a wine tasting where both were in the process of completing their degrees in Enology. After graduating, they worked at various wineries in Napa Valley and decided their plan was to eventually own their own vineyard and winery. To accomplish this they both left the industry for higher paying jobs that would allow them to save the nest egg that would become the financial foundation for their dream. Over a decade later, in 1995, they acquired the 20 acre property that now houses their winery, their home, and 15 acres of organically farmed vines.
The property they acquired is in the Fairplay American Viticultural Area (“AVA”) which is a sub-AVA of the El Dorado County AVA. Their property is on a hilltop at 2500 feet elevation. Their home sits on top of the hill and has spectacular views of the surrounding Sierra Madre Mountains and the valleys below. Falling away from this peak are their steeply sloped vineyards, planted to Zinfandel, Grenache, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Viognier.
As we walked through the vineyards with Jonathan and listened to his story, we were struck by the combination of passion, humility and love of the land that he possesses. He explained to us that beginning in 2010 he and Susan achieved their goal of having a fully organic vineyard. Being fully organic means that the vines are grown and maintained without the addition of any outside agents such as herbicides or chemicals. This is accomplished in a number of ways. Cover crops between the vine rows help to keep the ground properly nourished, reduce weeds and keep insects away from the vines. Any weeds that do grow are pulled by hand or with a weed wacker, not with chemicals. Rather than using chemical to kill the brush adjacent to the creek running past the vineyard, goats were brought in to eat it. Owl houses have been built at strategic places on the vineyard and the owls help to control the rodent population. Through these and other methods they grow their vines in a completely sustainable way. Their land is respected and carefully nurtured and sustained in an organic way so that the vineyard can sustain them. Jonathan and Susan have a perfect symbiotic relationship with their land.
The soils at Cedarville are similar to most of the soils in El Dorado county. They are primarily decomposed granitic soils that offer excellent drainage and just enough nutrients. As Jonathan explained to us, the ability to drain water away from the roots keeps the berries from swelling with water which would produce more dilute wines. These relatively poor soils cause the vines to produce small berries that possess concentrated flavours. El Dorado’s high elevation and warm summer require little irrigation in most of the vineyard plots in most years. Cedarville’s Grenache plot, near the creek, can usually be dry-farmed. Jonathan is very pleased how his vines have developed over the past two decades. “At over twenty years old, the vines develop character that shows their place and not just the climate conditions. Our wines now have really developed a sense of terroir.”
As we toured the winery, we saw that same philosophy of sustainability and efficiency in its design. The winery and the adjacent barrel cave are built into the hillside, in between vineyard plots. The winery was built using huge pre-cast concrete arches that were embedded in the hillside and then the roof was made of sprayed concrete and covered with six to eight feet of earth. This means that year round the barrel caves need no outside cooling. The winery itself has an evaporative cooler which can be used during the hottest times of the year in a highly efficient manner that uses little electricity. Perhaps the most incredible aspect of their winery’s efficiency is that it only has two full-time employees: Jonathan and Susan.
Efficiency, sustainability and respect for the land are what Cedarville is all about. These practices are not only good for the environment, as the following tasting notes will show, they produce excellent wines. Wines showing deep colours, expressive aromas and robust flavours. Given the very high quality of these wines, they sell for very fair prices and they are well worth the effort to seek out.
This is a blend of 88% Grenache co-fermented with 12% Syrah. Medium red colour, it has lovely aromas and flavours of dark cherry, raspberry with vanilla and spice notes. There is plenty of texture here, no doubt aided by the oak treatment it receives. Lovely earth notes come through on the finish and add to the complexity. The acidity is just right to create definition without taking away from the roundness and soft mouth feel the wine has. Very seductive.
Excellent (US$26 at the winery)
Only 235 cases of the Estate Zinfandel were produced, which is a shame because this is a winner! The profile of red fruit shows spice-infused raspberry that sits on top of a medium body. Full and ripe but avoids that jammy quality that some Zins can take on. Good acidity gives definition and a peppery note on the long finish. A Zinfandel that stands tall in a region known for its Zinfandel!
Excellent (US$26 at the winery)
2015 Cabernet Sauvignon
Red and black currants and dark cherry flavours dominate and get support from subtle notes of dark chocolate and espresso. Already complex, this wine is bound to develop further and has both the fruit and structure to go at least a decade. The body is medium/full and the mouthfeel is plush and seductive. There are medium+ tannins that give a nice dusty feel and help define the texture. Power and elegance at the same time.
Excellent (US$36 at the winery)
2015 Rules of Fair Play
A blend of 62% Estate Zinfandel and 32% Petite Syrah from Naylor Vineyard. Only 51 cases of this seductive gem were produced. This wine turns up the dials and impresses with its power and intensity but still holds on to a sense of balance and proportion. Definitely black fruit in profile (blackberry and bramble berry) which is no doubt a result of the relatively high proportion of Petite Syrah. There is pepper and brown spices to be found on the long finish.
Excellent (US $36 at the winery)