Friday, August 26, 2016

Organic Outliers in the Central Valley: Madera's Wine Trail's Fäsi Winery - Where A Swiss German Makes Syrah That Surprises

I am sure many people driving down Highway 41 to Yosemite's southern entrance near Oakhurst wonder why they see a winery tasting room rising from the dry, golden hills in this hot, dusty part of California.

But then, maybe they just don't know about the Madera Wine Trail.

I traveled the trail earlier this summer, a day before going to Fresno State's Grape Day, to see just who in Madera was growing organic wine grapes.

This summer I've become intrigued by the people who have organic vineyards in the Central Valley, where the vast swathes of grapes (interspersed between the monoculture almond and walnut,plantations) are grown for California bulk wine. Surely, anyone growing organically out here must be special to be outliers in this no-mans-land of chemically farmed vineyards.

To put this in perspective, Madera County has 36,696 acres of wine grapes. Just 626 acres of that, according to the county ag commissioner's office, are certified organic.

The other folks use 88,000 pounds of glyphosate - that's more than twice as much per acre as in many other regions of the state. And they apply imidacloprid, the bee and bird toxin banned in Europe, on 27,590 acres. Boscalid, another bee and bird toxin, is applied to 12,271 acres. And that's just a partial list.

From the CCOF directory, I discovered that a guy named Ralph P. Fäsi had 42 acres of vineyards in Madera. Who was he? And what was he doing with a vineyard here? A vineyard he has wine made from?

It turns out to be quite a tale.

A large cork oak tree has been planted (left) in the yard

In case you haven't driven there lately, it is necessary to have a fully working air conditioned vehicle to visit Madera and Highway 41 in the heat of summer. My antique, collectible 1991 Miata is not yet equipped with full strength cooling (and is not fixable according to my mechanic, due to its age, as we ascertained upon closer inspection this week), so I was overjoyed to reach the Fäsi tasting room in Friant, where the air conditioning was working at warp speed.

One enters into the dimly lit tasting room after parking in a lot near three acres of vines planted by the previous winery (not organic - at least not yet) and walking by a graceful water fountain and several large black and white cow sculptures, a symbol of Mr. Fäsi's Swiss German heritage.

How did they and Mr. Fäsi come to be here, in central California? A very good question.

It all started, like so many things in life, with a trip to Yosemite. In 1983, Mr. Fäsi and his wife, Yvonne, also Swiss German, came from Switzerland to see Yosemite. On their journey, they had a car accident, which necessitated a stay in Madera for recuperation. During their time there, they became enamored of the area and decided to live here.

In 1992, the couple found riverfront property along the San Joaquin River, purchasing a vineyard planted to Thompson seedless grapes, a mainstay of Central Valley grape growing, and Grenache.

Together with their family friend, Professor Cesare Fabietti (who taught Italian at nearby Fresno State), they made some homemade wines, which were not sufficient to satisfy their palates.

Fäsi decided to get serious and decided to see what it would take to make first class wines from his estate. He wanted to show the world what Madera could do, if it was freed from the goal of producing in quantity and instead focused on quality.

He engaged the best local talent, hiring Fresno State viticulture and enology professor Robert Wample to assess the soils. After extensive testing, Wample recommended Syrah as the best grape for the site. The site is cooled by the river, which lowers the temperature about 10 degrees in comparison to surrounding sites.

In terms of financial return on investment, Wample recommended - surprisingly, for this area - becoming organic, as the grapes would sell for a higher price than other grapes from Madera.

(There are very few organic vines in Madera County, even to this day).

So Fäsi and company ripped out all the old vines and planted anew - a new state of the art vineyard, a la 1999, based on the best advice from Wample. Three years later, when the grapes were harvested, the Fasi's held back the grapes from 2 acres, selling the rest to a buyer.

Fäsi entrusted the winemaking to Claude Bobba of Wente Vineyards in Livermore, trucking the grapes to the winery in Contra Costa county. The 2003 was the first vintage.

Fast forward 12 years to 2015. A Forbes writer ranked the 2010 Syrah as one of her top ten wines of the year, calling it, "rich and complex." By then the 2010 vintage was long gone, but the review brought TV crews and many local visitors. See this local TV coverage.

"We had no idea how the Forbes writer got a bottle of the wine, or that she was going to put it on her list," said Erica Magarian, the general manager for Fäsi Wines. "And by the time she wrote about it, it was already several vintages behind our current release."

Today the winery is serving the 2013 vintage ($29), and it's quite impressive. You get the point - that Madera can make great wines.

In fact, Fasi has been experimenting with many different approaches to its estate wines. It has four different wines made by three different winemakers.

Claude Bobba of Wente in Livermore has made every vintage of the reserve Syrah since its inaugural release. "We've won gold medals for every vintage," says Magarian.

Bobba is also responsible for making the port style Syrah that's a sweet wine.

Winemaker John Schumacher of Hallcrest Vineyards in Felton wanted to make a no-added-sulfite, USDA Organic Wine from Fasi's grapes and his 2012 is the current release.

In addition, the local team of John Giannini, who was a Fresno State connection, makes a rosé wine from the vines.

Fairly amazing for a winery that only makes 400 cases from the Syrah vineyard (out of 1,000 cases total). But what a story about believing in Madera and a vision of fine wine.

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