The Cooper family has been farming in Amador County since 1919, when “Grandpa Cooper” left his San Francisco medical practice to tend a walnut orchard. Not until current owner Dick Cooper graduated from UC Davis in the 1970s did the Coopers consider grafting grapevines. But they wanted to think outside the Zinfandel box. Friend Darrell Corti, of Sacramento’s famed Corti Brothers grocery store, gave the Coopers a tip. “Mr. Corti pulled his pocketbook out, retrieved a $1 bill and wrote ‘Barbera’ and ‘Nebbiolo’ on it,” remembers Dick Cooper. With no Nebbiolo to be found, the Coopers turned to neighbor Cary Gott of Montevina Winery, who was willing to sell a bit of Barbera rootstock.

Today, Barbera is Cooper Vineyards’s’ flagship wine, the one that customers flock to the tasting room to buy in bulk.

(Read the full Amador County article on SF Chronicle)

About the Wine: Barbera is the third most widely planted grape varietal in Italy (behind Sangiovese and Montepulciano), primarily planted in the Piedmont wine region of the DOCG Barbera di Asti. Barbara vines are happiest in clay loam and sandy soils — soils that are less fertile and thus limit vigor and yields. The grapevines themselves are quite sturdy and vigorous, capable of producing high yields (if not managed with constant pruning), which can diminish the fruit’s overall quality. High yielding Barbera tends to be higher in acidity, producing weak-bodied wines.

Luckily, Amador County, at the base of the Sierra Foothills, is comprised of volcanic Sierra Series soils (sandy clay loam from decomposed granite). This, along with the elevations of the sloping landscape, means that most vineyards are dry farmed, resulting in sparse vine canopies, exposure to sunlight, and healthy-yielding Barbera grapes.

Flavor Profile: Pop the cork and, well, my wine notes literally read “MMMM.” It’s the full, voluptuous scent of bold, overly-ripened fruits: angry plump plums, bursting figs, and a constant background of fresh cut wood.

On the pour the Cooper Vineyards 2013 Estate Barbera is a beautifully clean cranberry color. Settled into the glass, the wine is a bit darker — like a garnet jewel. Tilt the glass, and you’ll find just the slightest rusty rouge around the perimeter. Now breathe it in. It’s like breathing in the cold, dank air of a winery’s barrel cellar: wet wood, rocky cave, the undeniable feeling that you’re underground. Swirl and sniff again. More wet funk, you’re deeper underground now — in a cave that has herbs sprouting out of the rocks. The cave is so dark you can’t see; your feet, they squish as you walk. It’s the squish-squish-squish of mud you hear, but it’s the scent of plump plums and blackberries being squashed into the ground with every step you smell. Move your nose to the top of the glass and find a subtle perfume of black velvet roses and that funky, mildewy fungal scent of forage-able mushrooms.

On the palate, the Barbera is just as bold and voluptuous as you want it to be, based on the nose. Flavors are more of reddish fruits than you may have thought, however — think black cherries. There are also hints of coffee and leather mixed throughout from an obvious oak barrel aging. It’s a medium-bodied wine with solid enough tannins to give the wine structure, but never cloying or clutching the tongue or cheeks. There’s a bit of spice that comes in, just as a swift kick, toward the mid-end of the taste. The finish is a lingering savory one, filling the palate with a matchstick flint, or more like — wet wood sitting next to a roaring fire.

Food Pairing: I paired the Cooper Vineyards 2013 Estate Barbera with a spice-filled prosciutto pizza. The “bacon-like” quality of the prosciutto played well with that matchstick-y, flint-y finish. The mushrooms, as well as the fresh-baked pizza crust, complimented that dank, woodsy aroma that’s constantly hanging in the background of both the nose and the palate. But it’s the acidic tomatoes along with the chili flakes that simultaneously toned down that bit of spice found in the wine and gave the overall mouthfeel a rounder, smoother texture.

More Info: I purchased the Cooper Vineyards 2013 Estate Barbera at the winery. Price: $29. For more information about Cooper Vineyards and to order wines directly, please visit the Cooper Vineyards website.

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