Ophir Wines: Where Rhône Varieties Flourish
Spring comes early to Ophir, a magical little place that skirts the Auburn Ravine Creek near the town of Newcastle, about a half hour drive northeast from Sacramento. Descending from a snowy weekend in the Foothills, the elevation drops to below 1,000 feet and you are transported into a verdant sunbelt of mauve pink tulip trees in full blossom, fl owering crabapple trees heralding the change of
season and a symphony of Canada geese, mallards and finches who flock to this halcyon setting.
During the Gold Rush, Ophir was rich with gold and was named after the biblical Ophir, the legendary place of King Solomon’s gold mines. In the 1850s, Ophir reportedly was also rich with fruit, and is said to have had more wineries than the Napa or Sonoma wine regions combined. Later, Ophir became known for its stone fruit, including plums, peaches, pairs and apricots. Since then it has evolved into a mix of ranches, vineyards and residential properties. Today, Mandarin oranges are one of its special crops. Techies who work in the Roseville and Folsom areas have discovered Ophir. Only ten minutes from Highway 80, they have a relatively easy commute and can return to the lush pastoral environment in the evening.
At the end of Woodman Lane is the decidedly unpretentious home of Ophir Wines, the creation of three wine lovers, who, by fortunate happenstance, came to know each other. On the 25-acre property sits the residence of Dr. Craig Green, the newly retired physician-in-chief at Kaiser Roseville, and his wife, Martye. Green’s sunny backyard deck, which looks over the softly rushing creek, doubles as the tasting room for by-appointment only visitors. Nearby is the bottling facility, housed in an old barn. Green, who bought the property in the 1970s, grows small lots of Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc. Greeting all visitors is the lovable Zelda, a six-year-old Rottweiler.
Just down the road is Paul Burns’ 40-acre parcel, where most of the grapes are grown for the 1,100-case winery. Burns has about five acres planted with Syrah, Mourvedre, Cinsault, Petite Sirah and Zinfandel. About ten years ago, Burns, a former attorney for the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD), decided it was time to look toward a second career, and planted grapes on the property, which had been in disrepair, having served the inglorious purpose of being a repository for car junkers and other abandoned items.
Burns and Green became friends through their mutual love of wine, and recruited the third partner, Michael Abbott, a legislative consultant to private industry. Abbott and Burns were former neighbors in the Land Park district of Sacramento. “We were home vintners,” says Abbott, “with aspirations of going pro.”
At the time, Green was also bottling his own Sauvignon Blanc, and not very happy with results. “We had all gone as far as we could as home winemakers,” recall Burns. “We wanted to make better wine and we were at a stage in our life we could go to a second career.”
Martye Green suggested they take over the barn and start to get serious, which they did. All three partners took viticulture courses at UC Davis before bottling and releasing their first wines, a 2002 Syrah, 2002 Sauvignon Blanc and a rose table wine. “Paul and Mike rescued our Sauvignon Blanc from oblivion,” says Martye Green.
When Burns bought his vineyard, he and Abbott hired a UC Davis professor to conduct soil and climate tests. They found the growing conditions to be most similar to the Rhône region, says Abbott, who now serves as winemaker.
The decomposed granite soil, low fertility,warm days and evenings cooled by the Auburn Ravine Creek are perfect for growing Rhône varietals, says Burns. Summers usually hover in the 90s with a few 100-degree plus days. The cooling at night allows the acidity to collect in the grapes, he adds.
Ophir produces about 1,100 cases, of which 450 cases are Syrah, 250 are Sauvignon Blanc, 150 are a Zinfandel-Petite Sirah blend, 150 are a dry Rhône style rose and the rest is Grenache and other small bottlings. All the wines are reasonably priced for the level of quality, from $10 to $18.
The 2003 Ophir Syrah is a blend of 82 percent Syrah and 5 percent Mourvedre, both sourced from Burns’ Gold Blossom Vineyard. Abbott adds 11 percent Petite Sirah fruit from Green’s vineyard and from Granite Bay Vineyard and two percent Zinfandel from Gold Blossom Vineyard.
“In the 1980s, we discovered we liked Bordeaux wines and that blending was the way to go,” recalls Abbott. The Syrah is a lovely, aromatic wine meant to go with food, “not a big blockbuster wine,” says Abbott.
For a winery that has been in business such a short time, the Ophir wines exhibit considerable finesse and a nice balance between acidity and fruit. They are, essentially, hand-crafted estate wines and the partners also have the advantage of a state-of-the-art lab on the premises, the influence of Dr. Green’s knowledge of biochemistry.
The wines have been designated as Sierra Foothills A.V.A. (American Viticultural Area) but Ophir will be releasing a new red blend, with a single vineyard designation from Burns’ Gold Blossom Vineyard. The 2004 Syrah-Mourvedre – Petite Sirah blend will be available late 2006 and will retail for $25.
“Single vineyard wines work for us since we stress the place of our wines and
the local nature of our winery,” says Abbott.
Ophir, in keeping with its hand-crafted style, does not expect to produce more than 1,200 to 1,400 cases in the future. “We want to keep control. It’s a personal business to us,” says Burns. “We pride ourselves on the fact our wines are made from grapes we grow,” adds Abbott. “It’s sweat equity here,” laughs Burns.
Beautiful ruby red wine, medium bodied, rich plummy flavors, with a hint of spice and smoke, barrel aged 18 months in American, French and Yugoslavian oak. $18 retail.
Good acidity, notes of lemon, mandarin orange, tropical fruit, pleasantly unctuous mouth feel. A small percentage aged four
months in French oak. $12 retail.
A rose blend of Syrah, Zinfandel and Cinsault. Will appeal to those who like intensely fruity wines. Notes of ripe strawberries, plums and watermelon. $10 retail.
Ophir wines are available at Carrington’s wine shop in Nevada City and can often be found on the wine list at the New Moon Cafe in Nevada City. Other sources are
Carpe Vino in Auburn, Lincoln Produce Market in Sun City, Eureka and Vine in Rocklin and Le Bilig restaurant in Auburn.
Ophir Wines will participate in the Placer Hills Winery Tour May 13, and in the planned August and November winery tours. On October 14th Ophir Wines will be exhibiting at the Auburn Wine Festival.
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