Nellie Cresci answers the phone. I introduce myself and ask for her husband, Gerald Cresci. She says he isn't at the house right now but is expected back soon.
"Let me guess," I say, "he's out in the vineyard."
"Oh, yeah, he's always out there," she confirms.
When you grow wine grapes, the vineyard always seems to beckon, demanding that it be pruned or thinned or sprayed or tilled or something else.
Gerald Cresci likes to do as much of that work as he can.
He and his wife tend 10 acres of wine grapes in Herald, in southern Sacramento County, just southwest of the mothballed Rancho Seco nuclear power plant.
The Crescis bought their parcel in 1979 and began to put down vines in 1983, when he retired as special assistant for occupational education in the chancellor's office of California's community college system. He holds a doctorate of education and had taught at the University of San Francisco and San Francisco City College, but in retirement he wanted to pursue his interest in grape growing and winemaking.
Since then, he's become a popular and respected judge on the wine-competition circuit and is revered among home winemakers in the Sacramento region as a mentor, instructor, competitor and the farmer of grapes recognized for their quality and diversity.
He doesn't tend market-driven grape varieties such as chardonnay and merlot, but focuses on grapes that agricultural authorities believed would do well in his corner of the Lodi appellation when he began to put in his vineyard nearly 30 years ago â" cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc, petite sirah, chenin blanc and colombard.
While the Crescis sell most of their grapes to home winemakers â" Nellie Cresci's task is to account for buyers both prospective and committed â" they do have a few commercial clients.
Foremost among them is Six Hands Winery on Andrus Island just outside of Walnut Grove in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Six Hands â" the husband-wife team of Peter and Richele Marks and his father, Norman Marks â" makes about 1,000 cases of wine a year, concentrating on small lots of varietals and blends from grapes grown mostly in the Sacramento region â" Lodi, Clarksburg and the Dunnigan Hills of northern Yolo County. Over the past decade, a chenin blanc made with grapes from the Cresci Vineyard has become one of their signature wines.
Their latest, the Six Hands Winery 2011 Lodi Cresci Vineyard Chenin Blanc, demonstrates with clarity and balance just why chenin blanc grown in and about the Delta pretty much sets the standard for the varietal in California. It's an engaging wine, with clean and fresh fruit suggesting pears picked at the perfect degree of ripeness, then brought to market with tender, loving care, without any contrived manipulation.
It's a dry and balanced summer wine, splendid for sipping on its own or for pairing with light seasonal cuisine, especially if it involves oysters or delicate fish.
When he isn't making wine, Peter Marks is involved in his day job in the seed business, while his wife is a registered nurse. They founded their winery in 1997, working out of small quarters that once housed field workers who were harvesting asparagus long before Delta landowners saw the potential for wine grapes from the area's rich, peaty soils. In addition to chenin blanc, they make cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc, viognier and several other varietals and blends, as well as a dessert-style chenin blanc also produced with grapes from Cresci Vineyard.
When Gerald Cresci returned my call he was on his lunch break from trimming canes in his block of cabernet sauvignon. He was using hand clippers, and his goal was to finish five rows a day.
Though he continues to occasionally make home wine, experimenting primarily with various styles of colombard, he hasn't used his vineyard as a springboard to go commercial, though the thought has occurred to him.
"We thought about it, but we're a little too old to get involved in that at the moment. As we got older, that dream faded away," chuckled Cresci, who, by the way, turned 90 a few months ago.
Six Hands Winery 2011 Lodi Cresci Vineyard Chenin Blanc
By the numbers: 14 percent alcohol, 75 cases, $12.
Context: Peter Marks recommends the Cresci Vineyard chenin blanc with shellfish, especially oysters.
Availability: In Sacramento, Corti Brothers stocks the wine. Six Hands wines also can be ordered through the winery's website, www.sixhandswinery.com.
More information: Six Hands recently opened a tasting room at 14 S. School St., Lodi, open 1-6 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. The winery, 13783 Isleton Road, Walnut Grove, is open by appointment only. Call (916) 776-2053.
Longtime wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne continues his relationship with The Bee as a contributing columnist to the Food & Wine section. His wine selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. Check out his blog at www.ayearinwine.com, and reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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