It’s a terrible irony that a retirement dream winery should burn down in a place called Fair Play. The dream went up in smoke in mid 2012.
The once and future Oakstone Winery now seeks to repeat its development as a local success story, similar to the Phoenix of Greek mythology which regenerated itself from its own ashes.
Considering the players, it’s an odds-on favorite.
This El Dorado County wine estate opened in March, 1997, as the Oakstone Winery, the culmination of 25 years of preparation by its original owners John and Susan Smith. The founding winemaker has a PhD in analytical chemistry and spent his professional career in the design and development of scientific and medical instruments.
Until his retirement, he taught advanced analytical chemistry and a course entitled “The Chemistry of Wine” at San Jose State.
From 1992 to 1996, the energetic, white-bearded scientist served as the Winemaker for Single Leaf Winery and Vineyards.
“Straight out of central casting,” he joked.
Wife Susan retired in May of 2007 from a career as an educator at West Valley College in Saratoga, where she served as chair of the reading department. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s degree in reading.
Things went well for the indefatigable pair. Oakstone (named for the Indian acorn-grinding rock on the property) became one of the premium wineries of the Sierra Foothills, specializing in a range of gold medal-winning offerings at reasonable prices.
Then came July 7, 2012. Out of nowhere a fire swept through the production facilities and tasting room.
Nothing survived but determination. He quickly re-established a working facility just a quarter mile away in his other, smaller winery known as Obscurity Cellars.
But for John and Susan Smith, rebuilding the enterprise by themselves was not the most attractive option.
“Been there, done that,” smiled the personable founder. So, after a stellar business and science career, after building Obscurity Cellars and then the Oakstone Winery, John Smith retired for the third time.
Friends and colleagues Steve and Liz Ryan stepped up and bought “Oakstone 2.0″ at the new location, 6470 Irish Acres Road.
Steve joined Oakstone in 2003, first as tasting room attendant, then cellar assistant, assistant winemaker, and finally winemaker in 2006.
Combining infectious enthusiasm with a discerning palate, he focuses on employing and improving the techniques that guide wines to their best conclusion.
Liz spent years in office management and winery assistance before being named Oakstone’s business manager in 2008.
As a winery tends to reflect the personality and values of the owner, she is confident about the future.
“Steve is a perfectionist where wine is concerned. Where other wineries may want to craft a certain taste or engineer a commercial direction, Steve strives to remain true to the varietal. That produces the authenticity of the Oakstone brand,” Liz said.
John continues his contribution in the role of consultant, lending his four decades of winemaking experience to the re-emerging Oakstone. The affable expert also pours in the tasting room and has a good time with both the visiting neophytes and jaded connoisseurs.
“How many vineyard execs will sit down with you and chat up the wines?” enthused Marley Evans, a recent convert to barbera wine, a house specialty. “John’s early experience as an amateur winemaker with Mondavi is captivating. These people are so wonderful, so real.”
For the new owners, excellence in winemaking is old hat. After all, as Oakstone’s latter-day winemaker, Steve was fully seasoned in the job, as was wife Liz, the expert on business management.
But the fire brought another challenge. The new building is considerably smaller than the old one, preventing production of its former 6,000-8,000 annual cases. Oakstone’s output is currently limited to about 2,000 cases per year.
“Fortunately,” Steve said, “the vines didn’t burn, just the building.” He is referring to the 24 acres of fruit still owned by the Smiths, including the “De Cascabel” estate, seven acres of legacy vines planted in 1981 on Oakstone’s property by Ron Mansfield of Gold Bud farms in Apple Hill.
The vineyard includes two acres of merlot, three and a half acres of cabernet sauvignon, and half an acre each of cabernet franc, carmenere and dolcetto.
Wines produced from market grapes include pinot grigio, estate zinfandels, sangiovese, petite sirah and a selection of port styles.
According to Steve, the 2,500-foot elevation, coupled with unusually deep decomposed granite soil, give the grapes vibrancy not seen in most valley locations.
“Our daytime temperatures are quite warm, but the cool nights help develop intense color and substantial tannins,” Steve said.
In years past the winery became infamous for a wildly popular, non-vintage, affordable red table wine known as Slug Gulch Red. This ever-changing medley of misfit and orphaned fruit achieved cult status with customers who consistently voted it as the “Best Mediocre Red Wine” in the area.
For now the popular blend is dormant.
“For a table wine, it rocks,” admitted Christina Clay Hendricks of Sacramento who discovered the red before the fire truncated its production. “It pairs with just about anything. Hope it has a comeback.”
Steve is working on it.
“Slug Gulch is getting a makeover,” he said, inspecting the new Phoenix rising red label. “If you liked Slug, you’re going to love this.”
Winery visitors are welcomed with open arms, but presently there is little room to accommodate busloads. Smaller groups can squeeze in. For now all of the wine is sold from the tasting room and a few restaurants, with no retail distribution in stores.
“If you can’t visit us, at least check us out on the web,” added Liz. “And call us. Our wine club is free and offers really good perks and discounts.” Members of the former Obscurity Cellars club are automatically enrolled.
The unfolding story of Oakstone Winery’s progress keeps the attention of local estate growers and other aficionados of the grape.
“We were the eighth winery in Fair Play,” reflected John. “Now there are 32 of them here. But we’re all friendly competitors.”
With foothill wines steadily gaining share in the domestic and international markets, and with grape harvests tighter than those of recent years, Oakstone has a promising future.
Like the mythological Phoenix, Oakstone Winery is rising from its own ashes with new energy, unrelenting quality and customer loyalty.
For this quartet of happy vintners, these are the real ends of business, the human side of agronomics, the enduring fruits of a place called Fair Play.
The folks at Oakstone can be reached at 530-620-5303 or by e-mail at [email protected] The Website with wine club details is oakstone-winery.com. The tasting room is open Friday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and no appointment is required.