ALL THAT GLITTERS
By Antoinette May Herndon
HOW THE FOX GOT ITS NAME
It's a blend, a very subtle blend. Take a goodly measure of ooh la la panache and mix freely with Yankee practicality. What do you get? Something very. . .very. . .foxy!
The surprising saga of Mokelumne Hill's French Hill Winery began more than 25 years ago when a young artist, Rod Ruthel, migrated to the Sierra Foothills from his native Massachusetts. Ruthel's art degree, acquired before an MBA, came suddenly into play when an acquaintance asked him to design a wine label. Ruthel didn't know it then, but "just a little favor" was about to morph into a lucrative career. He's designed more than 300 labels over the years, learning the wine business as he went along.
What followed was a quantum leap. In 1999, the wine bug bit Ruthel. Bit him hard. The result was his own creation, French Hill. So which came first, the wine or the label? First the wine and the philosophy behind it. "French Hill is a micro winery," he explains. "I can only make 2000 cases a year. It has to be good. How else can I compete with those big wineries other than through quality? We don't have any reason to exist but to produce an exceptional wine."
Brave words, indeed. But the proof is in the tasting. Only four years old, French Hill has clearly defined what a little known grape called Barbera should taste like and what good wine Barbera grapes can really make. And that's not just Rod Ruthel saying so. Wine judges are doing the talking with their medals. In 1999, its
very first year, French Hill's Barbera received a gold medal at the Riverside International Wine tasting. More than 2,100 wines from all over the world competed. But that was only the beginning, French Hill went on to rack up nine more prizes for its exceptional Barbera.
Why don't we hear more about Barberas? Ruthel believes the Italian varietal frequently goes unappreciated because most wineries just don't know how to make it. "Ours is rich, ripe and delicious." I definitely agree, but that's not to say that French Hill doesn't have other winners.
I love their Cabernet Sauvignon which also has received its share of medals as has French Hill's Zinfandel, Merlot, Syrah, Sangiovese and Port. Where to sample them? At the warehouse, that's where! French Hill Wines are not to be found at a supermarket, restaurant or even a liquor store. You have to go directly to the source. It's an in crowd sort of thing and, amazingly, works very well.
Ruthel buys only grapes grown in the Sierra foothills. Prior to Prohibition, Mokelumne Hill was once home to many wineries that dated from Gold Rush days, he reminds. "We are just starting to see grapes planted here after a long hiatus. My prediction is that this former 'heart of the California Wine Country' will see vineyards again once people begin to see and taste the effect of the warm days and cool nights." The wine maker had an eye to history when he named his company. French trappers worked the Mokelumne River as early as 1840 and are thought to have mined the area now
known as French Hill as early as1845. They did well with it too. So well that jealous American miners challenged them and the "French War" erupted. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed. The French Consul and state officials put a stop to the fighting. The gold pit-50 feet by 50 feet-was left to the canny Frenchmen to mine.
Mokelumne Hill is really four hills-French Hill, Sport Hill, Stockton Hill and Nigger Hill. Now which name would you choose? With that no brainer out of the way, the winery had to have a label. Who better to design it than the master himself. "The label shows the winemaker's attention to detail and pride in the product," Ruthel says. But why the wily red fox? "Doesn't he suggest a sly awareness of where the best grapes are found? I think he's not unlike the early French trappers who hunted him for his pelt and then found gold along the river. He's small but elegant, beautiful and valuable."
Not very prepossessing. How many times have I driven by it, never guessing at the liquid treasures inside the ultimate in place. Though there are signs and the location is good, the warehousereally isn't very impressive. "I really shouldgo in, shceck it out, take visitors to a tasting, but nearly two years have passed.
Location! Location! Location! That's what they say, anyway, but I don't know on this one. Don't know how many times I've gone by that warehouse. Not very prepossessing.
French Hill Winery is located at 8032 South Main St. just where hwy. 26 joins 49. Phone: 286-1800.