Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Jeff Runquist And The Quest For Authentic Excellence In Wine

Jeff Runquist of Jeff Runquist Wines 2Signature wines are fine, but exploration keeps you fresh and alive.

Deep Roots In Winemaking

Award-winning winemaker Jeff Runquist is on top of his game right now. Jeff Runquist Wines in Amador County was named winery of the year in an international competition and took the lion’s share of honors in the prestigious Critics Challenge and San Francisco Chronicle wine competitions.

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Although he focuses on a few select competitions, the accolades are telling. They are the result of years of trial and experience in the California wine industry. Runquist is an overnight success 37 years in the making.

He began in 1977 as an intern with Paul Masson while studying at UC Davis. Stints at Montevina in Amador County and Napa Valley Cooperative Winery followed. In 1990 he became winemaker at J. Lohr and soon got the itch to make his own wine. In 1997 he released 700 cases of Zinfandel under his own label.

“Jerry Lohr planted in Greenfield (in Monterey County) in the ‘70s,” recalls Runquist. “He was the only person who planted more than 250 vines who didn’t go bankrupt. Jerry was nimble. He took the rootstock and grafted to cooler climate varieties. You’ve got to have the right grapes for the right climate. If not, it’s like pushing water uphill.”

Jeff Runquist Trio of WineBeing Nimble And Curious

Jeff Runquist Wines relies on 16 growers from different parts of Northern and Central California. It’s one reason he is able to be nimble and versatile.

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“I built the winery on a bare piece of ground,” says Runquist. “I didn’t have any vines and when I started I didn’t have two nickels to rub together.”

He didn’t want to risk the investment of planting a vineyard and instead looked to source his grapes. “I thought I’d focus on Zinfandel, but I was offered Sangiovese and Barbera,” Runquist said. The availability of an assortment of grape varieties plus his own curiosity resulted in a wide-ranging portfolio of wines.

Many a winemaker would have been satisfied to hang their hat on Zinfandel. Instead, Runquist uses up to 25 different varieties. “It’s like a chef,” Runquist explains, “you may have a signature dish, but don’t you get tired of it?” Working with the different grapes keeps him fresh, alive and inquisitive.

“I have the growers and enthusiasm,” said Runquist explaining the wide range of his limited-production wines. “I like to try things. Sometimes these are things we’ve tasted elsewhere, sometimes it’s a dare or a challenge.”

He explains it is part of his business model. If you want to learn about red wine, he says, you can join the JRW wine club and receive 12 or 24 bottles a year – each different. Indeed, the list of 2020 JRW releases includes rare gems like Teroldego, Charbono, Alicante Bouschet, Muscat Canelli, Dolcetto, Tannat, Graciano, and Touriga in addition to acclaimed Zinfandel, Sangiovese, and Barbera. Some releases are less than 125 cases.

JRW Interior of Tasting RoomGrounded In The Foothills

He could have starred anywhere in California’s wine country, but Runquist chose Amador County in the Sierra Foothills. “This is where I grew up making wine,” he said. “It’s an interesting area. I’ve always felt most welcomed here and economically it works.”

Growing Zinfandel in the area can sometimes be a challenge, but the Barbera is magnificent. “I probably drink the most of Barbera,” Runquist said. “We also make some outstanding Dolcetto. It’s got more color and substance than any I’ve tasted.”

Amador County also provides varied microclimates that yield different nuances to the same grape. The Massoni Ranch Vineyard has a low elevation and its Zinfandel is supple with black fruit. The Nostro Vino Vineyard, on the other hand, is the last to warm up and is picked about a month later than Massoni Ranch. Cooler nights create more acidity and a balanced, darkly colored wine. All told, JRW produces five different Zinfandels plus a Primitivo.

The Dick Cooper Vineyard is famed for its Barbera. “We’ve made Barbera from six or seven other sources,” said Runquist, “Dick’s always has a little extra top note of lavender and violet that you don’t get at other vineyards.”

Runquist sees experimentation with different varieties in the future for Amador County. “The trend is to look for an alternative to Zin,” said Runquist. While the quality is outstanding for Zinfandel, Sangiovese, and Barbera, there has been little expansion in Zinfandel plantings and other red grapes, such as Rhone or Spanish varieties, are being explored. No one has yet found “the” white grape for the region.

Quality In The Glass

A sip of the 2018 Dick Cooper Vineyard Barbera neatly clarifies the excitement around Jeff Runquist Wines. It swaddles your palate with a velvety texture of ripe, red strawberries and raspberries. Toastiness and a touch of earth give a bottom end to the flowing, rounded wine. There are no harsh tannins to interfere with your enjoyment. That’s a theme with JRW.

The wines are all barrel-aged and there are subdued tannins that provide a unifying structure. While the wines can certainly age, they are drinking beautifully right now.

“Our goal is to create a rich, full-flavored wine,” said Runquist. “We try to pack in as much flavor as possible and keep the tannins to a minimum. We want a representation of the grape, not shoe leather, chalk or dust.”

Full disclosure: Wine was received as a marketing sample.

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