May 15, 2006
The wine for rabbit

No one said, "Good, kitty." But no one stopped tasting, either.

We'd been driving along Ridge Road east of Sutter Creek late Saturday morning when we saw a sign for a winery we'd never heard of, Avio Vineyards.

We pulled in, sauntered into the tasting room and were enjoying the view of Butte Mountain looming over the Mokelumne River Canyon when a show-off cat named Squirt leaped through an open window to deposit at the feet of three fellow tasters from Modesto a very dead rabbit. Squirt is very good at helping control gophers and rabbits in the vineyard spilling down the hillside just outside the tasting room, explained the winery's owners, Stefano and Lisa Watson, though they really didn't need to.

Squirt also is one of 49 animals on the couple's 77-acre spread. Most have been rescued, and they range from dogs and cats to llamas and lambs, one of which Lisa Watson cradles in her arms in the tasting room just before she retrieved rabbit and cat.

The Watsons, who had been living in Atlanta, where he was in high-tech sales, bought the ranch two years ago and opened their winery late last summer, naming it after the northern Italian town where she grew up.

Stefano had been a home winemaker for 24 years. When he decided to try his hand at it commercially he scouted land from the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia to the Shenandoah Valley of California, settling on the Ridge Road site because it was affordable and because the setting reminds the couple of Italy.

They make a representative Amador County zinfandel and a stylish cabernet sauvignon, but their bread-and-butter wine is the Avio Vineyards 2003 Amador County Barbed Wire Red ($11), an easy-drinking and spirited blend of sangiovese (70 percent) and zinfandel (30 percent). It's a spaghetti wine, best drunk from traditionally squat little trattoria glasses, suggests Stefano Watson, who also wryly recommends it with rabbit. I was surprised to read on the label that the wine contains 15.5 percent alcohol; it doesn't seem at all hot. The wine was given its name for the propensity of several of the couple's vines to favor a nearby barbed-wire fence over the wires of their trellis.

The couple farms 30 acres of vines, 10 each of sangiovese and zinfandel, the rest a bunch of other varieties. They sell much of their zinfandel to Rombauer Vineyards in the Napa Valley. They're converting a former carriage house on the property into a one-couple bed-and-breakfast inn they hope to open in June. Leave the door open on a warm summer night and who knows what kind of surprise Squirt might have waiting for you.

Avio Vineyards, 14520 Ridge Road, Sutter Creek, is open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday through Sunday; (209) 267-1515. At this early stage in the winery's development the wines aren't being distributed much beyond Amador County.

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