February 12, 2007
The Cobbs Get Cocky

This is Buck Cobb, patriarch of a winemaking family in the Shenandoah Valley of Amador County. Cobb, a Korean War fighter pilot, began his winery in 1979, naming it for his wife, Karly. Over the years he has balanced a studious exploitation of the valley's signature grape and wine - zinfandel - with a studious exploration of new varieties and wines like sauvignon blanc, mourvedre, roussanne, marsanne and grenache, many of them associated with France's Rhone Valley.

Now he's on an Italian kick, cultivating vineyards and making wines with primitivo, sangiovese and barbera. When we dropped in at Karly Wines yesterday, Buck Cobb dropped a bit of news on us. His Italian venture is providing the foundation for a whole new winery, Bantam Cellars, so close to completition along nearby Shenandoah Valley Road that he's planning to open it next month.

The name Bantam Cellars, says Buck, was inspired by the fondness for chickens shared by the women in the family. He also indicated the Cobbs will take a lighter-hearted approach to their Italian-inspired releases than with their zinfandels and Rhone-style wines. He said something about possibly giving an early blend the proprietary name Coop De Ville.

Before leaving Karly, we tasted our way through his newest zinfandels, which bear their own memorable names. Karly's current zinfandel lineup is as forthright, distinctive and balanced as I can recall - a sweet, dense and ripe 2004 Buck's 10 Point ($20); the 2004 Warrior Fires ($26), a bowl of blackberries seasoned with black pepper; and the spirited, sharp, firm and mouth-filling 2005 Sadie Upton ($29).

Bantam Cellars won't be the only new winery in the valley. Jeff Runquist, who began his winemaking career in Amador County in 1980 before heading off to stints in other regions, is preparing to return to build his own winery and tasting room not far from Bantam Cellars. Runquist is the winemaker for the hot Ripon wnery McManis Family Vineyards, but for years he has had his own eponymous label. He's also retained his Amador County ties, often buying grapes for his wines from Shenandoah Valley growers. That's the practice he plans to continue when he returns. The five acres he's purchased are in walnuts, which he is to keep rather than replace with a vineyard. Plans for the winery currently are being reviewed by county officials, but he hopes to break ground this summer and have the facility operating a year from now.

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