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Scott Harvey: Iffy Cook; Winemaking Wiz
By W. Blake Gray
Jun 1, 2010
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German Riesling and Amador County red wines have little in common.  But one Californian is a native expert on both:  Scott Harvey.

Harvey's father was a US military contractor, so he spent his first four years in Dusseldorf.  After his family moved to the Sierra Foothills, Harvey returned to Germany's Pfalz region as a high-school exchange student.  The head of his host family was a former SS officer and tank commander.

Harvey apprenticed as a winemaker in both places before getting his first head winemaker job at age 23 at Story Winery in Amador County.

Now, 32 years later, he lives in a former synagogue in St. Helena in Napa Valley; his basement was once a kosher slaughterhouse. 

Harvey has a hard time getting good Riesling grapes in California.  He buys from as far afield as Michigan and New York, and as close as an obstinate old farmer in Oakville.

But he makes some of the most balanced red wines from Amador County, which is plagued by overripe grapes from long hot summers.  I can't help wondering if his experience with the high acidity of German wines is the reason.

"I add acid to everything I need to add acid to," Harvey says.  He's also not shy about what he needs to do to lower alcohol levels.  "All Amador County fruit needs to be watered down when it's picked, unless you're blessed with rain," he says.

Scott and his wife Jana invited me for lunch, where the German/Californian cultures mixed.  We had a nice light green salad, then Scott served his homemade leberknodel (liver dumplings) with goosefat gravy.

"When I first met Scott he had rattlesnake in the freezer," Jana says.  Scott shared his rattlesnake cooking secret: "It's like snails.  It's all about the butter and lots of garlic," he said, as I looked in vain for a dog to feed the leberknodel to.

While his cooking is heavy, his winemaking touch is light, refreshingly so for Amador County.  The region has some of the oldest Zinfandel vines in California, and Scott's ex-wife Terri owns the oldest certifiable vineyard, planted before 1869.  But Amador has never achieved the popularity of coastal areas like Sonoma County or Paso Robles.

Harvey started to make a difference in the 1980s as winemaker at Santino Winery.  For a time, one of his Zinfandels was the house wine at Chez Panisse.  When Santino was absorbed by a new business, Renwood Winery, it seemed an even better platform.  But Harvey was forced out of Renwood in the mid-1990s.

He was offered a job in Michigan making Riesling, but chose instead to work in Napa Valley with Dick Peterson on Folie a Deux, where he created one of the most memorable wine brand names in America.

"Menage a Trois was originally Chenin Blanc from Calistoga, Muscat from the winery cellar and Chardonnay from Folie a Deux's vineyard," Harvey says.  "I created it to be an Alsatian-style white wine, having gone to school on the other side of the border from Alsace.  We used to go to Alsace for lunch."

Harvey worked at Folie a Deux for 8 years before it was sold to Trinchero Winery.  He never stopped making Amador County wines, and when he struck out on his own with an eponymous winery, Amador County fruit became the backbone of his business.

"I've become more of a metropolitan winemaker, but I'll never stop promoting Amador," Harvey says.  "Barbera's the best variety for the region.  Zinfandel's OK, it grows like a weed there.  But the variety that Amador is going to be known for in 100 years is Barbera."

Indeed, the Scott Harvey Mountain Selection Amador County Barbera 2007 is a simple, delightful wine: juicy and ripe, with plenty of black cherry and refreshing acidity.  His J&S Reserve Amador County Barbera 2007 has more complexity, darker fruit, and earthier notes, and also features that good acidity.

Harvey makes several Zinfandels; the most interesting is from Terri's vineyard.  Vineyard 1869 Amador County Old Vine Zinfandel 2007 has bright cherry and raspberry fruit with some earthy aromas and a pretty violet note on the finish.  Other wineries make wine from the same vineyard, but Harvey has been working with it longest and generally does it best.

This is not the top of his lineup, though, not when he's making wines in the heart of Napa Valley.  For years he didn't like Cabernet and Chardonnay, and he's still not a fan of the latter.  But Peterson taught him to appreciate Cab.

Harvey poached his favorite Napa Cabernet vineyard from Folie a Deux, Martin Vineyard in unheralded Coombsville, and uses fruit from it to make Jana Cathedral Napa Valley Red Table Wine 2005, a blend of 92% Cabernet Sauvignon with 4% each of Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc.  The first thing that strikes you is the restrained 13.5% alcohol.  This would not be surprising on a bottle from a large winery, where alcohol reduction is common.  But in this case, Harvey is just picking early.

"The vineyard's got to talk to you.  The vineyard says, 'I'm Napa' when there's still a little bit of pyrazine in the grapes," Harvey says.  "That's the taste I associate with Napa.  When you pick at that level, it's 13.5%."

You can taste some fresh herb in the wine, but the main attractions are rich cherry fruit and soft, well-managed tannins.  The wine is named after Cathedral Rock in Sedona, Arizona, where Scott and Jana got engaged.  It's not called Cabernet -- though it could be -- because Jana, who's in charge of marketing, says, "The Cabernet section in restaurants is so huge.  I thought if we put it in the 'other red' section, we'd get on more wine lists."

Harvey is always playing around with Riesling, but for my taste these don’t reach the heights of his red wines.  Each one has an interesting story, though, because of the lengths he goes to get the grapes.

Take the Jana Napa Valley Old Vine Riesling 2008, from the Lazy K & E Ranch in Oakville.

"Ken McGill bought it in the 1950s.  Louis P. Martini asked him to plant Riesling for him," Harvey says.  "He's so cantankerous he's never ripped it out.  He's surrounded by Cabernet.  If he replanted he would be getting $4000 or $5000 a ton.  With Riesling, he's getting $1800 a ton.  It makes no economic sense.  But he's 85 and he thinks if he replants, he'll never taste the Cabernet."

The wine is interesting -- notes of green plum and flint -- but it's softer on the finish than a comparably priced German wine would be.  Harvey didn't buy McGill's grapes last year, though, so if you want to taste Napa Riesling, you're running out of time.

My favorite of Harvey's Rieslings was a sweet wine: Angel Ice Mendocino County Riesling 2006, the equivalent of a TBA in sugar, with an overt diesel aroma and nice flavors of apricot and brown sugar.

Harvey recommended trying it with the leberknodel, which I had managed to avoid mentioning or eating for quite some time.  The wine didn't help, but at least it cleansed the palate.  I'm so glad Scott Harvey became a winemaker and not a chef.