Family and friends gathered at the Sonora Winery and Port Works south of Sonora Nov. 21 for the bottling of winemaker Richard Matranga’s 2010 Barrister’s Port.
The fiery young port — rich in flavor with bright overtones of stone fruit — is Matranga’s first wine in almost four years, and was envisioned less as a return to winemaking than as a declaration of, “Yes, I’m still here.”
The impetus behind the new wine came in spring of 2009, when Matranga stumbled upon a blog written by a man that raved about the quality of the previous edition of Barrister’s that had been cellared for several years.
He inquired in the post if anyone knew if Matranga was still alive.
The response to that question was the 2010 vintage of the winery’s namesake beverage, a wine so unique that it could only have come from one place.
“I wanted to show people that yes, I’m still alive,” Matranga said.
But he needed help.
In 2004, Matranga was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, a degenerative neurological condition that affects muscle and body control.
To make the port, he needed someone who was able to carry out the physical tasks that he himself could not.
Matranga enlisted friend and neighbor Mike Davis, a retired law enforcement officer, who worked under the winemaker’s supervision.
Twelve months later, the wine was ready to be bottled.
The bottling of the Barrister’s Port drew a crowd from throughout Tuolumne County. On hand were family members, friends and colleagues Matranga has worked with as Sonora’s city attorney.
Community Development Director Ed Wyllie was catching cases of wine as they came off the production line, and Sonora Police Lt. Pat Tonegato helped move empty bottles into position.
Cliff Brabant, a friend of Matranga’s since sixth grade, drove out Saturday from Roseville for the event.
“I came out last night to be here,” Brabant said. “It’s the last bottling, possibly, and it’s a big deal.”
For the previous 12 months, the house blend of grapes, crushed locally at Gianelli Vineyards, aged in large plastic vats.
Very few winemakers use traditional ingredients to produce port, often opting for zinfandel or other varietals to create the sweet wine.
Matranga uses four distinctly Portuguese grapes, paying homage to his heritage by sticking to the components used by winemakers in Portugal, where the government has strict regulations on exactly what producers may call port.
While many California wineries emphasize the purity of their wines — touting such labels as 100 percent cabernet sauvignon — Matranga is a firm believer in blending.
For Barrister’s Port, about 20 percent of the grapes are tinta cao — which translates to red dog, but is similar to a pinot noir grape.
Souzal grapes comprise another 20 percent, and lend the wine a bright acidity and vibrant red color.
That flavor is balanced out by the tinta roriz — commonly known as tempranillo — which imbues the wine with a deep, chocolate taste that also provides a backdrop for the floral, boysenberry flavors of the touriga nacional grape.
The 2010 Barrister’s Port required 16 tons of fruit, a gargantuan amount of grapes that turned into the 13,200 bottles that came shooting off the mobile production line.
All of the grapes came from a friend and fellow winemaker from Amador County,Tom Spencer.
They were then spiked with aguardiente, a 170 proof liquor made of grapes originally added to port to preserve it when it traveled long distances across Europe
Sunday, the vats were hooked up with large hoses and pumped into a semi truck that been converted into a mobile bottling plant, run by a family company called Mobile Wine Line.
The company has been working with Sonora Winery and Port Works since Matranga founded the company in 1985. It arrived at 4:20 a.m. Sunday to begin sanitizing and setting up the complex machinery necessary for mechanized bottling.
According to Dan Jensen, one of the sons who works the business, the set-up cost $1.6 million to create and has been in operation for 31 years.
Every year, the family reinvests in the production line, tweaking the set up for maximum efficiency, comfort and function.
Jensen pointed to a cylindrical machine on the inside of the setup. “That’s the label machine,” he said, explaining that it applies the front and back labels at specific heights to each bottle of wine that passes through the conveyor.
“That’s my brother’s Ferrari,” Jensen said.
The seemingly simple machine costs several hundred thousand dollars, on par with the famous sports cars.
The production line begins farthest from the cab of the truck and then winds its way back around the loading doors.
Empty bottles, made and shipped specially from Portugal, enter the line and are put into a large blue wheel-type machine which pumps them with nitrogen, primarily to displace the oxygen in the bottles and prevent the wine from oxidizing.
Then, each bottle is filled with port, corked and fitted with a tin cap, which is then fitted by a second machine before being labeled.
Finally, bottles are shunted off to human packers waiting to put the bottles in cases.
Approximately 13,200 bottles of Barrister’s Port flew through the production line Sunday, at a rate of 73 bottles a minute.
This port is unique in that it is ready for drinking as is, without the aging that many winemakers put their ports through as a matter of course. In fact, that’s how the original Barrister’s was when it won several gold medals in national wine competitions in Los Angeles and Dallas.
It stands up to surprisingly bold flavors, like Stilton cheese, as well as sweet things like cheesecake or lemon meringue pie, Matranga said.
The wine is only expected to improve with age, a poignant — and possibly final — symbol of its maker’s legacy in the winemaking world.
“This wine will be around long after I’m gone,” Matranga said.
The port is currently available only at the winery, although it will be released into select stores and local restaurants soon. It costs $30 per bottle.