Eat, Drink, Savor: The delightful summertime wines of Casa de Fruta


It’s hard to imagine Highway 152 without Casa de Fruta, an all-American roadside attraction with a destination fruit stand, a carousel, a train, a 24-hour restaurant, and a cluster of whimsically named shops including Casa de Sweets and Casa de Wine. Besides being an important stop on the highway and a perfect place to bring visiting friends and family, yearly events like the Renaissance Faire and Pumpkin Patch help bring in over 2 million visitors a year, according to their website.

The founders—brothers Eugene, George, and Joseph Zanger—got their start with their first fruit stand in the 1940s near one of their orchards in the Pacheco Valley. 

“They grew pears, prunes, walnuts, apricots, cherries and wine grapes,” said Joe Zanger, manager of Casa de Fruta Wines, “and put the money into building the attractions we have today.”

The brothers began producing wine in 1969, but the family tradition of winemaking goes back much further.

“Our heritage is from the wine region of Calabria, Italy,” Zanger said. “My grandmother’s great uncles came over at the turn of the century—they left a Mediterranean climate and came to a Mediterranean climate. Other members of our family came here and founded wineries—the Bisceglia Brothers Winery in 1884 and Cribari Wines in 1904.”

The winery produces over 12,000 cases a year, selling most of the wine through their wine club or the Casa de Wine shop. It’s also available at their gas station and restaurant.

While Casa de Fruta makes traditional grape wines, they perhaps are better known by visitors for their apricot, pomegranate, blackberry, plum and raspberry fruit wines. They were developed by Rodney Ballard, co-founder of Ozeki Sake, and made from locally sourced fruits.

“It began in our prune barn,” Zanger said. “He was renting one of the barns and just started making different fruit wines. So we now were selling fruit wine and it did really well.”

Though few wineries in the area make fruit wines, local production of fruit wines and brandies goes back to the earliest days of Cienega Valley’s Vaché winery, founded in 1851.

Each variety of fruit wines is made only with that specific fruit juice, adding no fillers or grape juice. The wines are fermented in stainless steel tanks and ready to bottle in four months. Because only pure fruit juice is used to make the wines, out of the tank they are very dry and slightly sweetened before bottling. Served chilled, they are the perfect antidote to a hot day as the rich fruit flavors are not overwhelmed by any adulteration and they run a bit lighter in alcohol, at 11.5%-12%.

“We have discovered our visitors are not really the ones who are going to Napa or the Cienega Valley,” Zanger said. “We get a cross mix of everyone—tourists, travelers and businessmen. They are not necessarily looking for red wine at a fruit stand but they do like the fruit wines. They are accessible and fun to drink. And we have very good red wines if they want them, too.”

Most of their wines are made by Fortino Winery in Gilroy, under Zanger’s instruction. While the fruit wines may overshadow their grape varietals in popularity, the winery’s reds and whites can stand on their own as distinctive and eminently drinkable. Their list includes chardonnay, riesling, pinot grigio, orange muscat, zinfandel and merlot. They have also begun selling a pilsner produced for them by Gordon Biersch Brewing Company.

I sat down with Zanger on June 15, the day after he was able to open his tasting bar in Casa de Wine after COVID restrictions were lifted. He seemed to be as happy to be back pouring the wine as I was to sample it. 

 

The Wines of Casa de Fruta (prices on red wines reflect current 30% sale)

2018 Pacheco Pass Malbec ($18.75) “Our first vintage for the malbec was 2017 and I like this one better,” Zanger said. “It’s estate-grown Malbec and aged in 25% new oak. Right now, this is my favorite of all of our wines.” I am fond of Malbecs as well, and this is a good one. It has a little bit of a buttery taste, a little tartness, a little bit of spice, and is low in tannins allowing the fruit juiciness of the grape to come through. It is an easy wine to drink and would do well with rich foods; anything from barbecued pork to a really good grilled hamburger.

2018 Dr. Zanger Dornfelder ($18.75) “We call this Dr. Zanger in honor of our grandfather,” Zanger said. “While we do a lot of wines in the tradition of our Italian grandmother, we decided to do this one for our Swiss-German grandfather.” I have to confess I am not a follower of German wines, and I am more familiar with the German whites, like Gewürztraminer and Riesling. It’s not like any German red I have had before. It is made for Casa de Fruta by fine winemaker Al DeRose of DeRose Winery, and you can taste the craftsmanship in every sip. It’s light-bodied and cherry red, with beautiful acidity and a smooth finish. This was my favorite and I would not hesitate to bring this bottle to a dinner invite. 

Sole of the Boot ($17.41, to be released July 4) One of their better-known wines, it’s named after Calabria’s location at the very tip of Italy’s boot-shaped peninsula. They produce only about 300 cases a year and the current vintage is just about to be released. It’s an Italian-influenced blend of 60% Merlot, 25% Zinfandel, and 15% Carignan. While this wine was not available for tasting, I have had previous vintages and they stood out as solid red table wines. 

Casa de Fruta Pomegranate ($18.95) “Because we are a fruit stand, fruit wines are an easy sell for us,” Zanger said. “And the pomegranate wine is our biggest seller by far. A lot of fruit wines start with Thompson’s seedless grapes as a base but this is all pomegranate juice.” The production is a clear indication of the popularity —at 3,800 cases a year, it represents almost a third of the winery’s output. It’s tart and full of flavor, with just enough sweetness added to balance it out. Cheesecake immediately comes to mind when I drink this, but I would be happy to serve it with a turkey dinner, with the same fruity notes as cranberry sauce. They also produce a pomegranate sparkling wine ($19.99).

Casa de Fruta Plum ($18.95) Everybody goes through phases in college. One of my phases was Japanese plum wine, which was approachable and seemed vaguely exotic. The phase did not last long because the sweetness was exhausting. But Casa de Fruta’s plum wine is a success, with a subtle sweetness that never threatens to overwhelm the delicate taste of plums. You really get the sensation of eating a plum with this wine and it would be fun to have with tempura vegetables or with bread dipped in a melted cheese like havarti or Brie.

Casa de Fruta Blackberry ($18.95) and Casa de Fruta Raspberry ($18.95) These two are very similar in style, with the blackberry being a bit darker and bolder and the raspberry a little pinker and more tart. The fruit comes from Driscoll’s farms and Zanger describes them as being from trial plantings that are part of the search for perfect berries. These are definitely hot summer day wines when you want something light and full of flavor to relax with. At heart, these are dessert wines, though. They both would go extremely well with tres leches cake, dark chocolate, or shortbread cookies.

Casa de Fruta Apricot  ($18.95) The apricot wine is out of season and was not available for tasting when I was there, but I am very familiar with it because it was a favorite of my mother’s, who always kept bottles of that and the pomegranate wine to drink at home and give as gifts. Perhaps because I am so familiar with it, or perhaps because I love apricots so much, this is my favorite, with a beautiful taste of Blenheim apricots harvested from Casa de Fruta’s orchards in Hollister. It’s pure sunshine in a bottle to drink on its own but I’ve also served this with grilled chicken and risotto and I’ve mixed it with champagne for a breakfast mimosa. 

 

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