Wineries making a difference in the foothills of Nevada County |

Wineries making a difference in the foothills of Nevada County

Rod Byers
Special to The Union

Great wine regions are often identified by specific types of wine. Consider Napa Valley, for example.

Napa's calling card is Cabernet Sauvignon. It's not that Napa doesn't shine with other varietals, as well. They do, but Cabernet is the face of it.

It's easier for a region to gain attention when it becomes tightly linked with doing something really well. Look how Marlborough in New Zealand has ridden its Sauvignon Blanc tidal wave to worldwide recognition.

On a local level, our Northern Sierra Foothills region is still searching for an identity. It's an odd sort of a dilemma.

With so much variation in altitude and sun exposure, a huge number of grapes do well here. At last count, there was something like 50 different varieties of wine grapes being grown in Nevada County alone.

They mostly all do well, and in certain years some of them do really well. But there is no consensus of which is the leader of our pack.

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While the region has done a good job of generally earning a reputation for making good wine, here are three wineries that are demonstrating a much more singular vision of what they think will ultimately make our region famous.

Montoliva Winery

Mark Henry established Montoliva Winery in 2000 in Chicago Park with the clear intent of creating Tuscan-inspired wines from Italian varietals.

"Everything I do is focused around Sangiovese," Henry explained.

"Part of what attracted me toward Italian varietals, especially central and southern Italian varietals, is their complexity, especially when these varietals are grown in California. They tend to retain the earthy mid-palate of their Mediterranean cousins, the heightened tannins and unapologetic acidity, but being California grown, they also show a bit more fruit on the front end than their Italian counterparts."

Henry's winemaking techniques include slow fermentations using special yeasts, extended maceration on the skins and long barrel aging.

"It just doesn't make sense to me to work with grapes like Sangiovese and Aglianico, grapes known for their earthiness, their tannins and their acidity, then employ winemaking practices designed to hide as much of this as possible," he said.

Henry points out that he is not trying to make wine for everybody.

"I'm making wines that I like, and I'm pleased to discover that there are other wine drinkers out there who like them, as well."

Besides his dramatically bold and fully charged Sangiovese, other varietals include Pinot Grigio, Teroldego, Negroamaro, Dolcetto, Primitivo, Barbera, and Nebbiolo.

Montoliva Tasting Room is open from noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.

You can learn more about them at

Vina Castellano

Vina Castellano is located in north Auburn, just across the Nevada County line.

The Mendez Family, longtime Placer County residents, planted their vineyard in 1999.

Teena Wilkins, the youngest of Gabe and Carolyn Mendez's four children, co-owns and manages the vineyard and winery.

Wilkins' grandparents were born and raised in Spain, and the family's passion for wine is directly linked to their Mediterranean traditions.

It was on a trip to Spain that Gabe Mendez recognized the strong similarities between north Auburn and the region of Castile where his parents were from.

He returned home to plant his vineyard.

Ever since, Vina Castellano has dedicated itself to growing Spanish varietals, especially their flagship Tempranillo, and equally as important, to producing the wine in an old-world Spanish style.

In a world that is increasingly releasing wines younger and fruitier, Vina Castellano is barrel and bottle aging their wines according to Spanish Gran Reserva standards, for a minimum of five years.

Wilkens feels strongly that Tempranillo benefits from a fully extracted fermentation and consequently requires extra time to soften the wine's tannins and allow the complexity of flavor to develop.

She prefers to do the aging in the safety of her own cellar.

Remarkably, they are just now releasing their 2008 Reserve Tempranillo and were rewarded with a Double Gold Medal at this year's San Francisco International Wine Competition.

It's so unusual to see a new release be 5 years old but when they get it right, like the 2008 Tempranillo, it's a wine any region could hang a hat on.

Vina Castellano Tasting Room is open from noon to 5 p.m., Thursday through Sunday.

Learn more about them at

Avanguardia Wines

Winery owners Rob and Marilyn Chrisman take an altogether different approach with their small family winery.

Not only do they not produce any of the popular varietals of the day, like Chardonnay, Cabernet or Merlot, they don't produce any varietal wines at all.

All of their wines are nontraditional proprietary blends crafted from two to six different, and mostly unusual, grape varieties.

Many of the varieties are Italian but also include grapes from France, as well as Eastern Europe.

That means that all of their wines, like Cristallo, Ampio, Premiato or Selvatico, need to come with an owner's manual, and even then you might still be scratching your head.

Cristallo is a blend of Rkatsiteli, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Grigio and Melon de Bourgogne, while Ampio is a blend of Carmine and Refosco.

At a time when many California wineries are pushing the limits of ripeness and alcohol levels, Avanguardia's emphasis is on balance, with lower alcohol levels, higher acidity and minimal oak treatment. "In some ways our wines are more like Europe than California," Chrisman explained. "We rely on the tradition of selecting grapes for their synergy of flavors and tastes while using creative selections in our blending," Chrisman said.

"From the crisp, racy minerality of our dry white, Selvatico, to the generous depth of Ampio, our wines are designed to complement fine cuisine and provide new and unique tastes."

And that's the fun of it. For most people it is uncharted territory. Chrisman does suggest what more familiar wines his wines might be compared to, but what they are really is decidedly different and uniquely delicious, something you can only find in Nevada County.

Avanguardia has a downtown Grass Valley Tasting Room but you can find Rob Chrisman at the winery from noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sunday. Learn more about them at

Rod Byers, CWE, is a certified wine educator and wine writer and California state certified wine judge. You can find information about wine classes at He can be reached at 530-913-3703.

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