Just in case you haven’t looked recently, Placer County is emerging as an increasingly significant wine region. There are now 20 wineries in the county, despite the fact that the first of the current group didn’t open until 2000.
Teena Wilkins, the general manager at Vina Castellano Winery on Bell Road just off Highway 49, has been instrumental in the development of the wine industry in Placer County and is a great spokesperson for the region.
Wilkins’ parents, Gabe and Carolyn Mendez who are long-time Placer County residents, first broke ground on their vineyard in 1999.
The Mendez family has strong Spanish roots. Vina Castellano translates as the vineyard of the man from Castile, the region of Spain from which Gabe’s family is from.
When Gabe Mendez planted his eight-acre vineyard, he focused on Spanish grape varietals including their flagship wine, Tempranillo.
“My father always remarked how similar our climate and soil is to the Ribera Del Douro, the wine region in Spain where his parents are from,” Wilkins said.
Vina Castellano is located just a few miles past the county line and not surprisingly, has much in common with Nevada County. In fact, Nevada and Placer Counties share more than a few similarities in their wine histories.
Like Nevada County, Placer County’s wine roots stretch back to pre-Statehood days.
Wine grapes were first introduced in 1848, the same year James Marshall discovered gold. By the 1860s, Placer County had more vineyards and wineries than both Sonoma and Napa combined.
Like Nevada County, Prohibition was actually good for the Placer County grape business. In 1915, there were 1,000 acres of vineyards. By 1930, in the midst of Prohibition, there were 2,400 acres.
Like Nevada County, following the repeal of Prohibition a bunch of small wineries opened and sadly, like Nevada County, none of them survived.
Neither county showed any signs of winery activity until Nevada City Winery opened in Nevada County in 1980 and Virginia Town Winery opened in Placer County in the late 1970s. Unfortunately, Virginia Town didn’t survive.
It wasn’t until Green Family Winery opened in 2000, followed by Mount Vernon and Secret Ravine Winery in 2001 that Placer County was once again in the wine business.
Since then they have managed to catch up in a hurry and both counties now have about the same number of wineries.
Curiously, the industries in both counties have developed quite differently in the last few years.
In Nevada County all but one of the wineries in the Winery Association have moved into either downtown Nevada City or Grass Valley to be part of an “in-town” tasting room.
Although most of the wineries maintain cellar door tasting rooms that are open on weekends, in general, they have not generated enough traffic to be successful at their tasting rooms alone.
The lack of a concentration of wineries in any one area as well as the distance between wineries has proven problematic.
Instead of bringing the customers out to where the wineries are, they have opted to bring their tasting rooms to where the customers are, and that’s in the two towns.
Placer County, on the other hand, has been more successful at creating the concept of a wine road and getting customers to follow it.
That is where Wilkins has played such an important role.
In 2008, she and four other wineries in the north Auburn area created a map and called it The Auburn Wine Trail.
“We went to every event we could with our map,” Wilkins explained, “and always promoted ourselves as a wine trail.”
Wilkins felt strongly that moving into town changed the dynamic of visiting a winery.
“Usually people are coming to town for some other reason and just throw in a visit to the tasting room because it’s there. It makes it a shopping trip, not a wine adventure.”
The strategy proved successful and started creating traffic along their wine road.
It wasn’t long before the other wineries in Placer County recognized their success and the Auburn Wine Trail morphed into the Placer County Wine Trail.
Of the 20 wineries in the county, only four have either an off-site or in-town tasting room. The rest are all at their individual winery locations.
In spite of the different paths the two counties have taken, it is important to remember the bigger picture.
Placer and Nevada counties have more in common with each other than they have differences. Generally, the vineyards of the two regions are located between 1,000 and 2,500 feet, mostly of soils made of decomposed granite, with a Mediterranean climate of warm days and cool nights, and four clearly distinct seasons.
But more important than any of that, both Placer and Nevada Counties have a better chance of becoming known as important wine destinations if they join together under the umbrella of the Wineries of the Northern Sierra Foothills.
The question shouldn’t be the choice between visitors going to wineries in Placer or Nevada County but, rather, the choice between taking Highway 50 or Highway 80.
As Wilkins explained, “Yes, as wineries we’re in competition with each other, but we’re much better off working together.”
She’s right. It doesn’t matter which of the wineries in the Northern Sierra foothills they discover first. But once they do, they’ll want to discover more of them.
Rod Byers, CWE, is a Certified Wine Educator and wine writer as well as a California State Certified Wine Judge. You can find information about his upcoming Sierra College Kaleidoscope Wine Classes in April at www.pinehillwineworks.com and he can be reached at 530-913-3703.