The northern Sierra Foothills is one of California’s oldest wine growing regions and yet, at the same time is one of California’s least discovered regions. All that might be changing for this undiscovered gem as winemakers from around the state are beginning to recognize the quality of the fruit being grown here.
“I am a firm believer in Nevada County,” said Napa Valley-based winemaker Derek Irwin. “It is one of the best areas in California for growing Mediterranean and Rhone varietals. I think it is ideal for Tempranillo.”
Irwin is in a unique position to make such a claim. He has a degree in biochemistry from the University of California, Davis and 20 years of experience in both vineyard management and winemaking. His first job in the business was working in the lab and cellar at Cosentino Winery.
“I figured it would be more interesting to work with grapes and wine rather than doing autopsies on fish,” he said.
He subsequently moved on to become the assistant winemaker at Bouchaine Vineyards in Napa Valley before becoming the vineyard manager and enologist at Viansa Winery in Sonoma.
Along the way, Irwin worked under the tutelage of world-renowned Italian oenologist, winery consultant, and “flying winemaker” Alberto Antonini. Irwin’s winemaking training included stints in both Italy and Argentina.
Meanwhile, in 2003, while working at Viansa, he was looking for grapes for a new program and received a call from Mike Naggiar from Naggiar Vineyards.
”Honestly, I wasn’t interested in grapes from the Sierra Foothills,” he remarked.
He had what he described as the typical opinion of many Napa growers when it came to the Sierra Foothills. That included either the image of old fashioned head-trained Zinfandel vines or California Sprawl, an older vineyard design and trellis system used throughout the state prior to the more innovative trellising techniques developed in the Napa Valley.
“I had been over to Amador and El Dorado counties but nothing caught my attention. But I decided to visit Naggiar, just to see what was going on,” he said.
In his own words, Irwin was “blown away” with Naggiar’s vineyard. “He was doing everything right to grow top-quality fruit.”
Clearly, the vineyard was in great shape and meticulously cared for, but it was more than just what was on top of the ground that impressed Irwin.
It is common practice to graft vines onto disease resistant rootstock to prevent phylloxera, a microscopic insect that feeds on the roots, eventually killing the vine.
“The choice of rootstock has a dramatic effect on the quality of fruit the vine produces,” Irwin explained. “Rootstocks affect vine vigor, canopy, nutrient uptake and resistance to soil-borne pests.”
“The fact that Naggiar had used different rootstocks for different varieties of grapes, in different parts of the vineyard, was a clear indication that he had done careful research and was geared to produce very high quality fruit.”
Although he had not expected to, Irwin liked what he saw and bought both Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon to take back to Viansa.
That was just the beginning of Irwin’s connection to the area. Shortly afterwards, he left Viansa to become an independent winemaking consultant and over the last eight years has had a half dozen clients in the region of north Placer and southern Nevada County.
None-the-less, he has maintained his closest ties to Naggiar. In fact, he has planted his own roots there. Irwin was so convinced that southern Nevada County is the perfect place to grow Tempranillo, a red grape of Spanish origins, that he made a deal to plant his own vineyard on the property.
In recent years, Irwin has taken over all winemaking and vineyard management duties at Naggiar Vineyards while creating his own label at the same time. He currently has both a 2008 and 2009 Tempranillo bottled under his own Irwin Family Vineyards label.
Irwin has a distinctive winemaking style that is evident through all the Naggiar label wines, as well as his own Tempranillo. He refers to it as wines that are Old World in character but modern in style. Rather than making ripe and jammy fruit bombs, Irwin prefers more nuanced wines that are slightly higher in acidity and lower in alcohol, with full body and solid structure.
Other than growing the best grapes he possibly can, Irwin readily admits there is no formula to great winemaking.
In fact, he doesn’t even test for, or base, picking decisions on either pH or sugar levels, preferring instead to sample individual grapes and pick solely on flavor.
“When you are in the vineyard as much as I am, you notice subtle differences in the grapes, differences in the condition of the canopy, and in the development of the grape’s phenolic maturity,” he said.
Irwin thinks that our northern end of the Sierra Foothills is an untapped goldmine. He is putting his money where his mouth is.
He still lives in Napa and had the option of planting a vineyard over there on either Howell Mountain or Mount Veeder, yet he chose to plant in Nevada County.
“This is the new frontier,” he declared. “Plant the right varietal in the right location and there is a tremendous amount of upside potential.”
It looks like E. G. Waite just might have been right back in the 1880s when he said that one day grapes would be more valuable than gold in Nevada County.
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 at www.pinehillwineworks.com and he can be reached at 530-913-370