Cracking the code: Sierra Starr’s success indeed a very ‘big deal’ |

Cracking the code: Sierra Starr’s success indeed a very ‘big deal’

Rod Byers
Wine Talk

Congratulations to Sierra Starr Winery.

If you haven’t noticed, they have been producing some really good wine lately. Over the last few years they have earned a handful of 90-plus point scores as well as Editor’s Choice awards from Wine Enthusiast, a national wine magazine.

This year their Zinfandel earned 90-points and a spot in Wine and Spirits Magazine’s list of the world’s Top 100 Best Buys.

This is a big deal.

Consider what it takes to make that list … the Wine & Spirits’ wine panels, knowing only the wine’s variety, region, and vintage, blind tasted more than 15,000 wines.

Consider what it takes to make that list. For this year’s Annual Buying Guide, the Wine & Spirits’ wine panels, knowing only the wine’s variety, region, and vintage, blind tasted more than 15,000 wines. Only the recommended wines went to a second blind tasting where they received individual scores.

Recommended from that original galaxy of 15,000 wines, Sierra Starr’s Zin scored 90 points. It is only then that the wine’s identity is revealed. To be eligible as a “Best Buy” it must not only score high points, it must be a better value than its peers, priced below the median price for that wines’ variety and region.

It must also be better than all the other best buys. This year 1,213 “Best Buy” wines competed for the final 100 spots. You are not only getting a great wine, you are getting a great deal.

Make no mistake. Being included as one of the world’s best wine buys is huge but cracking the 90-point barrier is not insignificant.

Whatever you might think about the 100-point scale, it is the way wines are rated these days.

Thick glass ceiling

Back in the day when I was at Nevada City Winery I used to think there was a bias by the big national wine publications against wines from the Sierra Foothills. No matter how good, the wines could only score so high. In the early 1990s while all the wines Nevada City Winery submitted to Wine Spectator got good reviews, the highest score was 86.

I asked Scott Harvey, the king of Amador and dean of Sierra Foothill winemakers if he thought there might be a bias.

“Back in the ’80s when I was winemaker at Santino (in Shenandoah Valley) I sent wines to Wine Spectator but not to Parker,” Harvey explained. “I had sent the Spectator samples of the Santino wines and received scores in the high 80s.”

In 1993 Darrel Corti of Corti Bros. Market in Sacramento tasted Robert Parker on Harvey’s wines. “Then Parker called and asked me for samples,” Harvey said.

Here’s the curious thing. Harvey was right in the midst of changing the label from Santino to Renwood. Harvey sent the same wines to Parker that he had sent to Wine Spectator, only this time under the Renwood label, and received scores around 92.

“Wine Spectator then got interested,” Harvey continued, “so I sent the same wines I had sent under the Santino label, but this time with the Renwood label on them and received scores in the low 90’s.”

Harvey concluded by saying, “then in the late ’90s both Wine Spectator and Parker stopped receiving samples from Amador County wines.”

That doesn’t really speak to bias. Maybe you just have to know the secret handshake. Enough Sierra Foothill wineries, including Naggiar in the south county, have earned 90-plus point scores to know that it’s possible, but it is still rare. The glass ceiling remains pretty thick.

Membership has privileges

At Nevada City Winery in the late ’90s we were winning a ton of awards including lots of “Best Of” categories. We sent some wines, including several acclaimed gold medal winners, to Wine Enthusiast Magazine who was still accepting wines from the foothills. While the reviews sounded good, the best score was 85.

You can imagine my respect then, for a wine from the north Sierra Foothills, to get a 90-point score and a spot on a Top 100 list by a national publication.

One of the axioms of being a small winery is that by the time you win that big award you’re down to your last case. The timing is a little better this time and Sierra Starr still has some cases on hand.

The question for any small winery, when they win a big prize, is how to maximize the award? Restrict sales for example, or raise the price? At Nevada City Winery we would put wines away in the “Library Collection” for release at a later date.

“We decided,” Anne Starr explained, “to reward our best and most faithful customers, our Wine Club members.”

It turns out they have just enough wine to make it the featured wine in their upcoming club shipment. I can’t think of a better thing to do with it than that.

It is difficult enough for any Sierra Foothill wine news to break through the clutter. The north Sierra Foothills remain virtually invisible. Phil Starr sees the award as recognition that they are on the right path. “We’re proud to make an estate-grown, Nevada County Zinfandel that is included in a list of the world’s Top 100 Best Buys. This proves it’s possible.”

If you’re not in The Wine Club, Anne Starr was very reassuring when she said not to worry, “the next vintage is even better.”

If you have never tried it, be sure to try the Cabernet Franc as well.

Rod Byers is a Certified Wine Educator and wine writer as well as a California State Certified Wine Judge. He is the host of the local television show Wine Talk. You can reach him at and he can be reached at 530-802-7172.

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