Rod Byers: Naggiar Vineyards — in pursuit of excellence
Recently I received a note from the folks at Naggiar Vineyards claiming they grew and produced the best Sangiovese in the land. That’s a bold claim. I wondered could it be true? How would you prove it?
While wine offers plenty of competitions, it doesn’t offer a single crowning event like the World Series. Like a photo-shopped picture, a single snapshot in time doesn’t tell the whole story. The true measure of something is proven over the long haul. I thought I would look at Naggiar’s record to see what was there to support their claim.
Mike Naggiar, owner and visionary of Naggiar Vineyards, knew that great wine always starts with the vineyard. To that regard, he spent three years looking for property. After looking from Paso Robles to Napa and Amador to Placerville, they discovered Grass Valley and in particular a 135-acre property on Rosemary Lane in South County.
Naggiar understood that first, he had to find the property that met his requirements and then figure out what grapes to grow. When he surveyed his new landscape he saw it offered hot sunny days during the growing season but at 1300 feet had enough elevation for cooling nighttime temperatures. The soils were rocky and not too rich. Rolling hills offered air circulation and good drainage, as well as different exposures.
He recognized it as classic Mediterranean climate, and turned to the grapes of Tuscany and southern France for inspiration. In 1998, he planted Sangiovese and Syrah.
Naggiar understood the economics of grape growing. In order to succeed financially, he needed to grow at least 50 acres of grapes and he needed to be able to command a premium price. In order to do that, he knew he had to find markets outside of the local community. To do that, he knew he had to grow really good grapes.
As the vineyard expanded to 60 acres he also increased the number of varietals he was growing. In addition to high profile varieties, he also planted their lesser known blending partners. He planted Petit Verdot and Malbec to partner Cabernet. He planted Mourvedre, Cinsault and Cunoise to add complexity to Syrah and Grenache.
Naggiar believes blending is an essential cornerstone of winemaking noting that many of the world’s best wines are blends. “Blended wines make better, more complex and nuanced wines,” he declared. “And it’s really hard to find great blenders.”
Because Naggiar started as growers, their only focus was to grow great grapes. Over the years, they have learned what each varietal likes and how to best grow it. “Sangiovese loves the heat,” Naggiar explained. They plant Sangiovese on a southern slope on an east-west axis. That way the southern side gets all the sun. On the northern side they can pluck leaves opening up the canopy for more air circulation without fear of burning the grapes.
It’s impossible to know who grows the best Sangiovese grapes, but it is becoming increasingly clear that the Sierra Foothills are one of California’s best regions for growing them. Naggiar successfully sells their grapes at a premium to the average price of Sangiovese grown in the Foothills. The north coast wineries buying their grapes think they are well worth it.
Along the way, Naggiar decided to produce wine. If price per ton is an indication of the quality of the grapes, then awards and accolades are markers of the quality of the wines. Their first release was 400 cases of a gold medal winning 2003 Sangiovese.
They have gone on to win award after award ever since. In the what-have-you done-for-me-lately world, the 2016 California State Fair offers a glimpse. The State Fair offers a variety of different awards including the Golden Winery Of The Year award. In order to qualify for that a winery must enter a minimum of 10 wines.
South Coast Winery won this year with an average wine score of 90.7 points. Naggiar entered enough wines to qualify for the award and had an average score of 91.4 points. Clearly there are other factors that go into the final decision, but it is equally clear that Naggiar is playing in the big leagues.
Perhaps a more telling sign of quality are the recent results from Wine Enthusiast magazine, a national wine publication. For years all wines from the Sierra Foothills have had a glass ceiling of 89 points. Breaking the 90-point barrier was a frustratingly elusive dream.
Right now, Naggiar boasts eight wines in their current line-up that have scored 90 points or better at the Wine Enthusiast this year. Three of them have been selected as Editor’s Choice, an additional honor.
The KCRA A-List award measures a different kind of appreciation. As a ‘people’s choice’ award it has less to do with the technicalities of grape growing or wine judging. It’s more an indicator of how much consumers enjoy their experience while visiting the winery.
Naggiar has won this award seven years in a row. It’s not just Nevada County. It includes over 250 wineries in the regions surrounding Sacramento including the Sierra Foothills.
Does this mean Naggiar is growing the best Sangiovese in the land? I don’t know. I do know they are selling their grapes at a premium, winning a ton of awards, and people love them. Is anyone doing better?
Rod Byers, CWE, 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 find information about his wine classes at http://www.pinehillwineworks.com and he can be reached at 530-802-7172.
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