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Three Nevada County home winemakers band together for an adventure

Jim Garrett and Dave Elliot.
Submitted photo |

It was a hot afternoon last July when Jim Garrett and I were cataloguing the wines that had been entered in the Nevada County Fair home winemakers competition.

While entries have been on the increase, with a record 77 wines entered last year, the competition remains refreshingly local.

That is because Jim Garrett, and many of the other entrants, are active members in our local Sierra Wine and Grape Growers Association (SWGGA).



As we were working that afternoon, Jim told the story of his recent winemaking adventure. He and two cohorts, Dave Elliot and Mark Machado, had gone in together to purchase a ton of grapes from the previous 2013 harvest.

Elliot wanted to make a white wine, something other than Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay, and the three settled on Gewurztraminer from Sonoma County. They picked up the grapes, returned home, split them up, and took them to their respective “home wineries” to each make their own wine.




Machado, who considers Elliot his winemaking mentor, was a key instigator of the plan. Several years ago, Mark and his wife Nancy attended a home winemaker meeting in Amador County.

That evening the Amador Club was having a tasting of their club’s joint winemaking project where a group of them made wine from a single batch of Zinfandel grapes. Mark and Nancy were impressed with the camaraderie of the group experience and the quality of the wines.

They returned home excited to replicate the experience with SWGGA and succeeded, joining Garrett and Elliot in the Gewurz project. Their experience convinced them that winemaking could be both a singular achievement and a group sport.

They each made their own wine but they also got together as a group. Before starting, they had a Gewurz tasting where they purchased different bottles to see a variety of style options. They also got together to taste the progress of their wines. While it was never competitive, they decided to use last year’s county fair as the arbiter of which wine might be the best.

All three are active, both in the SWGGA, and as winemakers. Elliot has a half-acre home vineyard. He won Best of Show at the county fair a few years ago with a Syrah Rosé from his vineyard. Jim and Kate Garrett farm three-quarters of an acre. Last year they took home three gold medals.

SWGGA is a diverse group. Not everyone in the group grows grapes. Not everyone in the group makes wine. But everyone in the group likes wine, enjoys talking about it, and enjoys shared experiences.

There are many different reasons to make wine. One of the most satisfying is having your wine on the table at Thanksgiving dinner and everyone drinking it happily.

Another is cost. While all three winemakers expressed sticker shock at the $2,500 price per ton they had to pay for the Sonoma County Gewurz, about three times what they hoped to pay, that still only translates to around $3 per bottle.

If you have ever thought about making wine, the SWGGA has a buy-and-sell area on their website (www.sierragrapegrowers.org) to connect buyers and sellers.

They offer much more than that. In addition to a terrific newsletter, they hold monthly meetings focusing on different aspects of grape growing or winemaking. They have vendor lists for supplies and spreadsheets to figure costs.

Best of all, they are a community of people who can offer the next piece of the information puzzle from someone who has been through it.

Due to the success of the joint Gewurz venture, in 2014, 10 SWGGA members pooled together to purchase a large lot of Zinfandel grapes. Some of the participants had never made wine before. An online group forum was set up to help guide everyone through the process.

In fact, I’m hoping to see some of those wines entered in this summer’s county fair. Remember, July 24 is the deadline to enter.

I would have been remiss in my duties if I did not get together with the boys for a tasting of their Gewurzs. We spent a happy couple of hours tasting and talking about winemaking.

Because they are so into it, I wondered about the urge to take things to the next level, to go commercial. We’ve already seen several home winemakers around here turn pro. What about the next step?

Garrett replied, “Maybe, if we were in our 40s, not now.” Elliot said he had thought about it very seriously, going as far as looking into buying an existing winery. Ultimately, he decided not to.

“Your love of wine as a home winemaker is all about the wine,” Dave explained. “When you are commercial, the focus shifts, and it’s all about selling the wine.”

And, how good were the wines? Really good! As a home winemaker, I always thought that white wines were more difficult to make than reds. These wines got it.

Independently, they had all decided to select “dry” as their primary style. The resulting wines were dry, crisp, aromatic, fruity and very drinkable.

It certainly shouldn’t be up to me to say which was best. How undiplomatic. But as far as bragging rights go, while all three were winners, Machado gets the notch in his barrel for winning Best White Wine at last year’s county fair with his 2013 Dry Gewurztraminer. Congratulations!

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. He has been running the Nevada County Home Wine Competition since 1983. You can find information about his Sierra College Wine Classes at http://www.pinehillwineworks.com and he can be reached at 530-802-7172.


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