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Turning backyard vines into gold

Bernie Zimmerman and Hosea Bostic harvest Zinfandel grapes for wine making at a local private vineyard. Sierra Wine and Grape Growers Association (SWGGA), an organization dedicated to improving the knowledge and skill sets of home winemakers.
Photo by Laura Petersen |

On a warm fall morning, Hosea Bostic harvested hundreds of pounds of Zinfandel grapes for the first time from a private vineyard off Perimeter Road.

Later that day, he followed his mentor home to crush and de-stem the grapes, learning a skill he had put off for years, making wine. This season, everything fell into place.

“The stars lined up this year,” he said.



Though he doesn’t grow his own grapes, Bostic is a three-year member of Sierra Wine and Grape Growers Association, an organization dedicated to improving the knowledge and skill sets of home winemakers.

Enthusiasm for backyard winemaking has spiked in recent years and the quality of wine coming from home winemakers in Nevada County is getting noticed at the state level.




Membership has increased from 56 people in January to nearly 70 this harvest season. At an annual tasting event held last month of over 60 wines, many county fair ribbon winners, the club had its biggest turnout to date.

Rod Byers, a wine educator, wine columnist for The Union and a judge at the county fair’s home wine competition, has been involved in Nevada County’s wine industry since the 1970s. He says while trends ebb and flow, momentum for making wine at home is at an all-time high.

“It has gone up and down over the years for a variety of reasons but it is fair to say that participation has never been higher. Whereas we used to have 30 or 40 wines, now we have 70. Quality is up as well. There were always the good wines, but now there are much fewer of the less-good category,” Byers said.

He attributes the popularity in participation at the county fair to the strong influence of SWGGA.

“The winemaking all around is better because of it. They are very welcoming and anybody interested in upping their game or even just getting started should check them out. There is an increasing amount of local grapes available so that is helping to spur activity as well,” Byers said.

Dave Elliott, the club’s education director and a past president, is quickly becoming one of the area’s legendary home winemakers. This summer, at the California State Fair he took home Gold for his 2015 Estate Albarinio; Double Gold for his 2015 Estate Viognier; Gold for his 2015 Estate Syrah Rose and Bronze for his 2014 Syrah.

At the Nevada County Fair he was awarded Gold and Best White Wine for his 2015 Estate Albarinio; Gold for the 2015 Estate Viognier; Bronze for his 2015 Estate Syrah Rose; Gold, Best Syrah and Best Red Wine for his 2014 Syrah; Bronze for his 2013 Zinfandel and Gold for his 2014 Zinfandel.

“I got really lucky. It was a pretty phenomenal year,” said Elliott, who has spent years honing his skills as a winemaker.

A third generation Californian, Elliott went to grad school in Texas then lived in Oklahoma for a couple decades. Missing California wines, he began growing grapes in conditions that would have made Golden State grape growers shudder. He moved back to California in 1994 and soon got to work.

With a PhD in physical chemistry and a tendency to be “compulsive,” according to his wife, winemaking for Elliott is just the right mix of science and art.

“I tend to be a little bit geeky. I understand the principles,” said Elliott who grows his grapes on half an acre just south of the community of Alta Sierra at 2,030 feet elevation. He knows all too well the triumphs and heartbreak that comes with farming a piece of land.

Foothill grape growers are noticing the residual effects of last year’s drought as more and more critters come to the vines for a drink. Wild boar, raccoons, deer, turkeys and birds were reported in Gary Derivi’s Zinfandel rows this year.

Powdery mildew is also an issue. Elliott had to cull a lot of fruit — one-third of his crop.

“If it isn’t good enough it goes into the compost heap,” he said, adding it’s better to lose one barrel than 300 bottles.

Being a perfectionist brings Elliott sweet rewards. In 2009, the first time he entered the county fair, he garnered a Gold and Best of Show award. Gold has been following him ever since.

As a member of SWGGA, he has observed the quality of winemaking improve locally.

“Winemaking from amateurs is much, much better than it was,” said Elliott, who remembers the grimaces during tastings of years past.

Professionals and commercial wine makers come to meetings as guest speaks giving advice, making observations and pointing out faults with problem wines that home winemakers can learn from. Many of the regions commercial wineries started out as hobbyists.

“Our goal is to show people how to make better wines,” Elliott said, who toyed with the idea of opening his own winery upon retiring four years ago. Instead, he chose to keep winemaking his passion without losing himself to the business of wine selling.

For Elliott, winemaking is very much a culinary experience. He enjoys creating something pleasing for the palate and a learning process that is infinite. While certain basics must be followed, the path he gets to the finished bottle is completely his own.

“It has basic foundations in science but is truly an art.”

Learn more about SWGGA at: http://swgga.org.

Contact freelance writer Laura Petersen at laurapetersen310@gmail.com or 913-3067.


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