Rod Byers: Wine touring in Nevada County |

Rod Byers: Wine touring in Nevada County

Rod Byers

The weather in December in Nevada County can be lovely. This holiday season set aside a week-end afternoon with some visiting friends and family to do a little Nevada County wine touring.

Here's an easy trip that presents two unique, tasty, and quite different versions of what Nevada County wine has to offer.

Avanguardia Wines

You can find the Avanguardia Tasting Room ( in downtown Grass Valley at 163 Mill St. by the Del Oro Theatre.

For our trip, we're heading to the winery where grower/vintner/owner, Rob Chrisman is every week-end. Located at 13028 Jones Bar Road, Avanguardia is about six miles and 15 minutes from either Grass Valley or Nevada City.

Rob and Marilyn Chrisman take a very unique approach with their small family winery. They specialize in their own proprietary blends crafted from two to six different, mostly unusual, grape varieties that they grow in their estate vineyard.

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All told they have 20 different varietals in production and more in experimental stages.

That means that their blends like Cristallo, Ampio, Premiato, or Selvatico, need to come with an owner's manual, and even then, you might still be scratching your head.

Cristallo is a blend of Rkatsiteli, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Grigio, and Melon de Bourgogne while Ampio is a blend of Carmine and Refosco.

And that's the fun of it. For most people, it is uncharted territory.

In terms of style, Avanguardia's emphasis is on balance, with lower alcohol levels, higher acidity, and minimal oak treatment. "In many ways, our wines are more European than Californian," Chrisman said.

Three years ago, Chrisman introduced a line of estate varietal wines releasing a 2014 Montepulciano and a 2013 Corvina. Next to be released in that series is the Italian white variety, Fiano. There is serious potential here. Look for it to quickly become one of Nevada County's best white wines.

Chrisman's other current project is sparkling. Last year he introduced L'Hedonista Brut, the first "methode champenois" sparkling wine produced from grapes grown in Nevada County. It is crisp and quite dry with aromas of pear and quince, and loads of small, persistent bubbles.

Excited by his sparkling prospects he has five experimental wines in various stages of development, bringing the entire production process in house. L'Hedonista Brut is available now, the others are a couple of years away.

Gray Pine Winery

Take the easy 10-mile drive through historic Rough and Ready to Penn Valley and Gray Pine Winery ( located at 19396 Branding Iron Road. There, among the gray pines, most week-ends, you'll find grower/vintner/owner, Guy Lauterbach.

Lauterbach is a self-described wine aficionado who moved to Penn Valley in 2001. Even back then when he was first looking for property, he had thoughts of a vineyard in mind.

"I didn't know anything about it, but I knew I wanted to grow grapes" he said at the time.

After relocating and building a house, by 2006 it was time to think seriously about the vineyard. He had decided early in the planning phase to base his vineyard on Cabernet Sauvignon. "Plant what you like" was most common advice he received. "At least that way you can drink it."

As he delved deeper into it, he learned that Cabernet was often co-planted in the vineyard and blended in the winery with the other Bordeaux-based varietals including Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot.

He decided that Cab would dominate his field blend but planted enough of the others to offer multiple winemaking options.

We have had the opportunity to watch Lauterbach develop as a winemaker over the years, first when he entered his wines as a home winemaker in the Nevada County Fair while he waited for his grapes to mature, and later, as a professional winemaker, with his first commercial release with the 2011 vintage.

Consistent through all of that has been the quality of fruit from his vineyard. Cabernet often takes a knock in the foothills. Technically too hot. Realistically, other places have better reputations. Too hard to compete.

None of that means Cabernet, and other Bordeaux varietals, can't shine in the foothills too. Especially if you have a good spot.

Like Avanguardia, Lauterbach prefers wines with an old-world bent, higher acidity, less jammy fruit, and minimal oak.

Gray Pine wines have always offered good structure and bold flavors while the underlying fruit coming from his little two-acre vineyard keeps the wines buoyant and flavorful.

There is a nice range of flavors through his different varietals so it is easy for everyone to come away with their own favorite. I have always been partial to the red Bordeaux blend, now called PennRidge, one of the best red blends in the county.

Nevada County Wineries

Avanguardia and Gray Pine are two terrific local wineries that make for a wonderful afternoon of touring. Both showcase the varied styles and range of flavors to be found in Nevada County.

There are many other wonderful wineries here as well, whether you are visiting the downtown tasting rooms, (Nevada City has three, Grass Valley has four) or taking a drive in the country, (there are 17 wineries in western Nevada County) this holiday season be sure to spread some cheer by putting some delicious local wines on your dinner table.

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 On TV. You can find information about his wine classes at and he can be reached at 530-802-7172.