Hiding in plain sight: Avanguardia Winery
My series of articles, Hiding in Plain Sight, could never be complete without including Avanguardia Winery (avanguardiawines.com). Owner/operators Rob and Marilyn Chrisman have one of the most fascinating vineyard and winery operations you’ll find anywhere in California and yet after 15 years they remain solidly under the radar.
Rob first started getting interested in wine back in the 1970s. At the time he was “experimenting with a lot of great Italian wines and blends,” he recalled. He discovered that many of the varieties he was enjoying were not being grown or produced in America. “The Italian varieties were an empty niche,” he explained. “Sangiovese wasn’t even on the radar screen.”
As he tasted and explored, he became convinced that Eastern European and Italian varietals were especially well suited to blending. He started imagining making wine. He realized that to get the kind of grapes he wanted he would have to grow them himself. The idea of planting a vineyard became increasingly appealing to him.
In 1977 he planted a hobby vineyard in Tulare County teaming with the University of California at Davis Foundation Plant Services to import several Italian grape varieties previously unknown in the U.S.
In 1981, working with Dr. Austin Goheen at the Plant Service Dept at U.C. Davis, he requested a dozen obscure Italian varietals that all had to be imported from Italy. Now, years later he is still the only vineyard in the country actively growing several of them.
In 1990, after extensive soil and climate research, with precious cuttings in hand, they moved to Nevada County selecting a 15-acre parcel on Jones Bar Road as the perfect spot for their vineyard and winery.
Their three-acre vineyard includes opposing hillsides folding into a ravine that offers a multitude of sun exposures and ripening conditions. They grow 23 different varietals matching the varieties to specific locations throughout the vineyard.
In the early years Chrisman operated as a home winemaker winning Best of Show at the County Fair twice. Eventually he got bonded and released his first commercial wine in 2007.
His first wines were blends crafted from two to six different, mostly unusual Italian varieties, but also included grapes from France and Eastern Europe. Chrisman believed he could produce more complex, layered flavors by blending several varietals together.
That means the wines come with unusual proprietary names like Cristallo, Ampio, Premiato, or Selvatico. The wines are made from some really obscure grape varieties including Forestera, Peverella, Rkatsiteli, Erbaluce, Biancollela, and more. That’s the fun of it. For most people it is uncharted territory.
I wondered, in a world dominated by Chardonnay and Cabernet, how that was working out? Rob admitted that sometimes people were a little confused but once they try the wines they like them. “They’re appreciative of what we’re doing. They have an enjoyable tasting experience and learn about varieties they’ve never heard of and certainly never tasted,” Chrisman explained.
Stylistically, above all, Chrisman believes wine should be food friendly. At a time when many California wineries are pushing the limits of ripeness and alcohol levels, Avanguardia’s emphasis is on balance, with lower alcohol levels, higher acidity, and minimal oak treatment. “In some ways our wines are more European than California,” Chrisman said.
“We rely on the tradition of selecting grapes for their synergy of flavors and tastes while using creative combinations in our blending,” Chrisman said. “From the crisp, racy minerality of our dry white, Selvatico, to the generous depth of Ampio, our wines are designed to complement fine cuisine and provide new and unique tastes.”
In 2016 Chrisman introduced a line of estate varietal wines including several Italian red varieties; Montepulciano from Abruzzi; Corvina – better known as Valpolicella; Lagrein from Alto Adige; and Fiano, a white from central Italy.
Chrisman’s other current project is sparkling. A few years ago he introduced L’Hedonista Brut, the first “methode champenois” sparkling wine produced from grapes grown in Nevada County. Excited by his success he has five experimental wines in varies stages of development, bringing the entire production process in house. It will still be a while before any are released but there are some quite interesting prospects.
Last week I stopped by the Mill Street Tasting Room. I liked the Estate Varietal line-up including the fruity and supple Corvina, the spicy, brooding Lagrein and the full-bodied yet dry and crisp Fiano. The two wines that really caught my eye were Tre T, a complex blend of old and new world flavors and Premiato, a nicely aged Barbera/Dolcetto blend that offers well-developed flavors that are still tight and fruity.
Despite Avanguardia’s authentically unique story and great tasting wines, it’s been a ginormous hand-sell. Right after, “where-in-Nevada-are-you-located?” comes the question, “what-did-you-say-this-is?”
Both vineyard and winery work require physical labor and after more than 40 years of growing grapes and making wine in one place or another, Rob admits, some of parts are wearing out.
Chrisman has his right-hand man, Cliff, who helps in the vineyard and winery which eases some of the burden. He can see a time down the road but for right now he is focusing on honing his most unique vineyard and winery operation.
See for yourself. Chrisman can be found minding the tasting room in the winery on Jones Barr Road on week-ends. If you have not been, go. Avanguardia is one of those hidden gems everyone is always looking for.
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 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-802-7172
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