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Rod Byers: Sierra Wine & Grape Growers Association

Rod Byers


Anyone paying even a small bit of attention to Nevada County wineries must notice there are about half as many commercial wineries in 2022 as there were in 2012. Most simply stopped, with no succession in place.

One can’t help but wonder, if commercial viniculture is going to survive in Nevada County where will the next crop of winemakers come from?

Well, if history is any guide we might look to the Sierra Wine and Grape Growers Association (swgga.org) for inspiration. The Association is a combination of mostly backyard growers and hobbyist winemakers.

Some refer to it as an educationally-based association about wine while others might say a socially-based organization with wine. There is no requirement to be either a grower or a maker although most are.

The history of the Association dates back to 1976 when Nevada County Farm Advisor Garth Veerkamp organized a meeting of would-be grape growers. At that time there was only one established vineyard in Nevada County. The meeting concluded with the formation of the Sierra Grape Growers’ Association.

Over the years the Association has remained the go-to place for information concerning planting a vineyard or making wine. While the membership ranges from beginners to experienced winemakers, most come in as novices. It’s the place to start.

It is notable that Guy Lauterbach of Gray Pine Winery, Rob Chrisman of Avanguardia and Bob Hilsman of Double Oak were all members as home winemakers before spring-boarding to commercial stardom.

Mentoring beginners has always been a priority. One truism about winemaking is ask five people the same question and receive five different answers. It is very helpful having someone sort the best answer for your situation.

In the spirit of giving back, this year Guy Lauterbach is offering a series of three winemaking classes to Association members. The classes filled instantly. It’s a great introduction to winemaking, without having to drive to Davis.

Another winemaking opportunity this season is the Association’s Group Buy of Zinfandel grapes from Curtis Peterson’s Rocky Ridge Vineyard in the south county. Members declare how many pounds of grapes they want. They show up to pick on the appropriate day and go home with premium quality Zinfandel grapes, at an attractive price.

It’s even better than that. If they don’t happen to have a grape stemmer/crusher at home they can crush the grapes at the vineyard and take it home as ready-to-go must. Even better than that, someone will be there to mentor them: what to do and how to do it.

The results can be surprising, and gratifying. Earlier this year the Association held its annual Club Wine Competition with the results released at the summer picnic. Probably nobody was more surprised than Tony Clarabut learning he earned Winemaker of the Year honors.

He earned a gold medal for Sauvignon Blanc, a gold for Barbera, plus a tie for Best Overall Red wine. He also posted the highest scoring Zinfandel.

Tony and Susan Clarabut planted their backyard vineyard in 2015, with no experience but lots of advice from the Wine and Grape Growers Association. They planted 50 vines each of Zinfandel, Barbera and Sauvignon Blanc, about a quarter-acre in total. “We planted enough to get 30 gallons of each variety,” Tony explained.

In 2017 he made a small amount of his first-ever wine. “The whole thing was a learning experience. I wanted to follow the first year all the way through from vine to bottle. The trouble was, the wine was terrible. I ended up dumping it.”

He learned, with guidance, to follow a traditional regime in the cellar. Along the way he also learned that it was the work in the vineyard that allowed the work in the cellar to be successful. “Better grapes make better wine,” he said.

Other major award winners at this year’s Club competition included Louis Quaintance who tied Clarabut for Best Overall Red Wine with his 2020 Tempranillo from David Blitstein’s Chicago Park vineyard.

Dave Elliot earned Best White Wine honors for his Round Valley estate-grown 2021 Albarino. Peter Willcox won Best Rosé with his 2021 Rosé of Pinot Noir.

In addition to the wine awards announced at the summer picnic, The Sierra Wine and Grape Growers Association also awarded their annual scholarship to Aubrey Teckam. Susan Clarabut, head of the Scholarship committee explained, “Teckam was selected from a group of local high school students who noted on their applications an interest in careers meeting the Association’s requirements, including viticulture, agronomy, botany, biochemistry, plant science, environmental studies, hospitality, culinary arts, and nutrition.”

Throughout its existence the Sierra Wine and Grape Growers Association has been central to fueling the growth of viniculture in Nevada County. It might be by offering support to novice members like Ray and Geri Frescas who just purchased an existing vineyard but know nothing about grape growing.

Or it could be somebody like Louis Quaintance, and experienced and talented winemaker from the Bay Area who was worried about finding local grapes when he moved to Nevada County and is thrilled to get in on the group buy.

Or it could be somebody like Tony Clarabut who went from making his first wine to Winemaker of the Year in five years.

Who knows where the next wave of wineries will come from but there’s a good chance the Sierra Wine and Grape Growers Association will have something to do with it.

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 rodbyers@pinehillwineworks.com or 530-802-7172.

Sierra Wine & Grape Growers Association Wine Competition Winners

Winemaker of the Year — Tony Clarabut

Best White Wine: Dave Elliot — 2021 Albarino

Best Rosé: Peter Willcox — 2021 Rosé of Pinot Noir

Best Red (Tie): Louis Quaintance — 2020 Tempranillo

Best Red (Tie): Tony Clarabut — 2020 Barbera

Best Chardonnay: Dave Elliot — 2021 Chardonnay

Best Viognier: John Geraghty — 2021 Viognier

Best Sauvignon Blanc: Diane Houston — 2021 Sauvignon Blanc

Best Tempranillo: Louis Quaintance — 2020 Tempranillo

Best Petite Sirah: Gary Mondolfo — 2020 Petite Sirah

Best Red Blend: Jim Garrett — 2017 Red Blend

Gold Medal Winners

Tony Clarabut, 2021 Sauv. Blanc

Tony Clarabut, 2020 Barbera

Dave Elliot, 2021 Albarino

Dave Elliot, 2021 Chardonnay

Jim Garrett, 2017 Red Blend

John Geraghty, 2021 Viognier

Diane Houston, 2021 Sauvignon Blanc

Gary Mandolfo, 2020 Petite Sirah

Louis Quaintance, 2020 Tempranillo

Peter Willcox, 2021 Ribolla Gialla

Peter Willcox, 2021 Rosé of Pinot Noir

Silver Medal Winners

Bill Betts, 2019 Petite Sirah

Bill Betts, 2019 Barbera

Tony Clarabut, 2021 Zinfandel

Dave Elliot, 2021 Chardonnay

Dave Elliot, 2021 Viognier

Jim Garrett, 2017 Mourvedre

John Geraghty, 2018 Red Blend

Gary Glaze, 2018 Red Blend

Gary Glaze, 2018 Tempranillo

Diane Houston, 2021 Rosé of Cabernet Sauvignon

Bronze Medal Winners

Peter Callaham 2021 Rikatsiteli

Peter Callaham 2021 Syrah Rosé

Peter Callaham 2021 Red Blend

Tony Clarabut 2020 Zinfandel

Maurice Evans 2019 Syrah

Maurice Evans 2019 Cabernet Sauvignon

Maurice Evans 2019 Petite Sirah

Jim Garrett 2017 Red Blend

Jim Garrett 2017 Syrah

Jim Garrett 2017 Tempranillo

Jim Garrett 2016 Tempranillo

John Geraghty 2020 Syrah

Diane Houston 2020 Sauvignon Blanc

Gary Mondolfo 2021 Rosé #2

Gary Mondolfo 2020 Syrah

Rich Munster 2019 Zinfandel

Rich Munster 2018 Zinfandel

Peter Willcox 2020 Riesling

Bernie Zimmerman 2021 Zinfandel

Bernie Zimmerman 2020 Syrah

Tony Clarabut and his granddaughter working in the vineyard.
Submitted by Susan Clarabut
Peter Willcox (L) mentoring Tony Clarabut (R).
Submitted by Susan Clarabut
Louis Quaintance accepting his Best Red Wine plaque.
Submitted by Susan Clarabut


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