Rod Byers: Finding your niche |

Rod Byers: Finding your niche

A colleague asked me for recommendations about any local winery that might qualify for the Garagiste Wine Festival in Paso Robles. To explain, the “Garagiste” wine movement came out of Bordeaux in the 1990s and referred to very small-scale winemakers who produced wine in unconventional places, like garages, using outside-the-box varietals or techniques.

The Festival self-describes itself as “a place for the underground, the different, and the cutting edge of small production winemaking with no rules.”

I think there are a few wineries around here that qualify. Ultimately, I suggested Avanguardia ( as our local “garagiste” poster child. If you are not familiar with them, Avanguardia is very small and uniquely different.

Owner/winemaker Rob Chrisman specializes in proprietary blends crafted from two to six different, seriously unusual grape varieties grown in his estate vineyard. He has 20 different varietals in production with more in experimental stages.

That means that his 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. Rkatsiteli, Tocai Friulano, Peverella, Forastera, Melon de Bourgogne, Fiano, Carmine, Mondeuse, and Teroldego are just some of the varietals he grows to produce his wines.

Growing up in Southern California, Chrisman’s formative wine drinking experiences centered around traditional blends from European wine regions. As he tasted and explored, he started dreaming of making his own fine wines from grapes selected for their blending potential to create intriguing flavor profiles.

Over time he became convinced that various Italian and Eastern European varietals were especially well suited to blending. He also knew that to get the kind of grapes he wanted he would have to grow them himself.

After moving to Tulare County in 1977, he planted an experimental hobby vineyard. He teamed with the University of California at Davis Foundation Plant Services to import several Italian grape varieties previously unknown in the US.

In 1990, after extensive soil and climate research, with precious cuttings in hand, he moved to Nevada County selecting a 15-acre parcel on Jones Bar Road as the perfect spot to plant a commercial vineyard and open his winery.

You can find Chrisman at the downtown Grass Valley tasting room every Thursday and presiding over the tasting room in the winery on Saturdays where he can guide you through the different varietals that make up his unique wines.

In the absence of familiar landmarks like Zin, Cab or Chard, Chrisman offers suggestions about which wines his wines resemble. For example, he suggests Ampio resembles a Merlot while Cristallo resembles a dry Riesling/Gewurz blend.

Chrisman’s wines, ranging from delicate whites to full-bodied reds, are better than ever. The Selvatico offers delicate tropical aromas with a wisp of smoke. The Premiato is loaded with juicy black cherry, licorice and spice. The Ampio delivers robust flavors of black plums, earth and sweet baking spices.

Despite an authentically unique story and great tasting wines, it’s not an easy sell. In fact, surviving in the wine industry in California is not easy.

There was a time, in my wine-drinking lifetime, when I knew of most every winery in California. I had a friend who made a point of actually visiting every winery in the state. Now there are more than 3,600 wineries. I don’t know the names, much less tasted the wines, of most of them.

Consider that the largest 25 wineries sell about 90% of the wine. That leaves a whole lot of wineries fighting over 10% of the pie. Then contrast the explosion of wineries with the shrinking of distributors. Getting access to the marketplace is like trying to crawl through a crowded and very small funnel.

Over the last several decades, in order to survive, small regional wineries have increasingly relied on Wine Clubs and wine tourism with direct cellar door sales. That, and their local community.

I applaud everyone who purchases local wine. There are plenty of good ones and something for everyone. See the sidebar for my recommended Miner’s Dozen.

At a time when the farm-to-table emphasis on locally produced is at an all-time high, I would like to see a program that features local wines and local restaurants. Say there were a handful of wineries and an equal number of restaurants that joined together to run an ongoing monthly special. Each restaurant would partner with a different winery to create a dinner special to pair with a specific wine or two. At the end of every month, like a game of hearts, each winery would shift to the next restaurant that would then create a new special to go with that month’s new wines.

A program like that would showcase local farms, local wineries, and local restaurants, not to mention all the local folks reaping the benefits of the endless combinations and variations.

Seeing as that doesn’t exist, the next best thing is for you to put a few bottles of local wines on your dinner table and share them with friends and family.

In case you need a bottle of sparkling wine to cap the festivities, Avanguardia makes L’Hedonista Brut, the first “methode champenois” sparkling wine produced from grapes grown in Nevada County.

A Miner’s Dozen Case of Wine

Nevada County wineries offer a broad scope of great tasting wines. Ask a local winery what grows well here and you get answers that include French, Italian, Spanish and Eastern European varietals spanning from crisp whites to robust reds. I selected my Miner’s Dozen to showcase that range of styles and flavors. Just because I don’t list your favorite wine doesn’t mean I didn’t like it, but only two picks per winery. For example, in spite of Sierra Starr’s long list of tasty reds, I picked two delicious whites from them. It was a similar story elsewhere where there were more than two good choices. The wines are listed generally from lightest to more full-bodied. No matter your favorites, be sure to visit the wineries and put some local wines on your table.

  • Nevada City Winery — 2017 Tempranillo Rosé, dry with lush fruit and sweet cherries
  • Avanguardia Wines — 2017 Selvatico, dry with tropical aromas and wisps of smoke
  • Sierra Starr — 2018 Sauvignon Blanc, dry with crisp citrus, grapefruit, and melon
  • Sierra Starr — 2018 Chardonnay, dry with rich and creamy apple-wood butter
  • Gray Pine Winery — 2017 Cabernet Franc, berries and lavender spice, medium-soft tannins
  • Lucchesi — Masque, Red Blend, black plums and chocolate, medium-bodied
  • Szabo Vineyards — 2015 Syrah, savory, black fruits and earth, supple and smooth
  • Lucchesi — 2017 Zinfandel, fully ripe blackberry and dark cherry flavors
  • Montoliva — 2015 Sangiovese, roses, spice, and cinnamon, balanced, perfectly ready
  • Gray Pine Winery — 2017 Malbec, blueberries, plum and mocha, rich, medium-full bodied
  • Szabo Vineyards — 2015 Varasz, Red Blend, blackberries and toasted coffee, medium-full bodied
  • Montoliva — 2015 Sinistra, Red Blend, raspberries and black licorice, rich and full-bodied
  • Avanguardia Wines — 2015 Ampio, Red Blend, baking spice and earthy notes, full-bodied
  • Nevada City Winery — 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, powerful, great structure, great aromas

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 or 530-802-7172.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Grass Valley and Nevada County make The Union’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.


Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.

User Legend: iconModerator iconTrusted User