Rod Byers: Forging new directions
The 19th annual Foothill Celebration is this Saturday from 1 to 4 p.m. in Grass Valley. The Sierra Vintners Association, in partnership with the Grass Valley Downtown Association host this sip-and-stroll event that includes 29 different locations showcasing the bounty of our region.
Sample locally produced wine, beer, cider, hard kombucha and vodka throughout downtown with local restaurants and food purveyors offering food choices ranging from savory to sweet. Other entertainment includes live music and art pop-ups. Tickets are available online at sierravintners.com.
I met with Mario Clough, owner of Lucchesi Vineyards and Winery and president of the Sierra Vintners Association for an update. Sierra Vintners is coming to the end of a two-year USDA specialty crop block grant administered through the California Department of Food and Agriculture. I wondered how things were going.
Infuze Marketing, a Sacramento-based marketing company has been instrumental in the process, preparing the grant and implementing its completion. The goal of the grant was to increase grape tonnage and regional wine sales by 10% by April 2020. Infuze will file the final report, published on the USDA website, in April.
Their multi-faceted approach included a branding update, a more responsive website and new social media accounts. They produced videos as well as still photography promoting area vineyards and wine events. They held regular training sessions on how to use all the new tools.
As part of the outreach they designed wine product boxes for the media showcasing Sierra Vintner member wines. At the end of February, they hosted a tasting in Sacramento specifically for social media influencers.
“Diversity is our main selling point,” Clough explained. “Variety is the spice that keeps our region interesting and different.” He is not kidding about that. While many of the usual suspects are grown here, there are a lot of unusual grapes as well. At least 50 different wine grape varietals are grown in Nevada County.
Clough continued. “How do you get Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, two grapes that prefer different conditions, to produce Gold Medal winning wines in the same year, from the same vineyard?”
Clough explained that because of quickly changing elevations combined with different exposures, you can have very different growing conditions in vineyards that are practically next to each other.
Unfortunately, diversity is a more complicated sell than a one or two wine grape answer. Napa is Cab. Sonoma Coast is Pinot. Amador is Zin and Barbera. Okay. Got it.
A list of 50 different varietals doesn’t really fit on a bumper sticker. Attempts to identify a flagship varietal have never succeeded. The most serious attempt focused on Cabernet Franc but not enough wineries supported it.
We have wineries that feature Rhone, Italian, Spanish and Bordeaux varieties. If you don’t make Cab Franc it’s difficult to support it as the region’s messenger.
On the positive side, our region’s diversity easily provides a something-for-everyone opportunity. It really is impressive how many different varietals you could taste on an afternoon’s outing, some of which you may never have tasted before.
That something-for-everyone approach extends well beyond wine choices. Clough pointed to our region’s rich social, cultural and recreational opportunities. “There’s no place in the Sierra Foothills that offers as many different options after you are done wine tasting as western Nevada County,” he stated.
It has been a rocky few years for our local wine industry. Currently it seems there are more vineyards going out of rather than into production. Since 2016 we have seen two new wineries while ten have closed.
The Sierra Foothills in general remain a mystery to most of the wine world. Nevada County is not even a twinkle in anyone’s eye. Clough related a story that took place a few years ago at the Unified Grape Symposium in Sacramento, the largest wine and grape trade show in North America.
He asked that all the Nevada County wineries be grouped together for the big tasting. He succeeded except that the sign on the booth said Nevada, positioned right next to Missouri.
Clearly there is work to be done. Part of the current grant was for an executive director. Sierra Vintners needs that. They need someone to create a vision that can incorporate all the different interests while still putting the region first.
I know. Easier said than done. Mark Henry, owner/winemaker of Montoliva in Chicago Park told me years ago, “there’s no reason for the Wine Spectator to write about us. We need to give them something to write about.”
The wineries need to step up and do things worth writing about and somebody needs to scream it from the social media mountain top. Everybody needs to tell the story better.
The internet would be a great place to start. I googled wine tasting in the Sierra Foothills. Of the 11 touring, tasting or wine information sites on the first page, not one had a reference to wine in Nevada County. If you don’t know what you don’t know, you don’t even look.
In case you’re wondering why it matters, study after study have demonstrated the boost to a local economy that a healthy wine tourism industry brings to retail, restaurants, and lodging. Everybody does better.
Foothill Celebration provides an opportunity for all those factions to work together to showcase what our region has to offer. See what’s out there. Spread the word.
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 email@example.com or 530-802-7172.
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