Rod Byers: Heard it through the grapevine: Sierra Starr Winery earns national recognition |

Rod Byers: Heard it through the grapevine: Sierra Starr Winery earns national recognition

Phil and Jackson Starr, the father and son team behind Sierra Starr Winery, have been on a roll lately. Phil focuses on grape growing while Jackson runs the winemaking side of things. Not only are they producing great wines, they’re receiving national recognition as well.

From left, Phil, Anne and Jackson Starr.
Provided photo

They have been earning strings of Gold Medals and 90-plus point scores for their wines across the board, and now most recently, for their Cabernet Franc.

Wine Enthusiast Magazine, a national publication, just awarded their 2019 Cabernet Franc a 94-point score and a Cellar Selection meaning they think it is delicious now, and they think it will improve and excel for years to come.

While Cabernet Franc remains unfamiliar to many consumers, winemakers know better. At over $9,000 per ton, Napa County Cabernet Franc received the highest average price paid per ton of any wine grape in California, according to the most recent California Grape Crush report.

I visited Phil and Jackson to discuss their Starr attraction. “We planted Cabernet Franc back in 1997,” Phil recalled. “We thought it might be hard to compete with Cabernet Sauvignon but Cab Franc, there could be a niche there.”

I wondered, thinking about their success, was their high score the result of a maturing vineyard producing increasingly better fruit, or were other things at play as well? Jack and Phil looked at each other in silence. I could see they were communicating without talking. After a long pause Jackson said, “Ya, maybe a couple of things.”

Sierra Starr Vineyard has a significant slope from top to bottom. The bottom collects water and the ground is too wet. As it turned out, that is where they had planted the Franc. About five years ago they cut off the water and started dry farming the grapes.

“Actually we tried it throughout the vineyard but the Zinfandel at the top of the hill looked like it was going to die so we had to go back to watering it,” Jackson explained. Then Phil took over, “but the Franc at the bottom wasn’t affected at all. It did better than ever. All the water they needed was already there.”

When it came to changes in the winemaking process, they were more cryptic. About the same time they attempted the dry farm experiment they started making some significant changes in how they handled the grapes in the cellar. “Let’s just say we attempt to extract as much flavor as possible without extracting too much bitterness or tannin,” Jackson said. “We’ve hit upon a few things that we think really help the process.”

“Climate change, warming, is another thing making a difference,” Phil said. “I always thought it was too cold here. There is no doubt harvest is now at least two weeks earlier than it used to be. The grapes are riper, sooner. It may get too hot if it keeps going but for now, for us, we’re picking riper grapes while they are still retaining their natural acidity.”

In spite of the recognition by winemakers of Cabernet Franc’s superiority as a premium wine grape, consumers have been less quick to follow. It’s still a hand-sell. Cabernet what? is a common response.

At $9,275 average price per ton, that makes the typical Cab Franc coming out of Napa about $100 a bottle. That makes Sierra Starr Franc, out of Nevada County, at $28, and a 94-point National Cellar Selection, one of those wine gems people dream of discovering.

Gray Pine Voted Best Winery, Two Years in A Row

Let’s have a shout out to Guy Lauterbach and his tiny, 350 total cases per year, Gray Pine Winery in Penn Valley. Guy planted his two-acre vineyard with all the classic Bordeaux reds from which he makes five different varietal wines and one blend he calls Pennridge.

The first thing you’ll notice as you taste through the wines is how different they are, how much range they provide. They have different aromatics, different weights, different flavors. They are not the same wine in six different bottles.

Guy would most likely describe himself as an old-world style winemaker; preferring wines with good acidity and firm structure. He has remained true to that style of winemaking but over the years his wines have become increasingly polished and well balanced.

They are wines built to last. As his first vintages start to hit 10, we are reaping the rewards that the exuberance of youth promised a decade ago.

As far as hearing it through the grapevine, Guy leaves that end of the business alone. He has no email list. He has no wine club. He has a few selections in a couple of retail outlets and restaurants around town. Otherwise you have to go see him on weekends at his winery and tasting room in Penn Valley.

Trust me when I say, it’s worth the visit. Just check to be sure he’s there first.

Arquils Winery Open House

Arquils Winery is another tiny operation located on Cement Hill Road outside of Nevada City. Winemaker/owner Carlos Caruncho describes himself as a non-interventionist winemaker. Add nothing. Take nothing away. Let the wine be. He produces some remarkably tasty wines that way. If you are curious how that works, or how they taste, he will be open for his once-a-year Spring Wine Tasting this Saturday. Get tickets and details at

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

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