Rod Byers: Hiding in plain sight — Sierra Wine & Grape Growers Association | TheUnion.com
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Rod Byers: Hiding in plain sight — Sierra Wine & Grape Growers Association

Regular readers know I have been doing a series of articles titled Hiding in Plain Sight covering all manner of Nevada County fermentation creations. This month instead of a winery, I’m focused on a wine group: Sierra Wine and Grape Growers Association (sierrawine.org). No surprise; it’s stacked with dozens of winemakers.

While Sierra Wine and Grape Growers Association does have a few commercial members it exists for home winemakers and backyard grape growers. It is primarily an educational organization with a little wine drinking on the side.

Dreaming of planting a vineyard? There is a vineyard cost calculator on the site. Thinking of converting your apple tree into apple cider? There’s a checklist of what you’ll need and how to do it. Got a wine you made that’s wrong? There’s a lab analysis checklist and a SO2 calculator.



Sierra Wine and Grape Growers Association holds monthly educational-based meetings including the always popular “Can This Wine Be Saved” with winemakers Jackson Starr and Mark Foster offering advice.

Last year when COVID forced the cancellation of the Nevada County Fair wine competition Sierra Wine and Grape Growers Association asked me to create a club competition complete with a zoom award ceremony. It went well.



This year’s 2nd Annual Sierra Wine and Grape Growers Association Wine Competition took place in May. Fifteen winemakers entered 51 wines, about what I used to get at the county fair. As usual, reds dominated with 34 entries, followed by 13 whites and four rosés. The vast majority of the people and grapes involved were from Nevada County.

One thing that struck me was the changing profile of the grapes used by home winemakers. Barbera and Petite Sirah were the biggest red categories. Curiously, there was one Cabernet Sauvignon, and one Merlot. In years past it might have been the reverse.

White wines are changing too. This will be the third year in a row where Viognier was selected best white wine. There were zero Chardonnays entered.

Dave Elliot, owner of the UPS store in Grass Valley, produced this year’s Best White Wine (viognier) and retained his Winemaker of the Year title for the second year in a row. In total Elliot entered six wines winning three gold medals, three silver medals and Best White Wine.

A native Californian, Elliot earned a graduate degree in Physical Chemistry from the University of Texas and then worked in the lab for Phillips Petroleum in Oklahoma. He made his first wine from hybrid grapes grown in Oklahoma.

He moved to Nevada County in 1999. A few years later his wife, Dr. Linda Foshagen gave him 460 Syrah vines as a surprise Christmas gift.

In case you are wondering, 460 vines fills a half-acre, and in case you are wondering, that is a lot. Lots of a lot. Elliot’s vineyard produces about four thousand pounds of grapes, enough to produce 1500 bottles of wine per year.

“Maybe have a smaller vineyard,” he commented in conversation. Plus, he pointed out, having only one variety minimizes blending opportunities and the ability to create more complex wines. Over time he has grafted in viognier, albarino and petite sirah.

At its core winemaking is chemistry and while a science background is not necessary, it is useful. If Elliot had a nickname it would be doc or professor. He spent some effort trying to explain to me how he could actually lower acidity by first raising it.

No matter what else, he told me, attentive vineyard work is the key to successful grapes. In the winery, especially for whites, he stressed the importance of controlling the wine’s exposure to air and keeping the temperatures cool.

This year he will try fruit thinning his Syrah, simply dropping half the clusters on the ground. He thinks it will intensify the flavors of the remaining grapes, and he does have extra.

Speaking of extra, have you ever thought of making wine and then wonder, where would you find the grapes? Dave Elliot would happily sell his surplus Syrah, if you ever knew he had them.

I mentioned the Sierra Wine and Grape Growers Association website earlier. Sometimes grower members post grapes for sale there. Another option is to connect with John Lyon at Sierra Moonshine (sierramoonshine.com) up at Loma Rica. Sierra Moonshine specializes in home brewing and winemaking supplies.

Not only does Sierra Moonshine have a buy and sell bulletin board, they also rent winemaking equipment. Rent a stemmer-crusher, press, corker, or bottling apparatus from Sierra Moonshine and skip the expense of buying.

Plus, for people like me who do not understand chemistry, Lyon is a chemist who can provide me with everything I need, even when I don’t know what it is.

Speaking of not knowing, winemaking is one of those things where you ask five people the same question and get five different answers. Sierra Wine and Grape Growers Association offers mentoring programs to help beginners over rough patches.

To that end, Guy Lauterbach, owner and winemaker at Gray Pine Winery in Penn Valley, is offering three, two-hour sessions covering the nuts and bolts of winemaking, free to members. That alone is reason to join. The more hands-on experience you can get as a novice, the better the wine you’ll make later.

On that note I would be remiss not to congratulate Bernie Zimmerman for winning Best of Show at the competition this year with his Sangiovese Rosé from grapes grown in Dan Carrick’s Penn Valley vineyard. Now in his fifth decade of winemaking, Zimmerman is proof-positive that practice makes perfect.

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

Dave Elliot, owner of the UPS store in Grass Valley, produced this year’s Best White Wine (viognier) and retained his Winemaker of the Year title for the second year in a row. In total Elliot entered six wines winning three gold medals, three silver medals and Best White Wine.
Photo by Rod Byers

GOLD MEDALS

Bernie Zimmerman: 2020 Sangiovese Rosé (Best Rosé) (Best of Show)

Dave Elliot: 2020 Viognier (Best White Wine), 2020 Albarino, 2019 Syrah

Tony Clarabut: 2019 Barbera (Best Red Wine)

Jim Garrett: 2017 Petite Sirah, 2020 Petite Sirah Rosé

SILVER MEDALS

Bill Betts: 2019 Petite Sirah, 2018 Barbera, 2019 Barbera, 2019 Zinfandel

David Blitstein: 2020 Albarino, 2020 Albarino, 2020 Tempranillo Rosé, 2019 Tempranillo

Dan Carrick: 2020 Sangiovese blanc de noir, 2019 Viognier 1, 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon, 2019 Syrah dessert wine

Dave Elliot: 2020 White Blend, 2020 Riesling, 2019 Petite Sirah

Jim Garrett: 2016 Sangiovese, 2017 Red Blend, 2018 Red blend 1

Gary Glaze: 2018 Red blend 2

Diane Houston: 2020 Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé

Larry Retallack: 2019 Alicante Bouschet

Keith Schoendoerfer: 2019 Syrah

Jon Smedberg: 2020 Barbera

Peter Willcox: 2019 Grenache

BRONZE MEDALS

David Blitstein: 2020 Sauvignon Blanc, 2020 Petite Sirah

Dan Carrick: 2019 Viognier 2

Tony Clarabut: 2019 Sauvignon Blanc

Jim Garrett: Barbera

Claudia Gemberling: 2018 Red Blend

Gary Glaze: 2018 Red blend 3

Larry Retallack: 2019 Zinfandel, 2019 Red Blend, 2020 Viognier

Keith Schoendoerfer: 2019 Red Blend 2, 2019 Mourvedre, 2019 Grenache

Peter Willcox: 2019 Zinfandel

Paul VerWey: 2019 Primitivo

Bernie Zimmerman: 2019 Barbera


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