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Rod Byers: Hiding in plain sight: Solar Moon Winery

 

It was a beautiful spring day. I was driving to the south county, past Perimeter Road, to visit Keith Schoendoerfer at Solar Moon Winery (solarmoonwines.com).

Solar Moon Winery? Never heard of it, you say. And that would be right because you haven’t, mostly because it doesn’t exist, or does it?

What would you do if you wanted to have a winery without really having a winery? Before dismissing that as a silly hypothetical question, first decide which part of the winery you might want and which part of the winery you might not want.



There are a number of time-honored models to serve as guides. In an unremarkable European village you would deliver your grapes to the local co-op to be mixed with everyone else’s. As part of the village co-op are you a winery?

In a more famous village you would make the wine in your cellar then deliver the entire vintage to the negociant who would blend, develop, and sell the wine. Does that make you the winery or are they the winery?



What if you don’t grow, make or bottle the wine at all? You only buy it and sell it. Your name is on the label. Are you the winery?

The point is there are different ways to be in the biz. Can you order a la carte instead of buying the entire meal? I was on my way to Solar Moon to find out.

Keith Schoendoerfer and Linda Laskey moved to Nevada County in 1992 buying property several miles past nowhere on a lost road in the far south county. Schoendoerfer liked wine, took classes from Bob Beck, planted a vineyard, and began making wine.

Remote as it was, Keith and Linda discovered they lived in a great neighborhood including several avid home winemakers. Soon they were getting together for dinners and parties.

As fate would have it, Sean Fields purchased an adjacent property in 1997. He liked wine too. With a degree in Ag Business Management, Fields couldn’t wait to plant a vineyard. He wanted to grow what he loved to drink. His first harvest came in 2003.

Meanwhile, Schoendoerfer discovered that while he liked winemaking, he didn’t like grape growing. In 2003 he ripped out his vineyard knowing he had Sean’s grapes to harvest.

Jeanette Webber, Mary McMillan and Linda Laskey were childhood friends. Webber and McMillan both purchased adjacent properties. The wine synergy on the street was growing.

“We all had demanding technical and professional careers,” Schoendoerfer explained. “This was a way to connect with the land and each other and celebrate what’s important. Wine was the vector, not the goal.”

Fields, Schoendoerfer and Laskey were residents while the others visited when possible. Of course there would be dinners and conversations full of wine.

And there it was. The moment every serious home winemaker faces sooner or later. What about going commercial; becoming a bonded winery?

They had the grapes. They had the equipment. What about it? That bumps into a question people often fail to think about. What are you going to do with the wine?

Sell it of course but where and how? Originally their target was to produce 3,000 cases per year. That means selling one hundred bottles a day, every day, including Christmas. Take a day off, you have to sell more tomorrow.

What starts as a hobby morphs into endless sales calls and hours behind the tasting bar.

The decision not to turn pro has consequences as well. It costs money to grow and make wine. As a home winemaker it is easy to make more than you need. Once you have all you can drink and your friends have all they can drink, what do you do with the rest of it?

To consume the production from her two-acre vineyard McMillan would need to drink 15 bottles of wine every day. Once you realize you can’t sell it, and you can’t drink it all, what do you do? There is no logical next step other than to produce less wine and that is the beginning of the end.

Then they thought, what about creating a co-op? They were a self-sufficient band of neighbors who enjoyed the fellowship and camaraderie of a wine country lifestyle. That was the part of the winery they wanted. What if they could expand that?

McMillan explained that creating a co-op was a way to get more serious, take it to another level while still not becoming a bonded commercial winery.

They divide the related costs equally and at the other end of the spectrum, they take all the wine they produce and split it equally. They join forces several times throughout the year for harvesting, or racking and, of course, for dinners.

I was there on bottling day. There were about 15 multi-generational people humming along in a well-choreographed effort mastering all the moving parts that make up bottling. Currently they have eight co-op members and looking for more.

“We enjoy wine, the lifestyle, growing grapes, making wine, sharing wine,” Schoendoerfer said. “We just don’t want to work that hard to sell it. The co-op gives us the opportunity to grow the parts we love and ignore the parts we don’t.”

There is no way to buy a bottle of Solar Moon wine. There are plenty of ways to share a bottle, so you tell me. Is Solar Moon a winery?

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.

Bottling day at Solar Moon, featuring, from left, Mary McMillan, Sean Fields, Connie Blaisur, Caleb Belohlave and Wayne Holveck.
Photo by Rod Byers
Mary McMillan, Keith Schoendoerfer and Linda Laskey enjoying Solar Moon wine together.
Photo by Rod Byers

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