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Rod Byers: Taking stock

Prior to COVID-19, these next years were already going to be challenging for the California wine industry. After a quarter century of growth, wineries were beginning to feel the pinch of decreasing demand coupled with an over-supply of inventory.
Photo by Rod Byers
The billboard that sat at Higgins Corners at Hwy 49 and Combie in 2015.
Rod Byers

Arquils: arquils.com

Avanguardia: avanguardiawines.com

Clavey Vineyards: claveywine.com

Gray Pine Vineyard & Winery: graypinewinery.com

Haven Stead Vineyard & Winery: havenstead.com

Lucchesi Vineyards & Winery: lucchesivineyards.com

Montoliva Vineyard & Winery: montoliva.com

Mountain Ranch Winery: mountainranchwinery.com

Naggiar Vineyard & Winery: naggiarvineyards.com

Nevada City Winery: ncwinery.com

Nevada County Mead Company: ncmeadco.com

Pilot Peak Winery: pilotpeak.com

Sierra Starr Vineyard & Winery: sierrastarr.com

Szabo Vineyards: szabovineyards.com

Truckee River Winery: truckeeriverwinery.com

Vian Estates Winery and Vineyard: vianestates.net

Source: Rod Byers

Prior to COVID-19, these next years were already going to be challenging for the California wine industry. After a quarter century of growth, wineries were beginning to feel the pinch of decreasing demand coupled with an over-supply of inventory.

COVID didn’t help. Consider losing, on average, 44% of your sales in one day when winery tasting rooms and restaurants were ordered to shut down last March.

Poof. Gone.



With dire predictions swirling about the industry as a whole, I wondered about our local picture? We were already experiencing turbulence. These last few years have been rocky.

I thought I would start with a simple question. How many county wineries are there?



Before we do that let’s look at how we got to here. Our modern era started in 1980 with the opening of Nevada City Winery. It was the first commercial winery in the county since the early 1950s.

Nevada City Winery owned the playground for most of the eighties. By century’s end the county had eight commercial wineries including Indian Springs (1987), Smith (1987), Nevada County Wine Guild (1988), Truckee River (1989), Sierra Starr (1995), Double Oak (1997), and Haven Stead (1997).

Note that there is a difference between when the vineyard was planted and the first commercial vintage. In the case of Double Oak for example, the vineyard was started in 1980, the winery in 1997.

The early 2000s brought a surge of new wineries. Lucchesi, Sierra Knolls, Avanguardia, Burch Hall, Iron Mountain, Coufos, Montoliva, Pilot Peak, Solune, and Naggiar flooded the local wine scene, more than doubling the count.

My 2004 survey counted 16 wineries, with more on the way. Indeed, wineries including Szabo, Bent Metal, and Clavey continued to open throughout the decade.

As the total number of wineries grew so did events like Wine Trail, Foothill Celebration, Grape Affair and the Harvest Celebration.

All in all it was a pretty good time. Winemaker Mark Foster at Nevada City Winery was laying down the drumbeat, winning awards, showing everyone what was possible.

It was notable that several wineries opened with terrific early results making everyone optimistic. The 2009 California State Fair Award Ceremony was a feel-good moment when nine wineries were invited to pour their award-winning wines that year.

There were some closures. Birch Hall, Iron Mountain, Indian Springs, come to mind and others like Kempsters that never really got started in the first place.

During the teens the number of wineries continued to grow. Gray Pine, Katoa, Besemer, Vian, Sierra Sky and Woodcut were more, or less visible operations.

At the start of 2017 I counted 23 Nevada County wineries. At the 2017 California State Fair four different wineries brought home Best of Class awards along with numerous other medals.

2017 was also the beginning of an alarming trend; one where more wineries closed than opened. Between 2017 and 2020 ten wineries closed including notables like Solune, Smith, and Double Oak.

The tragic footnote is that not one of them sold as a winery, they were all parted out, the names dying with the closures.

None of them closed because of COVID-19, although there may still be some that do. For the remaining wineries COVID made an already challenging situation worse.

Overnight wineries were forced to fight through the rubble of what used to be. Wineries scrambled to find new ways to get in front of their customers, providing new services, struggling to stay alive.

Ready or not, COVID pushed the rest of us into online shopping and virtual connections. I never intended to attend a local online wine tasting, until I did. I’m certain the winemakers who held virtual tastings never intended to either, until they did. I never expected to have a winemaker hand deliver my wine order, until he did.

Back to the point: just how many wineries are there in Nevada County? My count right now is 16, back to the 2004 level. Counter-balancing the ten closures since 2017 there have been a few openings including Arquils, Mountain Ranch, and soon, the Nevada County Mead Company.

Maybe there are others? Tell me if I missed counting you.

Another trend has been a seeming decrease in the amount of competition bling. To be fair, almost everything in 2020 was canceled, so not much opportunity. Fewer wineries doesn’t help.

That’s why I was so pleased to see that Sierra Starr earned Best of Show at the 2020 Harvest Challenge with their 2018 Barbera.

That’s a big deal.

The Harvest Challenge Wine Competition first pits wines from the same American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) against each other. Our AVA is Sierra Foothills. Sierra Starr’s Barbera emerged from that round as the Best Wine of the Foothills.

They then proceeded to the sweepstakes round where their Barbera went up against all the other Best of AVA wines, no matter what the varietal. By the time you reach that level in a competition the wines are good. All of them are Gold Medal, Best of Region winners.

Sierra Starr 2018 Barbera beat them all. Last wine standing. Best of Show.

What is most encouraging about this is not just the superb winemaking involved but that the grapes are Nevada County-grown, a combination of Sierra Starr and Indian Springs Vineyards. It’s an affirmation of the dream started so many years ago proving that Nevada County is fully capable of producing truly world-class wines.

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.


 


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