Barrels, caves and beyond
“I think that wine is the epitome of everything that is good in life,” said John Chase, winemaker and co-owner of Sierra Knolls Vineyards & Winery. “Because along with wine you have good food, you have great conversation, and you seldom drink wine alone. You drink wine with your friends. It is everything that is good about life.”
It is not at all an exaggeration to say there was a twinkle in his eye and real passion in his voice as Chase expressed his philosophy of wine.
We were at Sierra Knolls Winery, sitting outside on the patio basking in the warm afternoon sun. It was one of those glorious, summer-seeming days that we experienced in the middle of last month. Jill Bauerle, the multimedia reporter for The Union, and I had driven down to the south county around Lake Of The Pines to visit with Chase.
The winery and tasting room, a converted house, is situated high on a steeply rising hill. From our lofty vantage point I could see their vineyard stretching out below us, rolling out of sight down the hill. On the other side of the patio, protected by thick wooden doors, a cave burrowed into the hillside. Inside, in its cool darkness, barrels full of wine were slowly aging. That was why we were there.
Winery wasn’t planned at first
We were visiting Sierra Knolls to do a story about barrel tasting. Jill was there with her video camera to film it and produce a multimedia story for The Union’s Web site. For her audio-visual presentation and an inside look at the cave, go to https://www.theunion.com and look for Jill’s story.
John Chase and Steve Taylor, friends since high school, had purchased this remarkably remote 60-acre parcel in 1988. Beyond dirt, there was nothing there – no roads, water or electricity. They did build a house, but to this day the entire operation is solar powered. They are also off the grid.
“We thought it would be a great place to spend time on the weekends, do a little hunting or dirt biking,” Chase said. They had no notion of building a winery.
But the wine bug was in the air. They liked wine and enjoyed going wine tasting. In 1996 they decided to plant a small vineyard of Merlot. In 1998, Chase produced his first wine, a Zinfandel, as a home winemaker. The fever grew, and by 2000 they decided to get bonded and start a small commercial winery.
As I surveyed the scene and listened to Chase talk about wine, it became immediately evident that there was much more to this story than just barrel tasting.
Chase introduced us to Scott Taylor, Steve’s son. Scott was now a full-time employee of the winery, perpetually busy as a cellar worker, vineyard worker and general handyman.
“There’s lots to be done,” Chase said.
Down the hill, off in the distance, I could see Steve Taylor working, building a pond. Once completed and landscaped, it was easy to envision the area as a great space for parties and events. This was more than a winery. This was a lifestyle.
We headed off to the cave because, after all, we were there for barrel tasting. Although most people rarely get the chance, I think barrel tasting is one of the more instructive as well as enjoyable things you can do at a winery.
It is quite simply the act of tasting a wine while it still resides in a barrel, a work in process. It is almost always red wine because the vast majority of all the wine spending time in barrels is red.
We stood in the refreshing dampness of the cave tasting a Cabernet Franc from the 2006 vintage, a wine barely 5 months old. Spring is the time of year when the winemaker evaluates what he’s got and what he plans to do with the wine.
It is typical for a red wine to spend between six and 20 months, sometimes even longer, in oak. Chase was quick to point out, “when consumers taste wine out of a barrel they expect it to taste like it is going to taste when it is bottled. This wine is going to change a lot between now and then.” I have heard other winemakers express that same concern, fearing that people will always remember the wine as rough or astringent.
Chase talked almost lovingly about the process of barrel aging and the development and maturation of flavor. “To me at least,” he said, “I think Zinfandel changes more in the barrel than almost any other wine. I think consumers would be amazed to discover how much wine changes in the barrel.”
We tasted several wines from the 2006 vintage. The Cabernet Franc had a spicy floral character while the Barbera was bright and tart with a juicy core of raspberry fruit. But Chase also had wines from 2005 still in barrel, as well as some Cabernet from 2004. Wasn’t that a long time in wood, I wondered? He explained that long barrel aging, especially for complex wines like Cabernet Sauvignon, makes the wine even more complex and balanced. “Probably the biggest thing that barrel aging does is give the wine that smooth mouth feel.”
Of course it can also give the wine a lot of wood flavor, as well, but Chase uses a combination of newer and older barrels to prevent too much oakiness. He is also experimenting with larger ovals that hold about 350 gallons instead of the traditional 55 gallon barrels. The larger the barrel, the less immediate oak flavor the barrel imparts.
Sierra Knolls currently produces about 1,000 cases of wine a year. “What Steve and I have always said is that we are going to make wines we like. If I sell out I’m not under any pressure to release the next vintage. I can wait until I think the next wine is ready to be released.”
They sell 90 percent of their wine out of the tasting room, which also allows them to keep their prices quite reasonable.
If they don’t think a wine is up to par, they don’t bottle it. “It’s extremely important,” Chase said, “for a small winery like ours to never offer a bad wine. Look at all the good wineries in Nevada County. All it takes is one bad wine and my customers go elsewhere.”
Visiting the tasting room
We left the cave, toured the very small production area in the basement of the house and ended in the tasting room across the patio from the barrel cave. Not surprisingly, the tasting room has the feel of a living room and it is, very much, a family affair. Chase’s wife, Linda, and their daughters Sarah and Kristin, along with Stephanie, Steve and Brenda Taylor’s daughter, run the tasting room, which is open on weekends. Brenda handles the winery’s marketing needs. Sarah made wine for the first time this year, a deliciously dry Sangiovese rosé they are cutely calling Saravese.
Steve Taylor, who had been working down by the pond, showed up. It was clearly evident that both Chase and Taylor loved being at the winery and loved sharing their wines. In fact, the next day was St. Patrick’s Day, and they were having a Bit of Blarney party. John summed it up perfectly. “What else is there in life besides food and friends and good conversation and a beautiful setting like this? To me, that is what’s important about wine. It’s not about how good the wine is; it’s about how good the whole wine experience is. That’s what drives me.”
As we were reluctantly leaving, having spent a delightful couple of hours at Sierra Knolls, Chase said, with an impish twinkle in his eye, “You can see, we don’t have any fun around here at all.”
One final note: Sierra Knolls is open most weekends from 12-5 p.m. and weekdays by appointment.. Call 530-268-9225 to be sure. Visit the winery’s Web site at http://www.sierraknollswinery.com for directions and a calendar of upcoming events. To get on their mailing list for advance notification of winery events or to get information about their wine club, e-mail them at email@example.com.
Rod Byers is director of marketing at Nevada City Winery, is a CSW certified wine educator, teaches wine classes at Sierra College and is a California State Certified Wine Judge. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 530-913-3703.
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