Coming of age in Nevada County |

Coming of age in Nevada County

How and when does a wine region come of age and become recognized as an important spoke in the California wine wheel?

When did Paso Robles or the Santa Ynez Valley transition from sleepy places that you passed on the way to someplace else, to the vigorous wine regions they are today?

Getting recognized as a wine region is a slow process. I was in another state once, wanting to visit a winery there. I asked directions within a mile of where it was and was told, “There’s no wineries around here.”

I know what it’s like to be the only winery in a region. Nevada City Winery opened in 1980, and for most of that decade, it was the only winery in the county. It was a hard job pushing that rock. By 2000, the area had seven wineries.

Now, we have 18 wineries, according to my best count. That is certainly enough to qualify as a wine destination. But how do you win the hearts and minds of our local residents and the greater population, proving we are a thriving, striving, viable wine community?

Taste test for local quality

Northern Sierra Wine Country, the name of our local winery association, has discussed this topic at length. One of the questions rattling about is the overall quality of the wines being produced locally. Should the association have a review committee that analyzes and assesses the quality of its members’ wines?

Anyone who has ever tried to offer constructive criticism to a friend, co-worker or spouse knows they’re likely to get hit upside the head with a 2-by-4. Good idea in theory, but you better be ready to duck if you actually do it.

Nonetheless, the association hired three unrelated and unbiased wine experts to a tasting to assess the overall wine quality.

Scott Harvey, winemaker at Scott Harvey Wines in Napa Valley; Hugh Chappelle, winemaker at Lynmar Winery in Sonoma County; and Dr. Hildegarde Heymann, sensory science professor in the Department of Viticulture and Enology at the University of California, Davis, were invited to taste and analyze the wines of Nevada County.

Each of the 14 members of the association was permitted to send up to five wines to the blind tasting. The three tasters knew the specific varieties of wines tasted, but did not know which wines were whose. They were asked to grade the wines for marketability and general quality, including flaws.

They were not allowed to confer with each other. Each winery was only given the results of the wines they entered. No other winery would know anyone else’s results.

The idea was to get pertinent, unbiased advice on wine quality to each individual winery.

It was a brave plan. There is something we call “cellar palate,” where sometimes we taste our own wines so much we can get blind to some of their features or flaws. It’s one thing to enter a wine in a competition, get no award and wonder how the judges could have missed it. It’s quite another matter to get back specific, detailed information saying why your wine didn’t deserve a medal.

Foothill flavor, gold quality

What if the panel of experts found the overall quality too low to recommend any or just a handful of the wines? After all, they were being paid not to sugarcoat, but to be brutally honest. I think it is a strong testament to the association that they all agreed to go forward come what might.

The tasting took place last August at the new Holiday Inn Express. Manager George King graciously donated two conference rooms for the tasting, which took most of the day to conduct. I, like everyone else, don’t know all the results. They remain confidential.

But I do know that, of the 65 or so wines tasted, 26 were selected as above average, either gold or silver medal quality. And even better, every single one of the 14 wineries that submitted wines had at least one wine selected.

I called Scott Harvey later to see what he thought about the tasting. Harvey is very familiar with Sierra foothill grapes. He started making wines in Amador as winemaker at Santino, which he later morphed into Renwood.

He moved to Napa, but continues to source grapes out of the foothills, including some Nevada County vineyards. He knows the area.

“There where some great wines, and they all showed good grapes,” Harvey said. “There is an identifiable characteristic that can best be described as mountain or high elevation terroir.

The best wines were cabernet franc, syrah, cabernet sauvignon, and Bordeaux and Rhone varietals. The wines showed varietal character, bright fresh pit fruits and the tannin structure to hold the bright fruit.

“Cooler-climate essence”

Getting a realistic appraisal of our area’s wines was an important step. Carving an identity in the wine world is another matter.

Next, association members decided to hold a tasting for the wine press, which took place at Villa Venezia Restaurant in Grass Valley. Of all our local restaurants, they have, by far, the biggest and best selection of local wines on their wine list.

It was a classy event. We were given plenty of time to taste the wines without pressure or interference. The wines showed well, impressively ranging from crisp, fruity whites through richer full-bodied reds, ending with a couple of luscious dessert wines. It’s hard to imagine any other winery association could have put on a better event ” including the sensational luncheon that Dennis and Sandi Roberts and their staff at Villa Venezia provided.

I asked Mike Dunne, the wine writer for the Sacramento Bee, who also attended the press tasting what he thought about the event.

“I came away from the tasting with a sense that exciting things are happening up there, and my excitement over the quickening maturity of the county’s winemaking is what prompted me to return for the feature we did,” Dunne said. “I was most impressed by cabernet franc, zinfandel and viognier, but see potential in syrah, mourvedre and other Rhone reds.”

I asked Dunne if he had any sense of terroir, if he noticed any regionality in the wines?

“I hesitate to say I can draw any conclusions,” he responded. “The wines, overall, had a cooler-climate essence to them compared with other foothill wines, and what I mean by that is that the fruit generally was bright, the finishes crisp.”

Food-friendly wines

Both Harvey and Dunne are right. It is especially interesting that they would both pinpoint the same thing.

One of the elements that makes the wines of Nevada County unique is the diversity of its high-elevation vineyard sites, resulting in what Harvey referred to as brighter fruit, better acidity, good tannin structure and, above all else, food-friendly wines.

Nevada County is a work in progress. With almost 50 different varietals planted at dozens of different sites, it may be too early to say definitively who we are.

But it is very clear where we are going. There’s a bunch of great wines out there. Go try a few.


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 or by phone at 530-913-3703.

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