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Rod Byers: Hiding in plain sight: Guy Lauterbach of Gray Pine Vineyard & Winery

Union readers will know that Gray Pine was just named Best Winery in the paper’s recent Best Of Awards. As part of my ongoing series Hiding In Plain Sight featuring local wineries, I met with owner, grower, and winemaker Guy Lauterbach to reflect on ten years as a commercial winery.

Guy Lauterbach of Gray Pine Winery stands in his vineyard. Gray Pine was just named Best Winery in The Union’s recent Best Of Awards.
Photo by Anna Woodhall

“I don’t know about highlights,” he replied. “But I can tell you the biggest surprise. Winning the Best Winery Award.” Lauterbach explained, “I’m a tiny little winery. I don’t have a wine club. I don’t have a mailing list. I barely have a web site.”

What he does have is really good wine. OK, maybe not a lot of it, Lauterbach makes about 350 cases a year.

Bottles of wine from Gray Pine Winery.
Photo by Anna Woodhall

Lauterbach is a retired engineer from the tech world. He and wife Karen bought property in Penn Valley in 1990, moving here in 2001. A life-long Cabernet Sauvignon aficionado, Lauterbach recounted, “I didn’t know much about wine except that I wanted to plant a vineyard”.

He hired local vineyard expert Joe Damiano to help him. “I wanted to plant Cab. Nobody that I talked to, including Joe, recommended it,” Guy recalled. “Everyone said Zin, Cab Franc, Syrah, or Petite Sirah would do better.”

The common wisdom was that Nevada County summers were too hot for Cabernet and besides, as one winemaker explained, it was already claimed by more famous regions, like Napa.

Lauterbach remembered, “Because I was so small, with not much wine, I wasn’t concerned about marketing Cab against the wind. I was more concerned about simply making good wine. And I liked Cabernet.”

Lauterbach does credit Damiano with educating him about the other traditional Bordeaux varietals, not just Cabernet. In the end he wisely planted his two-acre vineyard with all five red varieties including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot; and one white, Sauvignon Blanc.

Beginning in 2006, he planted the vineyard in increments of approximately how many vines it would take to fill a barrel. His intention was to make all the varieties separately as well as making a Bordeaux blend.

He spent those early years learning how to make wine as a home winemaker. “I learned a lot during that time,” he recalled. “I’m a sponge, learning from everywhere and everyone, and I try never to make the same mistake twice.” He became commercially bonded in 2011.

It was during those home winemaking years that he honed his style. “Those were the real experimental years,” he said. “Those early vintages were more tannic than I wanted. Later I started doing fewer punch downs, less times on the skins, less extended maceration.”

Having been fortunate enough to taste his wines on a regular basis, it was apparent to me that while his first wines may have been a little rustic, from the very beginning his vineyard delivered grapes with terrific fruit.

When I asked about anything he might change, he replied, “Plant the Sauvignon Blanc in the middle of the vineyard, instead of the edge.” As the first grape to ripen it attracts birds to the vineyard. He thinks if they were hidden in the middle rows his vines would be less vulnerable.

While he did change his leaf canopy positioning system to better suit his needs he has learned over the years that some things are simply out of his control. “Fruit quantity mostly comes down to bloom and pollination. At the end of the day, its the weather at critical moments throughout the growing season that makes the difference.”

“Fruit quality,” he continued, “is a different story. That comes down to the severity and timing of summer heat spikes, at least in this vineyard.”

His biggest problem is water, or lack of it. His well does not produce as much water as he needs and he is forced to ration it. He has too often seen his crop shriveled by Labor Day heat waves desiccating his grapes right on the vine.

In the winery, because he produces small batches of different wines, he uses adjustable flex tanks so he can lower the top to the necessary level but for aging he prefers traditional oak barrels. “Barrels allow for both micro-oxidation and evaporation. It makes a big difference concentrating and enhancing the flavors.”

While currently closed because of COVID, Lauterbach does have a small tasting room at the winery that would normally be open most weekends. He also has a dedicated following who love the wines. He finds participating with the public a refreshing change from his previous tech occupation. “To have my wine enjoyed and appreciated is the highlight, in person is even better.”

What I like about Gray Pine wines is their range of flavors. Each is different from the other yet that core of fruit that the vineyard demonstrated even in the early years is there throughout all the wines. It simply shows up in different guises.

Some years I like the Malbec best, some years the Merlot. Some wines are softer. Some are more tannic. All have structure. This year my favorites include the 2018 Cabernet Franc, a superb rendition both of the variety and what Nevada County can do with it.

For me, the 2018 Petit Verdot is the real gem offering a beguiling combination of aroma, body and balance: elegant yet powerful. Discover for yourself. There’s a list on the website (graypinewinery.com) of where to find the wines around town.

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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