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Sierra Starr to celebrate 20 years of winemaking

Phil Starr, left, with his wife Anne and son Jack at the Sierra Starr Winery tasting room in Grass Valley on Friday.
Laura Mahaffy/lmahaffy@theunion.com | The Union

know & Go

What: Sierra Starr Vineyard and Winery’s 20th Harvest Celebration, featuring wine tasting and sales, winery tours and a barbecue lunch

When: Aug. 8, 12-5 p.m.; lunch will begin at 1:30 p.m.

Where: 11179 Gibson Drive, Grass Valley

How much: Free; $12 for the barbecue lunch. Proceeds from the lunch will benefit Big Brothers Big Sisters.

RSVPs encouraged for lunch; to RVSP or for more information, call 530-477-8282.

When Phil and Anne Starr bought a plot of land on Gibson Drive in Grass Valley in 1995, they planned on moving the flower nursery they had been tending in Monterey up to the area. But they found out quickly that Nevada County isn’t an ideal environment for a greenhouse; one lively storm could level the whole operation, Phil Starr said.

So they turned their attention to a mature five-acre vineyard that already existed on the property.

“We’re always up for a new adventure, so we said, ‘OK, let’s give this a go,” said Phil Starr.



With that, Sierra Starr Vineyard and Winery was born. Twenty years later, the size of the vineyard has nearly tripled, and the business is still thriving – the product of slow, steady growth and dedication from Phil, Anne, and, since 2005, their son Jackson.

“To hit 20 years, it’s like, ‘Whoa, where’d it go, where’d those 20 years go,’” said Anne Starr. “It feels good. It feels rewarding that we’ve done what we’ve done and accomplished what we’ve accomplished.”




It’s longevity they may not have predicted that first year of business. The Starrs had made a living in agriculture long before opening the winery; they had been operating a family farm since 1975, Phil Starr said.

Still, they knew very little about the wine business — something that was clearly demonstrated the first time they tried to prune their grape vines.

“I remember the previous owner (of the vineyard) looking at it after Anne and I and our two sons had pruned it,” Phil Starr said. “He said, ‘Oh man, you guys don’t have a clue what you’re doing.’”

But they learned, by trial and error, and by relying on the expertise of others in the industry. It was a challenge, Phil Starr said, but a welcome one.

“It doesn’t take long to learn when you really love what you’re doing and you’re into it,” he said.

The vineyard and winery evolved slowly. Their initial harvest produce somewhere between 150 and 175 cases of wine, Phil Starr said; they had no bottling equipment, so they bottled the wine at Tony Norskog’s vineyard on Banner Mountain.

In the first couple of years after they opened, Phil Starr used a tractor to dig a hole and build an underground storage space to cool wine barrels.

After they purchased bottling equipment, they would have to wait for a fair-weather day and set the bottling equipment up outside; they had no room inside the winery, which was basically a garage.

They didn’t even purchase a forklift right away, instead creating a makeshift version of the machinery with their tractor.

“That caused a calamity or two,” Phil Starr said.

They acquired the equipment they needed and expanded their operations over time.

In 2000, they opened a tasting room at the site of the vineyard and winery; they moved the room to downtown Grass Valley a few years later.

In 2010, they finished construction on a new submerged, gravity-flow winery on the property.

Over two decades, they’ve remained dedicated to the work.

“(Jackson) and I are intimately involved in the physical labor that goes on to do those things,” Phil Starr said. “We’ve helped plant the plants, build the (winery), harvest the grapes, process the grapes, and so on.”

Meanwhile, Anne Starr focuses on running the tasting room, which is open from 12-5 p.m. every day.

“The guys grind away out there at the vineyard and I try to do the same downtown,” Anne Starr said.

Currently, the winery produces about 2,500 cases, or 30,000 bottles, of wine each year, Phil Starr said.

Eventually, Phil and Anne hope to transfer operation of the business over to Jackson Starr.

In the meantime, they’re constantly working on improving the quality of their wines, and are focused on slowly placing their wines in markets outside of Nevada County. Phil Starr said they’re proud of the work they’ve put in to their business — and of the fruits of their labor.

“We’re very proud of the wine we produce because they’re very good and that’s the ultimate goal, to make really fine wines,” he said.

To contact Staff Writer Emily Lavin, email elavin@theunion.com or call 530-477-4230.


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