California’s gold rush built the twin cities of Grass Valley and Nevada City, located just four miles from each other in the rolling, pine-studded foothills of the Western Sierras, about halfway between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe. But today, decades after the shiny stuff stopped paying for the quaint towns’ Old West facades, there’s a new boom floating these Northern California economies: wine. And though its flow rarely makes it too far beyond the large, multicounty growing region collectively known as the Sierra Foothills, the recently rechristened Sierra Vintners association is helping ensure that Nevada County’s best bottles get noticed. Here are four spots worth visiting the next time you’re anywhere near the area, all family-run operations serving up great juice and even better company.
One of the larger growers in the region, with 20 acres planted in about a dozen varieties, Lucchesi Vineyards is run by Mario and Linda Clough, who got into the wine business nearly 15 years ago. “It was just wild,” said Linda of the property before they installed their terraced vineyards. “We didn’t know enough to be afraid.” In their tasting room on a bustling corner in downtown Grass Valley, Linda welcomes guests with a blend of hometown pride and Texas-raised warmth while pouring everything from viognier and chardonnay to syrah, zinfandel, and port. See lucchesivineyards.com.
2007 Cabernet Franc: This stand-out red wine shows off what Sierra Foothills can do, bringing both a typical California fruitiness with more reserved and serious sensations for your lips. $24
Montoliva Vineyard & Winery
Experimentation with different grape varieties is central to the Sierra Foothills experience, but Mark Henry of Montoliva Vineyard already figured out what works. “There are a lot of similarities to the geography of central and southern Italy,” he explained of his appointment-only winery and tasting room property in the tiny “town” of Chicago Park, about 10 minutes from Grass Valley. So he’s working with a wide range of Italian varietals, from standards like sangiovese to obscurities such as teroldego and negroamaro. “I have a personal preference for Old World wines — earthy, dry, rustic,” said Henry. “Geologically speaking, this is the place to do it.” And with very few people in the entire state doing the same thing, the former beer-making supply dealer from Seattle finds plenty of freedom. “There are no guidelines,” he explained. See montoliva.com.
2007 Aglianico: One of the preferred grapes in Roman times, aglianico is a great food wine, with strong enough structure to hold up to beef but a drinkability fitting lighter fare as well. $24
Though they boast the oldest zinfandel wines in Nevada County, opened the first tasting room ever in Grass Valley, and two years ago opened an even more impressive tasting room on the main drag, the Sierra Starr crew is most proud of their new winery facility, which is finally open for business. “It’s quite a kick, this industry,” said patriarch Phil Starr, who runs winemaking with his son, Jack, while his wife, Anne, runs the retail. Phil enjoys making more elegant wines, the kind that, as he explained, “don’t just walk up to you and sock you in the face.” See sierrastarrwine.com.
Jack’s Blend Five NV: Every year, Jack Starr blends his favorite barrels from years past for this tasty nonvintage blend of zinfandel, can franc, petite sirah[CQ], viognier, and more. Single-year bottlings should be shaking in their boots. $17
“I’m a firm believer that great wines come from great fruit,” said Alex Szabo, whose eponymous winery offers tastes in a stylish spot on Nevada City’s strip. Unlike many of his blend-friendly neighbors, Szabo makes single varietal wines that he believes reflects his European-oriented palate. “I consider myself a purist,” explained Szabo, whose Hungarian roots, expertise in five languages, and time spent working around the Eastern Bloc countries honed his wine sense. “I just want to be amongst the best at what I do.” See szabovineyards.com.
2006 Syrah: Szabo calls this smoky, soy-inflected bottle his “velvet hammer,” and it doesn’t fail to arrest your senses with a serious but supple mouthfeel and perfectly pleasant flavors. $24
The best time to experience Nevada County wine country is on Saturday, September 24, 1-4 p.m., when the Sierra Vintners and the Grass Valley Downtown Association present “A Taste of the Gold,” the region’s premier wine tasting event. It will be hald at the Nevada County Fairgrounds in Grass Valley. See sierravintners.com for more info.