Four Wineries Open Villa Fiorente

Small, new wineries define California's Placer wine region

by Jon Tourney
Fortezza Winery Lisa Mann
Fortezza Winery owner Lisa Mann does punchdown on the winery's first vintage of estate Primitivo, harvested in October 2010.
Auburn, Calif. -- Villa Fiorente, a tasting room featuring four boutique Placer County wineries, is the latest winery facility to open in this Sierra Foothills county, which now has a dozen tasting rooms with regular hours, and 24 bonded wineries. Most began operation within the last 10 years.

Villa Fiorente was built by Lisa Mann, who owns 1,000-case Fortezza Winery, one of the four sharing space at the facility. The Tuscan-style tasting room, and Fortezza's production facility, are on a 20-acre property (a former pear orchard) that Mann purchased in 2003. While taking viticulture and enology classes through the University of California, Davis, extension, Mann began planting the estate vineyard in 2006. It now has five acres producing Primitivo, Sangiovese, Petit Verdot, and Viognier. Fortezza's first releases, made from purchased grapes, include a Sierra Foothills Zinfandel, a North Coast Sangiovese, and a Lodi Viognier. The 2010 harvest will provide Fortezza's first full crop of estate wines.

Although vineyards and wine production in Placer County date back to the California Gold Rush, as in other Sierra Foothills counties, the resurgence of Placer's modern wine industry has lagged in its development compared with the nearby counties of El Dorado, Amador, Calaveras, and Nevada. Western Placer County has had more urban development and generally higher real estate values than other Foothills counties.

Located along the Interstate 80 corridor just 30 miles from Sacramento, the county's western slope includes the cities of Roseville, Rocklin and Lincoln, which have grown significantly since the 1980s. However, rural lands east of those cities and surrounding Auburn, the county seat, have a history of small family farms. Today they are supported and promoted through agritourism and the "buy local" PlacerGROWN program, a nonprofit organization that assists ag producers, including wineries, in marketing their products. The county's urban/rural ag interface creates challenges that limit the ability to have large farms and large production operations, but it provides opportunities with a market of local consumers.

Cindy Fake, UC Cooperative Extension viticulture advisor for Placer County, estimates that nearly 250 acres of vineyards are planted in the county, ranging in elevation from 200 feet to 4,000 feet, with most located from 600 to 1,500 feet in elevation. Most vineyards are less than 10 acres, and are family-owned and operated, as are most wineries.

Grape quality potential is good, with warm days, cool nights and well-drained soils. "With our climate, the focus is on Mediterranean red varieties," Fake told Wines & Vines. Traditional Sierra Foothills varieties are grown, such as Zinfandel, Barbera and Syrah, in addition to Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petite Sirah. More recent plantings have focused on Italian and Spanish varieties such as Sangiovese and Tempranillo. The few white varieties planted include Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and Chardonnay.

The Placer County Wine & Grape Association (PCWGA) was formed in 1999. Membership includes both commercial and home winemakers and grapegrowers. Many of the county's wineries were started by home winemakers who later expanded their knowledge and operations with help from PCWGA educational events and advice from other members. The county's wineries place an emphasis on limited production, handcrafted wines. Mt. Vernon Winery in Auburn, that released its first wines in 1999, is the county's largest with annual production of about 5,000 cases.

Winery ordinance enables growth
The approval of Placer County's winery ordinance in 2008, after two years of hearings, created more certainty and defined ground rules for new winery development and tasting room operations. Fake noted that the ordinance was a clear sign that the county supervisors support agriculture and winery operations. “It's definitely a better climate today than it was three years ago for vineyards and wineries to be economically viable," Fake said.

Mann observed, "The ordinance opened up the conversation between wineries and their neighbors, which alleviated a lot of fears people had about wine tasting traffic and visitors." She added, "As much as we'd like to be as well known as Napa, the reality is that our operations and production are very small, and we want to stay that way, so we're not going to generate the crowds and problems that may occur in some locations."

The Placer County Vintners Association (PCVA) was officially formed in January 2010 to promote its commercial winery members with a wine trail, tour events, and a website, www.placerwine.com. PCVA now has eight member wineries and held its first ticketed visitor event, "Grape Days of Summer," in August. A "Holiday in the Hills" open house will be held in December.

Jocelyn Maddux, whose family owns and operates 1,000-case Lone Buffalo Vineyards, which opened in 2007, provides marketing for PCVA and for PlacerGROWN. She said another new winery and tasting room, Wise Villa Winery, will open near Lincoln early in 2011. Maddux believes the winery ordinance will help stimulate new winery development and allow more tasting rooms to open. Maddux said, "We haven't heard of any complaints since the ordinance passed, and now the county is looking at revising it in relation to events, and looking at ways to encourage events and tourism for all ag operations." 

Partners share similar goals
Mann is a real estate appraiser who saw area property values drop during the recession after she purchased her vineyard property. At one point, she was ready to abandon her dream of starting a winery. As a result of her involvement with the PCWGA, where she met and became friends with winemakers Michael Duarte, David Brockman, and Joe Ciotti, her Villa Fiorente partners, she was encouraged to continue. Mann said, "I was considering selling the property and giving up. Then the economy started to come back a little, and the other wineries came in to share space, so now I feel that we've turned it around."

The four wineries were at similar places in their development as commercial operations, with most still marketing their first releases. When they decided to become tasting room partners earlier this year, it took less than six months to clear hurdles and have a soft opening in August. An official grand opening will be held in November. The goal of each winery is to sell direct to consumers to maximize profits, and provide an enjoyable setting for visitors to enjoy a glass or bottle with a picnic. Their wines range from $16 to $24 per bottle. Villa Fiorente is only open weekends. All four winemakers work regular day jobs during the week.

Fortezza's consulting winemaker is Heather Nenow (a past chair of Family Winemakers of California) who helps guide overall winemaking. Mann and her cellar crew do the labor, and Mann makes the final decisions on blends for bottling. She says the winery's annual production will ultimately be about 2,000 cases/year. Mann hopes to make the winery her full-time job within the next two years.

Popie Wines by Duarte Family Vineyards are produced by winemaker/owner Michael Duarte, a fourth-generation farmer who planted a 2-acre Barbera vineyard in 2002 in nearby Loomis. The name "Popie" honors Michael's father, Richard Duarte, a long-time grower and vineyard manager in Napa Valley who owned Vineyards Incorporated. He managed upwards of 850 acres during the 1970s, producing grapes for wineries such as Heitz Cellars and Freemark Abbey.

Richard and Michael Duarte are not related to the owners of Duarte Nursery, a major grapevine nursery near Modesto, but did purchase vines from Duarte Nursery to plant the vineyard. In addition to Barbera, other Popie releases include a Placer County Zinfandel and a Syrah, and a Charbono from Napa Valley. Michael anticipates 2010 vintage production of 500 cases, and future production topping out at 1,000 cases per year.

Discussing the Villa Fiorente partnership, Duarte said, "We're all very small producers, and this works out well for all of us. We're separate businesses, but we help each other out, and we all like each others' wines."

Joe Ciotti of Ciotti Cellars says his Italian family has made wine for generations, but he is the first commercial winemaker. His first release is a 2008 Placer County Zinfandel produced at his facility in Rocklin. Citing his reasons for joining Villa Fiorente, Ciotti said, "This gives us the opportunity to have a public tasting room, and I want to be able to talk with people about our wines and sell to them face to face."

Ciotti also produces a Placer County Syrah with purchased grapes, and a Sierra Foothills Merlot. Future releases will include an estate Cabernet Sauvignon, from Ciotti's 1-acre vineyard, a Barbera from Duarte's vineyard and a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Malbec from Napa Valley. Ciotti plans to make 750 cases of the 2010 vintage, with an ultimate production goal of 1,500 cases per year. "We want to be big enough that we don't run out of wine too fast, but stay small enough to still be able to do the work ourselves," Ciotti said. 

The other Villa Fiorente partner, Cristaldi Vineyards, planted a 5-acre vineyard in Loomis in 2003. Current estate-grown releases include a Sangiovese, a Dolcetto and a Syrah. Other planted varieties include Nebbiolo, Aglianco, and Montepulciano. Winemaker David Brockman also produces a Lodi Albariño to offer a white wine, but in the future will focus on estate grown Italian, Spanish and Rhône red varietals and blends. Cristaldi also produces and sells estate olive oils. 

2010 harvest complete for most
Placer County growers experienced a delayed growing season in 2010, as did most of Northern California, but harvest was pretty much completed in the county before the end of October. Maddux said, "Our harvest was about two to three weeks late, and yields were down a bit, but people are happy with the grape quality." More than 4 inches of rain fell in the Auburn area the weekend of Oct. 23-24, which delayed harvest of Fortezza's remaining Sangiovese and Petit Verdot. Mann planned to pick the fruit this week, before the next rain.

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