Among all of the major wine judgings conducted in the United States each year, the California State Fair Wine Competition is considered the most prestigious by a majority of vintners.
And at the 2012 State Fair, the wineries of Placer County had their best showing ever, claiming a total of 37 awards.
The big winner was Wise Villa Winery, which claimed 13 gold medals, six silver medals and four bronze medals. Located in Lincoln, Calif., Wise Villa would be a wise choice around which to build a weekend wine getaway to Placer County, which is situated midway between San Francisco and Lake Tahoe.
The region has a rich wine history—winegrapes were introduced there in 1848, the same year James Marshall discovered gold—but because of its remoteness, it’s only now beginning to reach the radar of wine enthusiasts.
Along with the miners, the California Gold Rush of 1848 attracted European winemakers, who established larger vineyards and started producing ever-increasing quantities and varieties of wine. During the 1860s, winemaking became a thriving industry, and many miners became winemakers, giving Placer County more vineyards and wineries than Sonoma and Napa counties combined.
But when Prohibition rendered alcohol illegal two decades into the 20th century, most of the vineyards were converted to pear, apple and citrus orchards. It wasn’t until the 1970s that new vineyards were established and the land was returned to its winemaking roots.
Today, with 18 wineries and counting, Placer County has re-embraced its heritage as a viable California wine-producing region. The wineries, classified within the “Sierra Foothills” appellation, offer a refreshing change from the more commercialized and less personal wine-tasting experiences of some larger wine regions.
That’s because most Placer wineries are family-owned and operated, have small vineyards, and the winemakers themselves are part of the charm; in many cases, the vintners are the people pouring the wine in the tasting rooms.
As is the case with most world-class winegrowing regions, it’s the climate of Placer County that sets it apart. The Mediterranean-like warm days and cool nights mimic the conditions in France’s Rhone Valley, and many of the wineries have planted Rhone varietals (Syrah, Viognier) with great success.
Some of the estates also have enjoyed success with Spanish varieties (such as Tempranillo) and Italian varieties (such as Barbera). Of course, popular “California” varieties (Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc) also can be found on tasting room wine lists.
Most of the local vintners have joined forces to create and promote the “Placer County Wine Trail,” which zigzags through Loomis, Lincoln, Newcastle and Auburn. The trail is easily accessible from Interstate-80, as well as Highways 65 and 49.
Simply following the trail—a map is available online from the Placer County Vintners Association—is one way of exploring the region. Another is to focus on specific estates, based on your personal varietal and wine style preferences.
Among the newer wineries are River Rock Ranch/Lindemann Winery in Lincoln, which focuses on Barbera, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc; and Rock Hill Winery in Loomis, which was founded in Sonoma County but now calls Placer County home.
And then there’s Wise Villa, which has been producing wines only since the 2009 vintage, but already has made a big impression with its multi-medal showing at the State Fair and its extensive culinary program.
Proprietor and winemaker Grover C. Lee first became interested in winemaking while attending Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. His roommate worked at a local wine shop, would bring home the open bottles at day’s end, and then he and Lee would taste through the wines together.
Over time, Lee’s passion for wine grew, and he began researching wines and winemaking. He started making his own wine in the early 1990s at local winery Cante Ao Vinho, using grapes from a small vineyard he’d planted at his home in Granite Bay, Calif. Around that time, he joined the Sacramento Home Winemakers club, where he gained wisdom from local winemakers.
He also took extension courses in viticulture and enology from UC Davis, expanding his technical knowledge. (This winemaking knowledge was laid upon the foundation of his extensive background in the sciences, including chemistry and biology, obtained during the pursuit of his doctorate in clinical pharmacy.) The agricultural side of things came easily for Lee, since he had grown up around farms.
In 2006, he planted his first vines on the Wise Villa estate. Five years later, he celebrated the opening of his tasting room, which offers not only wine tasting and winery tours, but also gourmet food created by executive chef Chris Barnum.
Sunday is a great day to visit Wise Villa. One can book a tour (the last one begins at 1 p.m.), taste through the current releases, savor Barnum’s gourmet creations, and then, beginning at 2 p.m., soak in the sounds of local musicians during the weekly “Wine Down Sunday” event.
All in all, not a bad way to wrap up a wine-focused weekend in one of California’s under-the-radar wine regions.