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Community Portrait: Auburn soil nurtures family wine-making legacy

By: Michael Kirby
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Editor’s note: This is the one of a series of community portraits published in this space Fridays. Wine has been a part of Teena Wilkins’ life for as long as she can remember. Though she is involved with a commercial winery for the first time, wine has been a cultural part of her family’s life as her grandfather and grandmother made homemade wine for years. Wine was always served at her family dinner table and she remembers drinking wine with dinner growing up. “My grandparents were born and raised in Spain, and when they immigrated to this country in the late 1920s they made wine here,” Wilkins said. “Wine was something we had with lunch and dinner and our family grew up with this love of wine.” Wilkins and her parents, Gabe and Carolyn Mendez, are partners in Viña Castellano, a family winery off Bell Road in North Auburn on a 60-acre parcel. When the Mendezes moved to Auburn from Southern California in 1970, they purchased the parcel with the intention of farming something on it. Wilkins later left Auburn to attend college in Chico and was gone from the area for 11 years. She met Craig, her husband-to-be, while attending college. The couple married and lived in Florida for a while. “The whole thing started when I became pregnant with my first son and we moved back to Auburn, that’s when this thing sparked. I was pregnant and not thinking correctly,” Wilkins said with a laugh. “My dad always wanted to plant olives or wine grapes, so I started classes at UC Davis on wine making, and they have a whole series of courses designed for people that want to do what we call boutique wineries, smaller, family-owned wineries.” Wilkins was very interested in the ability to grow one grape varietal: Tempranillo. It’s considered the noble grape in Spain, and close to 80 percent of the red wine made in Spain has some amount of the Tempranillo grape in it. Viña Castellano Winery was founded. In 1999 the grapes vines were planted on the property and in 2005 the first vintage was released. Based on the advice of an experienced winemaker and a vineyard manager, they hired as consultants. The family was advised to grow a variety of grapes for the production of their wines. “They advised against growing just one varietal. Other grapes suggested were Grenache, Mourvedre, Syrah, which we planted, and by accident we grew some Cabernet Franc,” Wilkins said. “They were instrumental in helping us come to the wine we wanted to produce, the Spanish style.” Wilkins is very passionate about wine, particularly her family’s Spanish-style wine, and while it’s very important that she helps get her winery off the ground, her goal is also to present the Auburn area as a wine region. “I’m really passionate about getting all the wineries in our area on the same page and I see that as my job, to help, to be one of the pioneers working closely with all the wineries to build a wine region,” Wilkins said. Wilkins considers the foothills and the Auburn area to be an excellent region for wine and wine production. Currently there are 11 wineries in the area and two or three in the process of opening. Wilkins also manages The Wine Rack, a co-op tasting room and outlet in the Bowman area offering tasting and wine sales of four local wineries. She routinely guides visitors to all the local wineries in the area, encouraging them to leave the interstate and visit as many of them as they can. “I really want this to be the gateway to the Placer Hills Winery Trail,” Wilkins said. Harvest time around Viña Castellano is hard work that everyone including family and friends get in on. Wilkins is married to husband and partner Craig and the couple have two sons, Chance and Cooper. Their family winery now produces about 2,000 cases a year of a special traditional Spanish-style wine that Wilkins’ grandparents would be proud of.