Winemakers share struggles, triumphs on annual ag tour
The focus was on wine Friday as the Placer County Agricultural Tour visited three Auburn-area vineyards to teach community decision-makers about the industry and its future in Placer County.
Joshua Huntsinger, county agricultural commissioner, said the tour has explored a wide range of topics in its more than 20 years of existence, including youth ag education and last year’s tour of the rice industry in the western part of the county. This year, hosts Placer County and the Placer County Resource Conservation District saw wine as a clear choice.
“Just like a lot of our agriculture in the county, especially up here in the foothills, it’s a shadow of its former past from the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, where we had just tens of thousands of acres of orchards and vineyards,” Huntsinger said. “But as folks are reconnecting with local agriculture and really becoming more interested in where their food is coming from, a lot of our direct-marketed local agriculture is really growing up here in the foothills, and the wineries are no exception.”
Fortezza Winery was the first stop on the tour, where owner Lisa Mann showed visitors her winery and the equipment used to get the grapes from the vine and into the bottle. It’s a beautiful time to visit the vineyard, she said, because right now the plants are just starting to canopy and the grapes have already bloomed out.
Representatives from area city councils, planning commissions and local and state elected officials take the tour, according to Mark White, resource management planner for the conservation district. The intent of the tour, he said, is to educate officials about the process so that, “when they go through their normal workday decision-making process, they have a better understanding of issues related to ag.”
One of those issues is recognizing the presence and importance of the wineries here, Mann said. Too often the foothills are bypassed for the heavily marketed Napa wineries, but there’s a treasure trove of quality wine to be found here, she said. Oenophiles can have their choice of zinfandels, barberas, sangioveses and more that rival many high-producing commercial wineries.
“I would hope for more advertising and more awareness that we’re here and that we used to grow a lot of grapes in this area before Prohibition,” she said. “This is a wonderful climate and we have everything to grow our types of grapes.”
Mann’s tasting room has been open for two years, and she said it’s a constant challenge to let people know that she – and 17 other wineries – are here. Even though she buys as much advertising as she can, there’s still work to be done, she said.
“If people knew we were here and didn’t come, that’s one thing,” she said. “But I have people every weekend who say, ‘I didn’t know you were here.’”
That’s a sentiment echoed by Teena Wilkins of Vina Castellano, who hosted the last stop on the tour, following visits to Fortezza and Fawnridge Winery. She said she has seen places like Paso Robles and Lodi flourish as wine destinations, while Placer, which has arguably equal or better wine, struggles to be found.
“We’ve got to get the word out, and we need help,” Wilkins said. “We need our local people to be carrying the word with us.”
It’s expensive to make wine, she said. When her family started the winery 12 years ago, it cost $13,000 an acre. In addition to estate wine, she makes wine for up to five other wineries at a time, mostly in the Napa Valley. Another boon has been that Vina Castellano wine is now sold at Costco, although that is beneficial in terms of marketing and promotion, she said, not money.
“For us to stay in business, and for us to be a sustainable and a legitimate business, 80 percent of the wine needs to be sold from the tasting room below,” Wilkins said.
And while the rule of thumb in developed wine regions is that it takes 10 years to break even, she added, in regions like Placer County it takes longer. For her vineyard to hit that point, she estimated, it could take another five years.
Janet Voris of Placer Land Trust took the tour, despite the fact that she’s not a wine drinker. She said learning about the growing and winemaking process was interesting, and was surprised to learn “that the winemakers are not making a lot of money, like some people might think they are, and that it’s a very difficult business to be in.”
But that doesn’t change the fact that this is an emerging region for high-quality wines of many varieties. Huntsinger said he hears almost weekly about new people who are interested in starting a vineyard or winery, because they recognize that Placer has great soil and climate for winegrape-growing. The wine industry is also appealing to vintners and tasters alike, he said, because it’s generally small-scale, with personal touches not found in corporate wineries.
“It’s not like Napa, where you’re talking to some $12-an-hour college student,” he said. “You’re talking to the person who actually grew the grapes, made the wine.”
Want to learn more about Placer County wines? Visit www.placerwine.com.