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Heard it Through the Grapevine


Posted on March 20, 2017

Drive a half hour from Sacramento and discover a burgeoning wine community in the Placer County foothills.

Photography by Tim Engle

Many people don’t know there’s a wine trail in Placer County. That might make it one of the region’s best-kept secrets.

The Placer County Wine Trail doesn’t look like an actual trail, but there are handy signs posted along the way and a map on the placerwine.com website to keep you oriented. It’s best to use GPS as well since there’s lots of pretty and pastoral real estate to cover. Start by heading east on Interstate 80—the wineries and tasting rooms are loosely grouped into two areas called the Loomis Loop and Wise Wineries—and include stops in and around Granite Bay, Rocklin, Roseville and Loomis, along with Auburn, Newcastle and Lincoln.

Traffic on the trail has steadily increased every year and word is getting out because the wines keep getting better. No two wineries or winemakers are alike, but they share proximity, a down-to-earth attitude and a passion for making good wine. Prices are reasonable compared to other winemaking regions. (Ahem. Napa. Sonoma.) The winemaker/owner will likely be the one pouring your wine and patiently answering questions. Many of the wineries routinely rack up top awards.

While the Placer County Wine Trail is relatively young (it was formed in 2010), the county was a grape-growing mecca before Prohibition ended in 1933. “The region produced more grapes than Napa and Sonoma combined,” explains Don DuPont, owner and winemaker at Rock Hill Winery in Loomis, one of the roughly 20 wineries and tasting rooms that dot the Placer County Wine Trail map.

The grapes that grow well in the Sierra foothills are similar to the ones grown in other climates with long, hot summers, like France’s Rhône Valley and the Tuscany region in Italy. You’ll discover a variety of wines on the wine trail, something for every palate, including viognier, zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon and syrah. Placer County wines are often only available from the wineries and local restaurants and wine shops, rather than retail chain stores.

It’s not possible to traverse the entire trail in a single day if you plan to stop. And you should stop, taste and linger. Bring a picnic or plan a weekend stay. You’ll have to decide whether to tell your friends about the Placer County Wine Trail or keep it to yourself.

Here’s a taste of what you can expect

Bonitata Boutique Wine, Auburn
​Bonitata is located in the last standing original winery building in Placer County, the Bernhard Museum building, constructed in 1874, according to owner and winemaker Mark Bonitata. It’s a quirky yet historically fitting place to make wine. The building—with 2-foot-thick stone walls—stays cool during the summer; it can be a little chilly and damp in the spring and winter. You get to see everything because the tasting room and production facilities are contained in one big room.

A former commercial real estate broker, Mark Bonitata started making wine at home and growing grapes in his backyard 16 years ago. Most of the time, he’s the one doing the pouring, but his girlfriend, Jen Chen, helps out on the weekends.

He purchases grapes from several nearby counties, including El Dorado and Nevada counties, but he makes a spicy estate-grown zinfandel. He usually has a few white wines on hand, lots of reds and sweet wines, like a barrel-aged moscato, and late-harvest ports, and he produces a modest 500 cases per year.

Prices range from $10 to $29 per bottle. Tasting is $4 per person (waived with purchase). Tasting room hours: Wednesday–Sunday, 1–6 p.m. 291 Auburn-Folsom Road, Auburn; (530) 305-0449; bonitataboutiquewine.com

Look for: Silhouette, Bonitata’s best-selling wine, a barbera and charbono grape blend.

Kevin Stevenson of Casque Wines
Kevin Stevenson of Casque Wines

Casque Wines, Loomis
Founded in 2006, Casque opened the door to its light-filled tasting room four years ago at The Flower Farm on Horseshoe Bar Road. There’s a cute cafe close by where you can order sandwiches, salads, pastries and other items to go with your wine. Buy a bottle and sip and sup at the tables outside, next to a pond and nursery, or enjoy a tasting at the bar while admiring the curated art show.

Owner and winemaker Kevin Stevenson (he’s also the outgoing president of the Placer County Vintners Association) and his tasting crew offer eight or nine wines at a time, with generous pours—everything from a Damiano viognier to a Sergent port. Casque primarily sources grapes from half a dozen vineyards in the Sierra foothills, and it works closely with the growers. “The grapes themselves determine the wine,” Stevenson says.

When Stevenson and his wife, Ann, first moved to the area, he planned to spend lots of time in his home recording studio, but the region’s vineyards caught his attention. He learned the grape-growing side of the business as a manager and made wine at home before he got serious. In 2013, he brought in Tim Weyrich to share the winemaking duties. “He’s young and very passionate,” Stevenson says. “We have a similar palate.”

Like most Placer County wineries, Casque has won its share of medals. Last year, a 2013 cabernet franc picked up silver at the State Fair, and the 2014 Sergent port has won best in class and double gold in the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. “We have some really strong wines up here. We compete with the big boys,” Stevenson says.

Prices range from $18 to $40 per bottle. Tasting costs $5 per person (waived with purchase). Tasting room hours: Thursday–Sunday, 11 a.m.–5 p.m. 9280 Horseshoe Bar Road, Loomis; (916) 652-2250; casquewines.com

Look for: Casque’s peppery cabernet sauvignon made from grapes grown in Napa Valley.

Ciotti Cellars, Lincoln
​Benvenuti, amici (welcome, friends) is the philosophy behind owner and winemaker Giuseppe “Joe” Ciotti’s newly built tasting room and winery. In addition to meeting Ciotti, you might find his wife, Wendy, pouring wines, their daughter, Miranda, helping out (when she is on semester breaks), and the family dog, Siena, greeting customers. The Ciotti home is just a stone’s throw from the winery.

“We make a big, bold, rich red,” says Ciotti. He calls them “super Tuscan blends.” His winemaking style is simple: “Make the wines you enjoy.” The grapes that go into his wines come from Placer County vineyards.

Ciotti works as a negotiator for an international trade union when he’s not wearing his winemaking hat. He’s been officially making wine for about 15 years and started Ciotti Cellars in 2006, but he comes from a winemaking family. One of the wines is called Stowaway in honor of his grandfather, who hid in a wine barrel onboard a ship to emigrate to the United States from Italy.

Prices range from $24 to $48. Tasting is free. Tasting room hours: Friday–Sunday, noon–5 p.m. 3285 Crosby Herold Road, Lincoln; (916) 534-8780; ciotticellars.com

Look for: Ciotti’s velvety-smooth cabernet franc, which has a “eucalyptus nose,” and a painting depicting Grandfather peeking out of his barrel.

Lone Buffalo Vineyards
Lone Buffalo Vineyards' winemaker Phil Maddux with wife, Jill, and daughter, Jocelyn

Lone Buffalo Vineyards, Auburn
After graduating from law school, Phil Maddux moved back home to Sonoma County in the 1970s to practice law, but his taste for enology grew. He was an amateur winemaker for years before his first official efforts in 2007 yielded 100 cases; everything sold out in four months. Today, Maddux’s Lone Buffalo Vineyards produces 2,000 cases a year from foothill-grown fruit, and it’s located on 12 acres of historic farmland in North Auburn.

Like a lot of the wineries in Placer County, Lone Buffalo is a family-run business. Maddux’s wife, Jill, handles marketing and sales. His daughter, Jocelyn, shares the marketing duties and manages public relations; she also makes a series of wines offered under the jbrand label. Maddux continues to work as an attorney for a small firm in Auburn, in addition to fulfilling his winemaking duties. When he’s not dealing with legal briefs, he’s making and pouring wine on the weekends. “I often get roped into the tasting room,” he says.

If you ask, Maddux will tell you the story behind Lone Buffalo’s name. Be prepared. It’s a long, meandering tale that involves comparisons between the once-endangered American buffalo and the resurgence of winemaking in the region. “We’re doing our best to bring back winemaking and grape growing in Placer County,” he says.

Prices range from $24 to $32. Tasting costs $5 per person (waived with purchase). Tasting room hours: Friday–Sunday, noon–5 p.m. 7505 Wise Road, Auburn; (530) 823-1159; lonebuffalovineyards.com

Look for: Lone Buffalo’s flagship wine, Where the Buffalo Roam, a Rhône-style blend made from syrah, mourvedre, grenache and petite sirah.

Mt. Vernon Winery, Auburn
“It never gets old when people tell you that they like your wine,” says Ryan Taylor, the 37-year-old winemaker at Mt. Vernon Winery. A former college basketball player (he played center), Ryan started doing hard labor in the vineyards right after he graduated from high school; he estimates he planted 3,000 vines in a short amount of time. He learned to make wine from his dad, founder Jim Taylor, and eventually assumed most of the winemaking duties at the winery.

Ryan recalls picking up “10 tons of grapes with a pitchfork” during harvest. Mt. Vernon was one of the first successful comeback wineries in Placer County, back when there was only a handful of wineries, before there was a wine trail. The tasting room opened on July 4, 2002.

This family-owned winery still believes in making small lots of wine, and Mt. Vernon produces about 5,000 total cases every year. The fruit primarily comes from vineyards in the foothills, but the Taylors also buy grapes from Lake County.

Prices range from $24 to $45. Tasting costs $9 per person (waived with purchase). Tasting room hours: Thursday–Sunday, 11 a.m.–5 p.m. 10850 Mt. Vernon Road, Auburn; (530) 823-1111; mtvernonwinery.com

Look for: Ryan himself. He’s 6 feet 7 inches tall, so he’s hard to miss. This year, he’s excited about a late-harvest viognier with pineapple, coconut and honeysuckle notes, and an estate-grown red blend that he calls “one-big show. It’s big, juicy and fruity with a nice acidity.”

Ryan Taylor of Mt. Vernon Winery
Ryan Taylor of Mt. Vernon Winery

PaZa Estate Winery, Auburn
PaZa’s tasting room is unique on the trail. It’s a little tricky to find, but you’ll be happy you made the effort. Once there, sample owner and winemaker Zane (he’s the “Za” in PaZa) Dobson’s Scrappy Red, described as “kind of bold and a little rowdy,” and other mainly estate-grown offerings. The open-to-the-elements tasting room overlooks picture-perfect vineyards—complete with a panorama of the surrounding foothills, mountains and buttes.

There are heaters to huddle around when the temperature drops. If the weather’s warm, lounge in one of the comfy chairs, contemplating the good life. It’s a little like visiting Italy without the expensive plane ticket.

Zane and his wife, Pamela (the “Pa” in PaZa), usually preside over the tastings, which could include a few of the couple’s friends who stop by to chat and sample. Some have a personal interest in the product, as they helped the Dobsons plant the first vines in 2007 and often work during harvest. PaZa produces about 400 to 500 cases a year.

During the week, Zane, who hails from Oklahoma, works as a principal engineering technician for the Sacramento Area Sewer District. He’d like to be working full time at the winery within 10 years, but for now he’s happy pursuing his winemaking passion on the side.

Prices range from $19 to $27. Tasting costs $3 per person (waived with purchase). Tasting room hours: Saturday–Sunday, noon–5 p.m. (call ahead during inclement weather). 3357 Ayres Holmes Road, Auburn; (916) 834-0565; pazawines.com

Look for: The 2016 Albarino, a white wine, and the 2016 Petite Sirah Rosé. Be sure to try PaZa’s zesty zinfandels.

Rock Hill Winery, Loomis
Originally from Sonoma County, Don DuPont grew up around wine. He moved to the Loomis region to grow grapes in 2009, after a successful career as a general contractor.

About five years ago, he purchased the land that would become Rock Hill Winery. He’s the third owner of the property since the 1800s; it still has the palm trees that were planted in 1872, according to DuPont. Now it has thousands of Sonoma County rootstock vines to go with those palms.

“I started making wine in 1969. The summer they walked on the moon,” DuPont says. But his first winemaking venture was a disaster. He hid his secretly made wine in bottles under the stairs in the house. When they blew up, “the whole house smelled like wine,” he recalls. Last year, he made about 1,500 cases, without any disasters. More than half the grapes were estate grown.

Today, the 64-year-old DuPont works with his wife, Judy, and daughter Amy to offer guests weekly food-wine pairings and winery tours. “We’re a working winery that emphasizes food with wine,” he says.

Prices range from $18 to $26. Tasting costs $7 per person (waived with purchase). Tasting room hours: Friday–Sunday, noon–5 p.m. 2970 Del Mar Ave., Loomis; (916) 410-7105; rockhillwine.com

Look for: The 2017 concert series. For $10 you can listen to blues, jazz, rock ’n’ roll, and country music in the amphitheater behind the winery.

Wise Villa Winery, Lincoln
“One of the things that sets Placer County apart is that we’re much more down to earth,” Kevin Luther says. He’s the young winemaker and vineyard manager at Wise Villa on Wise Road in Lincoln, arguably the largest winery on the wine trail. People often confuse Placer County with Placerville, according to Luther, and he likes to educate newcomers about the region and its wine. “We want them to feel that this is their affordable luxury,” he says.

The vineyards were planted by hand about 15 years ago by owner and winemaker Dr. Grover Lee, and the winery launched in 2011, producing about 1,000 cases. Currently, Wise Villa churns out 10,000 cases per year.

Luther’s always had a love for flavors and making things, but he started off studying wildlife and conservation biology in college. He switched to viticulture and enology and graduated from UC Davis. “I was the weird kid who loved smells. I became a winemaker,” he says. Luther has a rapid-fire delivery that conveys his passion.

This busy Tuscan-style winery was named Golden State Winery of the Year in 2015, beating out other commercial wineries in California at the State Fair. Last May, the Discovery Channel filmed a segment for “How It’s Made” at Wise Villa, which featured a new wine-beer hybrid called “vinobrew.” Luther describes it as a fruity beer that is more ciderlike. The winery currently offers about five or six different vinobrews in collaboration with its neighbor GoatHouse Brewing Co.

Prices range from $29 to $40. Tasting costs $7 per person. Tasting room hours: Wednesday–Thursday, 3–6 p.m.; Friday 11 a.m.–5 p.m.; Saturday–Sunday, 11 a.m.–5 p.m. 4200 Wise Road, Lincoln; (916) 543-0323; wisevillawinery.com

Look for: The winery’s on-site bistro, which offers gourmet food and wine pairings.

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