At the California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition, judges assessed more than 2,000 wines made from grapes grown in our fair state. Here’s a list of winners from Sacramento-area appellations. Plus, meet four of the winning winemakers and discover the competition’s Winery of the Year.
The Scores: Judges work semiblind, knowing a wine’s varietal and often its vintage date, but not the winery, appellation or suggested price.
96–100 Double Gold / 94–95 Gold / 88–93 Silver / 86–87 Bronze / Less than 86: No award
The list of winners is presented by appellation, which indicates where the grapes were grown. In many cases, the wineries also lie within these appellations, but not always.
Mike Heringer, Heringer Estates
Clarksburg is prime real estate for viticulture in California. So when it comes to knowing the land, Mike Heringer is the man to speak to. Heringer was born and raised in the area, and his family has farmed the land for six generations, dating back to when his ancestors emigrated from the Netherlands in 1868. After seeing its estate shrink from 6,000 acres to 120 in the ’80s and ’90s, the family took a chance and grew grapes.
Wine grapes have been one of the few crops that we’ve been able to sustain with only 100 acres. Wine is very social, and people want to hear about the process. They want to know that evolution from the vine to the bottle. Since we make our wine from our own grapes, we have a lot of pride in what we’re doing.
What exactly do you do as a winemaker?
[Heringer Estates has] total control over our viticulture. We have our vineyard, so we don’t have to wait for grapes to come in like others. It allows us to have quality control and grow the highest possible quality grapes that we can. Second part starts when I receive the grapes. Then it’s fermentation. Then they go into barrels where they are stored. From there it’s a maintenance process.
What is your all-time favorite wine?
Our first vintage: a 2002 petite sirah. The production of that was so memorable. My wife and I served it at our wedding, so it has sentimental value there, but everybody who had some loved it. It was so rich that everyone who had some of it walked away with black lips.
What is your favorite wine to drink?
My favorite wine to drink is the one in my glass. I love heavy reds, but I usually cater my drinking toward who I’m with and what I’m eating. The mood and the setting are really important in the wine choice.
How much wine do you drink?
My wife would say too much, but I’d say it varies. During harvest, from August to November, I’m not casually drinking wine. At the end of the day, I’m going home and passing out. They say in the industry that it takes a great beer to make a great wine.
Marco Cappelli, Nello Olivo
Although Marco Cappelli was raised by two Italian-born parents, he wasn’t born with an affinity for wine. In 1984, Cappelli’s freshman year at UC Davis, he and his roommate began to make wine in their dorm—and he fell in love with the process. Since then, Cappelli has left his mark in California wine culture, working with more than 13 brands and more than 150 wines.
What do you do as a winemaker?
The actual winemaking is a small part of what I do now. I spend a lot of time managing logistics. On the winemaking side, the busiest time of year is at harvest. That’s the most important time of year for quality of wine. I make sure the fruit is well managed, know when to pick the fruit, and I work with the guys for fermentation.
What wine are you most proud of making?
My wine. It’s an angelica that I make from Mission grapes and fortify by adding brandy. Angelica wine was a staple in California viticulture in the 1800s. It’s a very complex and fine wine that I’ve been making since 2005—a project I plan to pass on to my kids if they want to be in the business when they get older.
What is your all-time favorite wine?
When I lived in France—in Bordeaux—there was an Italian quarter there that I used to visit. There was a dry sherry there, but I’m not sure who the producer was. It’s my favorite right now because of my memories of that time [in France].
What wine would you recommend for those who don’t have the palate for it?
Any muscat wine. They have a fruit character that is almost impossible not to like. There’s a sweetness to muscats that takes away from the acidity that some people don’t like about wine.
How much wine do you drink?
I typically have wine in my mouth throughout the day because I have to taste it, but I really only have a glass or two a day. My wife loves a glass of wine at night, so we pop open a bottle when we finish up the day. It’s almost like a loaf of bread or any other dinner staple—it just doesn’t feel right without it.
Winery of the Year: Wise Villa Winery
When Grover Lee, owner and co-winemaker of Wise Villa Winery in Lincoln, was told the prestigious California State Fair wine competition ranked his winery one of the top five in the state, he says he was elated.
When he heard that Wise Villa was named the No. 1 winery in California, he says he felt as if his feet weren’t touching the ground.
Attention to the plants that come out of the ground is what earned the winery, based in Placer County and just a 30-minute drive from Sacramento, the highly coveted California State Fair Winery of the Year award, allowing it to soundly beat the wineries of Napa Valley in the double-blind competition.
Wise Villa’s meteoric rise to the top began about six years ago, says Lee, when he purchased the land near Lincoln that would one day be home to a sprawling vineyard, tasting room and bistro. Before, it was just an abandoned farm covered in wire, cars and trucks.
“The place sparkled, it had so much wire in there,” Lee says. “It looked horrible.”
But Lee, who holds a doctorate in clinical pharmacy, transformed the property into a picturesque, soon-to-be-certified organic vineyard that he and his staff painstakingly tend using highly advanced procedures.
The selection of a property in the foothills was all part of the plan to make the best wine possible. Thanks to the region’s elevation, it enjoys cool summers and warm winters—perfect weather for growing grapes, Lee says.
The terrain and soil at Wise Villa are also conducive to growing. “The hills do wonderful things for the wine grapes. It’s absolutely perfect,” he says.
After the grapes are hand-picked (the vines are also hand-manicured, without pesticides or herbicides), the normal process of hot fermentation is eschewed for a longer process that uses colder temperatures to retain the fruit flavors, which makes the wine more palatable with dinner, a factor that Lee says he weighs very heavily.
Attention to detail, a scientific approach and an amenable landscape have worked to craft what Lee strives for: balanced, perfect wine.
“Nothing we do is quick, easy or inexpensive. Everything we do takes more time, more refrigeration and more manpower,” Lee says.
And the starting point—the perfect land—is what Lee credits for the incredible win over Napa Valley, the Goliaths of California wine.
“I absolutely found a treasure,” he says.
Chad Joseph, Joseph Wine Works
Despite growing up around grapes, highly sought-after consultant winemaker Chad Joseph didn’t develop a passion for wine until college. The award-winning vintner had planned on becoming a teacher, but after a few winetasting trips to Sonoma, he was sold—a very fortunate turn of events for the region’s wine lovers. Through his company, Joseph Wine Works, Joseph oversees the winemaking operations at six of the region’s best and brightest wineries, including Harney Lane, Oak Farm Vineyards and Dancing Coyote.
Tell me a little about your background.
I’m a botany/chemistry major from Humboldt State, and I worked at Gallo out of college to learn winemaking. I went to Davis for extension courses. I come from the Central Valley, born and raised in Visalia. When I got out of college, I came back to the Central Valley. I moved from Modesto to Lodi because Lodi is such a great area for grapes.
Do you have an agricultural background?
My grandfather had table grapes. My other grandfather had walnuts. I did summer work packing grapes and disking and stuff like that when I was in high school.
Do people have misconceptions about the winemaker lifestyle?
People are shocked to learn how much physical labor is involved and that it’s not sitting around eating cheese and crackers, talking about wine. A lot of it is getting your hands dirty and getting one with nature.
How much wine do you drink?
I probably drink on average a bottle a day.
What’s your favorite wine that you’ve made?
Albarino. I make that for several clients. Harney Lane is one of them; Oak Farm Vineyards is another.
What’s your winemaking philosophy?
Minimalistic intervention. Doing as little as possible to use pesticides or do things out in the vineyards that aren’t natural. Strive to get balance in the natural processes. And then in the winery, try to have grapes that are perfect from the vineyard that we don’t have to add a bunch of chemicals or anything to correct deficiencies, and don’t add any yeast. Let the terroir and the vineyard speak.
What’s your biggest challenge as a winemaker?
Just dealing with nature and the year-to-year variants that Mother Nature brings. Learning that there’s only so much you can control, and sometimes the vintage is going to be what the vintage is going to be.
How do you measure success in what you do?
Sold out. That’s the greatest award I can get: when a client says, “Hey, that wine was so good, we’re sold out of it a lot faster than we anticipated.”
Scott Helwig, Helwig Winery
Working for your parents can be tough, but it’s a dynamic that works for Scott Helwig, winemaker at Helwig Winery. After moving from the bustling city of Chicago to the sleepy town of Plymouth to help his father realize his dream of owning a winery, the 35-year-old vintner found his passion for wine and, with the help of some natural talent, worked his way from “cellar rat” to award-winning winemaker.
What’s it like to work for your parents?
They’re supportive. The pops is very business savvy, and my mom is very much involved, especially on the tasting room side of things. But it’s really easy to get their approval, because as long as I get the “yummy,” then the wine is good to go.
What is a typical workweek like for you?
If you ask me in July, you’re going to get a very different answer than a question you ask me in September. Right now, we’re out in the vineyard a lot because we’re getting to that crucial time where we start doing some fruit thinnings, some trials. It’s very season and time specific. We’re tasting wines, putting the boot prints out in the vineyard and checking on the grapes.
What misconceptions do people have about winemakers?
That I sit on my veranda in my white linen suit enjoying wine with the sunset in the background. Or that I’m just a drunkard and I do this for the free buzz. (Laughs)
What do you look for in a wine?
Great wine starts out in the vineyard. My goal is to craft expressive wines that reflect the grape and the place they come from, which is the vineyards and here in the Sierra foothills and Amador County—the California Shenandoah Valley AVA (American Viticultural Area).
How much wine do you drink?
Do you want the real answer? My wife and I, my guess is probably a couple bottles an hour. (Laughs) Honestly, about a bottle a night. We split a bottle a night. We don’t always just drink our wine, because we don’t want to develop a cellar palate, which is where everything eventually just starts tasting the same, or you have an expectation of what white wine is, but you’re basing it off your own. So we always make sure that we’re trying the wines from our region, trying other wines, maybe a different varietal from a different AVA, just to stylistically see what their interpretation of that grape is.
Favorite wine you’ve made?
The first thing that popped into my head was the inaugural vintage: the 2009 Cooper Ranch Barbera. It was just really good. Everything was perfectly aligned: The fruit, the structure, the wood was well integrated.
If you weren’t making wine, what would you be doing?
I would probably be a fly-fishing guide. The problem with fly-fishing, though, is that when the fishing is the best is usually when we’re in harvest.