Karina Blackburn

At Wise Villa Winery, the compact barrel room holds 150 barrels.

Can't get there from here? Contrary to general wisdom, Wise Villa coaxes a fine cabernet from the foothills

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 3D

Grover Lee relishes a challenge. Tell him something is unlikely if not impossible, and he'll set out to prove that he can do it.

In growing grapes and making wine in the Sierra foothills, for example, one of the more enduring shibboleths is that cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, pinot noir and merlot can't thrive in the region's arid soils and searing temperatures.

Guess what Lee planted when he began to put down vines just outside of Lincoln in western Placer County in 2006?

Indeed, cabernet sauvignon constitutes the single biggest block of vines in his 14-acre vineyard, accounting for 4 1/2 acres. He also has 2 acres of pinot noir, 2 acres of merlot and a small patch of chardonnay. His seven other varieties are more in line with the viticultural orthodoxy of the Mother Lode: zinfandel, tempranillo, sangiovese and other varieties accustomed to lots of sunshine and heat.

"I like to do things sort of differently," said Lee, a clinical pharmacist, an associate professor at the University of the Pacific School of Pharmacy in Stockton, and founder of American Health Care of Rocklin, a multifaceted company involved in wellness management for member clients.

Earlier this year, he opened his own foothill winery, Wise Villa Winery. He began to plot its development nearly two decades ago when he started to scout for potential vineyard sites.

"We must have looked at 100 different properties," he recalled.

The one he chose was fittingly challenging. It's a former kiwi farm west of Auburn and just northeast of Lincoln. His first task was to bring in earth- moving equipment to remove the orchard, stands of wild blackberries and patches of poison oak. He then had to terrace the steep slopes for vines and carve out pads for the winery.

Today, he and his assistant winemaker, Sacramento native Kevin Luther, a 2007 graduate of the department of viticulture and enology at University of California, Davis, oversee production of 3,000 cases of wine a year. Nearly all their wines are made with grapes from vines that Lee planted.

The lineup includes an unusually assertive torrontes marketed under the proprietary name Nocturnal Light, a sweetly refreshing rosé of pinot noir, an unusually accessible blend of Bordeaux varieties called Wisdom of Wise, and a fresh and vibrant zinfandel.

As if one chardonnay from the foothills wasn't challenging enough, Lee makes three, all from the 2010 vintage.

One was inspired by his travels in Europe, where his two children attend medical school. It speaks with a French accent, but it isn't thick, thanks to a light hand with the barrel fermentation and the stirring of lees, which gives it complexity but leaves its body lean, its flavor citric and its acidity snappy.

Another of his chardonnays is classically Californian, top-heavy with the vanilla and caramel of oak. The third includes 15 percent muscat canelli, making it decidedly more floral and sweeter than the other two.

"I just wanted to do it, so I did it," says Lee in explaining his rationale for adding so much muscat canelli to chardonnay. It didn't hurt that when he first tried the blend the year before, the wine sold out in two months.

In the tasting room, Lee and Luther enjoy seeing how visitors react to the three chardonnays.

"It's educational," says Luther. "They show how winemaking changes the expression of the vineyard. All express the grapes, but each has a different accentuation."

As to cabernet sauvignon, the two play it more conservatively. One is enough – the Wise Villa Winery 2009 Sierra Foothills Cabernet Sauvignon. It isn't a blockbuster cabernet sauvignon, but that is its charm. While neither dense in color nor rigid with tannin, it's generous in the amplitude of its cherry fruit, which is bright and balanced.

Complexity is assured by notes of forest duff and green olive. It would be considered a stylish cabernet sauvignon from anywhere in the state, but exceptional for the foothills, which could explain why it got best-of-class for the region at this summer's California State Fair commercial wine competition.

Wise Villa Winery

2009 Sierra Foothills Cabernet Sauvignon

By the numbers: 13.5 percent alcohol, 650 cases, $33

Context: Given its dryness, lilting fruit and restrained tannins, this is a cabernet to pour with the mellower stews of fall and cuts of beef.

Availability: While the wine is available at several restaurants in the Sacramento area – Latitudes in Auburn, Source in Granite Bay, Scott's Seafood in Folsom, among others – it now is sold otherwise only at the winery or through the winery's website, www.wisevillawinery.com.

Information: The tasting room at Wise Villa Winery, 4100 Wise Road, Lincoln, is open 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and noon-4 p.m. Sundays.

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