Gold Rush prospectors may have had an easier time discovering pay dirt in Nevada County than their winemaking descendants are having finding their identity.
While vintners of Nevada County are part of the Mother Lode, which includes such other gold and wine counties as El Dorado, Amador and Calaveras, they are apart from it. First, they are in the northern stretches of the Sierra Foothills appellation, more difficult to reach and easier to overlook.
Reinforcing that separateness is their gamble on such grape varieties as cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, chardonnay and merlot while other Mother Lode grape growers and winemakers have stuck largely to the variety most closely associated with the region, zinfandel.
Furthermore, there's that matter of "Nevada County." You don't see it often on wine labels, even when the county has been the source of the grapes that yielded the wine. That's because the county's vintners discovered early on that "Nevada County" on a label triggered in the mind of consumers visions of the state of Nevada, not exactly the source of fine wine. Even Nevada County's wine-trade group avoids the name, calling itself "Sierra Vintners."
No Nevada County vintner has put more effort into defining where he is and what he is than Phil Starr. He'd been farming in Monterey County for 20 years when he relocated his family and his cut-flower business to a small parcel just outside Grass Valley in 1995. When snow collapsed the greenhouse he'd just built, he concluded that Nevada County maybe didn't provide the best climate for the fragile kinds of flowers he liked to grow.
He turned his attention to the 5-acre vineyard that was part of the parcel. It had been planted starting in 1979 to cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc and zinfandel.
Starr likes to build things, so he dug a deep trench into a hillside, built a hut of concrete and corrugated steel, then covered it with the excavated soil for a "cave" to store barrels of wine, thereby establishing his winery, Sierra Starr Vineyard.
Over the years, he and his family gradually expanded the vineyard and the business. During the past couple of years he dug out more of the hillside, poured 500 cubic yards of concrete for a whole new 5,000-square-foot winery, covered it with the thick red clay he'd scraped aside, and then scattered the soil with the seeds of wildflowers sturdy enough to withstand Nevada County's wet and frigid winters.
He found no gold with all that digging, but he figures he's saving a bundle with the new structure's energy efficiency.
Wrapped with earth, the building stays more or less at a steady 60 degrees without any kind of refrigeration or heating. The crush pad is on the roof, allowing juice to flow by gravity alone into fermentation tanks.
"We don't have to move those heavy hoses as much," said Starr as he wrapped up the recent harvest.
Today, Starr, his wife, Anne, and their son Jackson tend 12 acres of grapes, oversee the production of about 2,500 cases of wine per year and sell nearly all of it out of their tasting room in the heart of Grass Valley, housed in a stone building that dates to at least 1872. A decade ago the Starrs were the county's first vintners to establish a satellite tasting room downtown, which now has four others representing nine wineries.
With other Nevada County farmers and winemakers, Starr concurs that the area's high altitude and cool climate are splendid for such varieties as cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc, but he's also keen on warmer-climate grapes such as sauvignon blanc and zinfandel.
Indeed, slightly more than half the family's 12 acres is given over to zinfandel. Their stand includes some of the original zinfandel planted in 1979, believed to be the oldest plot of the varietal in the county.
With his own grapes and with fruit bought from other growers, the Starrs produce several styles of zinfandel each harvest. Their current lineup includes the earthy yet readily accessible nonvintage Jack's Blend 5, which while 80 percent zinfandel also includes cabernet franc, petite sirah and viognier, and the classically aromatic, berryish and spicy 2008 "Old Clone" zinfandel, made entirely with estate fruit.
My favorite for its similar juiciness, sunshine and pepper but with more persistence and balance was the Sierra Starr Vineyard 2009 Sierra Foothills Phil's Selection Zinfandel, to be officially released this weekend. The wine showed potential even in its freshly bottled youth when it won a gold medal at the California State Fair commercial wine competition last June.
"All three of us love zinfandel," sais Starr in explaining the family's interest in pursuing the varietal. "We also believe that there is a place for a more elegant, balanced and food-friendly style of zinfandel, as well as the monster zins that seem so popular right now."
Phil's Selection is a blend of 58 percent zinfandel from the family's estate vineyard and 42 percent zinfandel from Amador County, thus the "Sierra Foothills" appellation. He uses "Nevada County" only on wines made entirely from grapes grown in the county.
While Starr is committed more to zinfandel than many of his neighbors, he isn't relying solely on the varietal to establish his winery's following. He seems to get even more excited about the prospects of sauvignon blanc, which over the years he has interpreted in various styles. With his current release, the bracing and peachy 2011 Sierra Foothills Solstice Sauvignon Blanc, he looks to have achieved his goal of realizing an especially refreshing, fruity, herbal and zesty take on the varietal.
"I've become a sauvignon-blanc freak. I love that wine," Starr said. "This site produces really nice grapes, with real good acidity."
Their other wines include the brassy yet elegant 2007 Inertia, a proprietary blend based on cabernet sauvignon, made only in years when the family is especially happy with the quality of their fruit; the luscious nonvintage Five Starr Port, which cries out for a wedge of Stilton cheese and a bowl of walnuts; the smoky, juicy and long 2008 Starr Dust Claret, mostly estate cabernet sauvignon; and the floral, fruity and friendly 2009 Super Nova Petite Sirah.
The Starrs recently acquired an adjoining 10 acres, where they expect to put in an additional 6 or 7 acres of grapes. They're undecided about what to plant.
"Jackson is researching grape varieties that tend to push late (to avoid frost) and ripen earlier. Riesling is one that he thinks might be a good fit for growing temperatures here as well as the beautiful acid retention of our estate," said Phil Starr.
Sierra Starr Vineyard 2009 Sierra Foothills Phil's Selection Zinfandel
By the numbers: 14.5 percent alcohol, 300 cases, $25
Context: Given the wine's jammy fruit and its sturdy backbone, this is a zinfandel ideal for winter stews based on beef or lamb, yet the tannins are so stretched out that it's accessibility also makes it fitting for pizza, red-sauced pastas and even roast chicken generously seasoned.
Availability: Aside from restaurants and stores in the Nevada City-Grass Valley area, Sierra Starr Vineyard wines are sold occasionally at the Roseville and Folsom branches of Costco. Most of the winery's sales, however, are at its Grass Valley tasting room, 124 W. Main St., open noon-5 p.m. daily.
More information: Visit the winery's website, www.sierrastarrwine.com.