Inside what used to be his garage in Auburn, legendary race car driver Scott Pruett opened a giant plastic bin full of fermenting grapes and took a deep breath.
“Smell that?” he said. “That’s our terroir, that’s our Sierra Foothills dirt coming through. That’s our unique bouquet, what makes our wine so special.”
Instead of gas fumes, the heady scent of yeast and wine grapes filled the air (with a dash of that magical dirt). Nearby, stacked oak barrels awaited their fill. Harvesting and pressing equipment stood in place of jacks and mechanics’ tools.
Where else would a gearhead launch a wine business, quips Pruett. “I started a garage winery that makes world-class wines.”
What began as a hobby has made Pruett’s young winery a syrah star. Wine Spectator recently rated Pruett Vineyard’s 2014 estate syrah equal to the world’s best.
Why would a race car driver get into wine? He likes it, said Pruett, who has been interested in wine from grape to glass for a long time. Besides, he lives in an up-and-coming wine region and farming is in his blood.
“My family has been farmers for five generations,” said Pruett, who grew up in Roseville.
With a hands-on approach, Pruett takes particular pride in his home-grown wine. With his tractor, he carved terraces into a hillside on his Auburn property behind the home he built with his wife, Judy. He planted the vines by hand and carefully trained their growth. Their first harvest was 2010.
“It’s been so busy,” said Judy Pruett, who works with her husband on the wine business. “We’re going to build another (wine) building; we’re almost out of room. I told him when he started putting things in the garage; I said, ‘That’s it! You’re not putting stuff in the house.’ Now, this is filled.”
“We’re very much a family business,” Scott said, noting their three children – Lauren, Cameron and Taylor -- also take part.
“I like to come out here for the smell,” Judy said of the garage-turned-winery. “Our syrah is very aromatic and expressive. It has the most beautiful fragrance. Our wine is just blessed with this beautiful nose. You can’t miss it.”
During harvest, Pruett’s up all night with the picking crew, starting work after midnight when temperatures cool. Then, he personally handles all the steps as the grapes go from crush to bottle. He’s experimented with blending and bought additional grapes as his winery expanded.
“Everything is done right here,” Pruett said. “The challenge with it all is, with my racing career, trying to manage everything around that.”
He worked as he talked, methodically checking the grape bins and making notes.
“Wine making has become very interesting to me,” he said. “It’s the polar opposite of racing. In car racing, you live life in seconds. In grapes, you measure it in years.”
The hardest part is patience, he said. “You have to wait – and wait – to know if what you did was any good, if that wine was a winner.”
Winning has been a big part of Pruett’s life. Tucked into a loft above the wine barrels, his office is filled with trophies and Victory Lane photos.
Considered among Sacramento’s all-time sports stars, Pruett is the most decorated competitor in American sports car racing history. Starting in go-karts as an 8-year-old kid in Roseville, Pruett went on to compete at the top levels of NASCAR and American open-wheel racing. In June, he was inducted into two halls of fame: The Motorsports Hall of Fame in Daytona Beach, Fla., and the West Coast Stock Car Hall of Fame in Phoenix.
On Friday, Sacramento’s California Automobile Museum will host a tribute dinner in his honor.
His racing accomplishments are many: 1989 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year, five Grand-Am championships, record-tying five Rolex 24 victories. Besides a North American record 60 wins in sports cars, he’s one of a select few to race in both the Indy 500 and the Daytona 500.
“IndyCar really beat me up,” said Pruett, who drove 10 seasons in that series. “I shattered both ankles, broke my knees, my back.
“There are dangers to motorsports, without a doubt,” he added. “But I love it, the sport and everything it afforded me. I couldn’t do (wine) without racing.”
At 57, Pruett still races full time. He recently wrapped up his season in the IMSA (International Motor Sports Association) WeatherTech SportsCar Championship series. Competing against Ferraris and Porsches, he drives the No. 15 Lexus RC F GT3 in a series devoted to showing off high-performance sports cars.
In car racing, you live life in seconds. In grapes, you measure it in years.
Race car driver/wine maker Scott Pruett
He also drives a Lexus off the track (same model minus racing trim and equipment) as well as an assortment of trucks and farm equipment. Before wine, his garage was home to his car collection including a World War II military jeep and a 1960 Cadillac convertible. (They’re now parked somewhere else.)
Pruett’s challenge these days is finding balance – not just in his race car or wine, but his life. He travels to tracks in 10 states to spend high-speed hours behind the wheel.
Harvest coincided with his season’s final races, split between Laguna Seca in Monterey and Atlanta, Ga.
“Whatever I was doing, I had to get back home,” Pruett said. “The grapes can’t wait.”
Like his racing career, Pruett also found rapid success in his three acres of vineyard. Two acres are planted in syrah outside his kitchen window. Nearby are two half-acre parcels; one in syrah, the other cabernet. His operation’s total output is just 600 cases a year, available almost exclusively online directly from the winery (www.pruettvineyard.com).
Such a small winery has yielded gigantic results.
Last spring, Wine Spectator gave Pruett Vineyard’s 2014 Sierra Foothills Championship Cuvee Syrah a 96-point rating, equaling the best in the world. All four of Pruett’s estate-grown wines earned ratings of 93 or higher.
The industry’s standard setter, Wine Spectator, has steadily praised Pruett’s winemaking since 2012 with consistent ratings in the 90s. “The Pruett Syrahs are among the most aromatic and expressive examples not just from the Sierra Foothills, but from anywhere in California," the magazine raved in 2014.
“We’re making world-class wines in Auburn – it’s crazy,” Pruett said. “It so far surpassed my vision of what I could do. Even better, it’s put a huge spotlight on the Sierra Foothills and what this region can produce.”
When Pruett decided to enter winemaking, he sought advice from longtime friend Randy Lewis, owner of Lewis Cellars in Napa. (Himself a former racer, Lewis competed in the Indy 500 five times.) Wine Spectator named Lewis Cellars’ 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon its 2016 Wine of the Year.
Another mentor was winemaker Brian Mox, formerly at Lewis Cellars and now with Darms Lane in Napa.
Before he planted his first vine 12 years ago, Pruett suspected his Auburn hillside had potential. The American River wraps around his 50-acre property on three sides.
“When we bought it, we didn’t know what we were going to do here,” Pruett said. “We started with a bare piece of ground.”
Rich in iron, the red clay earth looked like vineyard soil. The weather and climate were just right for red varietals.
The whole Sierra Foothills appellation was just beginning to take off, Pruett added. New wineries were opening rapidly.
Soil tests confirmed his hopes. “I got two big thumbs up,” Pruett said.
“I didn’t want to just grow grapes, I wanted to do wine making myself,” he added. “Now, we’re producing our own wine – and tied for first in the world.”
An Evening with Scott Pruett
Where: California Automobile Museum, 2200 Front St., Sacramento
When: 6 p.m. Friday, Nov. 10
Tickets (including dinner): $120
Details: 916-442-6802, www.calautomuseum.org
The museum salutes newly inducted Motorsports Hall of Fame driver Scott Pruett, who will discuss his career and answer questions.