Dunne on Wine

Dunne on Wine: Hatching new sauvignon blanc at Sierra Starr Vineyard & Winery

Phil Starr, left, and Jackson Starr with barrels of chardonnay in their winery cave.
Phil Starr, left, and Jackson Starr with barrels of chardonnay in their winery cave.

Phil Starr is trying to put a finger on just how his fascination with sauvignon blanc began.

It must have had something to do with his fascination with grapefruit, he speculates.

“I love grapefruit. I eat grapefruit almost every single day. Maybe there’s some connection with that,” says Starr. Grapefruit is one of the smell and flavor associations often triggered by sauvignon blanc, along with jalapeños, gooseberries, asparagus, grass and lime.

Then there’s the block of sauvignon blanc Starr inherited when he moved his family and his cut-flower business from Monterey County to a newly purchased spread on the western edge of Grass Valley in 1995. He had to figure out how to squeeze the most flavor and charm from the grape.

Since then, his passion for sauvignon blanc and his quest to master the variety have intensified.

That explains why we are seated at a table in the cool cellar of his family’s Sierra Starr Vineyard & Winery, which over the past two decades has diverted his attention from cultivating cut flowers to growing grapes and making wine. The original 5-acre vineyard he acquired has grown to 12  1/2 acres, cultivated to the usual foothill suspects like zinfandel, petite sirah and alicante bouschet as well as outriders such as cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc.

And, naturally, sauvignon blanc, four dewy and open bottles of which sit atop the table. The four, all from the 2016 vintage, form the latest chapter in the Starr family’s goal to produce a sauvignon blanc that will represent Nevada County and their winery with all the character and verve the variety can deliver.

“Sauvignon blanc is so impacted by where it is grown and how differently it is made,” Starr says. “Napa Valley sauvignon blanc has this silky-smooth character, while New Zealand sauvignon blanc slaps you in the face with its fruit and crispness.”

To refine their own sauvignon blanc, Starr and his winemaking son Jackson took advantage of the 2016 harvest for their most ambitious experiment yet. One of the four sauvignon blancs before us had been fermented solely in stainless-steel tanks. Another was fermented in French oak barrels. The third was fermented in the family’s brand-new concrete egg. The fourth is a blend of wines from all three vessels – half from the concrete egg, 30 percent from barrels and 20 percent from stainless-steel tanks.

Each bears the proprietary name “Solstice,” but the label of the three wines fermented individually includes a faint sketch of the vessel used to produce it. All four are to be released between noon and 5 p.m. Saturday at the winery, 11179 Gibson Drive, Grass Valley; picnic lunches encouraged. The three fermented separately will be sold only as three-packs ($70), while the fourth blended sauvignon blanc will be available by the bottle ($20). (A second release party will be at the winery’s downtown Grass Valley tasting room – 124 W. Main St. – from noon to 5 p.m. July 15.)

On the palate – at least on this palate – differences between the three that were fermented individually are slight. All were fermented dry, with no residual sugar, and all are clean, brisk and sleek, with refreshing acidity and subtle suggestions of tropical and citric fruits, including grapefruit.

The stainless-steel version was snappier with key-lime flavor and bite; the concrete-egg version was rounder, but with an element of minerality; and the oak-barrel version was the huskier and longer of the three, though the exploitation of wood was light by California standards. The blend of all three, not surprisingly, was the most complex of the quartet, spirited with citric fruit flavor, ample in construction, and flashing with tingling acidity.

For Phil Starr, the introduction to concrete eggs in winemaking came three summers ago as he and his wife Anne were touring wineries in Virginia. They came upon one that was using a concrete egg to make sauvignon blanc. “That wine just stuck in my mind. I really liked it. It was really different from any sauvignon blanc I’d tasted,” Starr recalls.

At around the same time, Jackson Starr began to taste and like what fellow foothill winemakers like Rich Gilpin in Calaveras County and Mark McKenna in Amador County were turning out with concrete eggs.

As last fall’s harvest approached, they bought their own $5,000 concrete egg and set it up to ferment sauvignon blanc. Concrete eggs have become fashionable over the past few years for several reasons, including their purported enrichment of a wine’s texture and flavor, their ease to clean and their durability.

For the Starrs, the egg also fit into their long drive to reduce their consumption of energy. The egg doesn’t need to be heated or cooled beyond the ambient temperature of their winery, built into a hillside to keep the premises naturally cool. They’ve also installed a bank of 56 solar panels and are experimenting with dry farming of their vineyard, relying only on winter rains to keep vines flourishing.

Whether they invest in more eggs and continue to make three-packs from future harvests remains to be seen, depending in part on consumer response to the 2016 project. Phil Starr likes the egg version of the 2016 sauvignon blanc, but indicated that he still leans toward stainless-steel tanks for a truly unaffected expression of the variety. Jackson Starr also looks favorably on the egg for the richness and “minerally texture” it brings to sauvignon blanc. And then there’s the possibility that the blended version will become the template for the future for all the nuances that the three vessels bring to sauvignon blanc. “It has always been our intention to produce one fantastic sauvignon blanc,” says Jackson Starr.

To be sure, sauvignon blanc isn’t the only wine the Starrs make, and it might not even be their flagship wine. That could be the winery’s “Rising Starr” cabernet franc, which consistently rakes in high medals on the competition circuit. The current release, the 2014, is densely colored, fleshy in feel, and rich and inviting in its suggestions of elephant-heart plums, Bing cherries and peppery spice ($28).

A longtime favorite of mine is the robust but gentlemanly “Phil’s Selection” zinfandel, the 2013 of which is fresh, complex and elegant ($25), while the biggest surprise of the day was the aptly named 2013 “Super Nova” petite sirah, traditionally inky and concentrated, but with more pronounced floral aromatics, plush dark-fruit flavor, peppery spice, equilibrium and persistence than commonly found in the variety ($25).

Cabernet franc, zinfandel and petite sirah aren’t exactly summer wines, unless ribeye or ribs are on the grill, but for something more fitting for the season, with or without food, there’s sauvignon blanc, and Sierra Starr Vineyard & Winery has plenty of that.