Dunne on Wine

Will Butte County be the next big thing in winemaking?

Zinfandel awaiting harvest at LaRocca Vineyards outside Forest Ranch, Butte County.
Zinfandel awaiting harvest at LaRocca Vineyards outside Forest Ranch, Butte County. Special to The Bee

The road twists and narrows. Dust unspools behind the car as asphalt gives way to dirt. Not a vine is in sight, but stalks of poison oak flame like candelabra on the shoulders.

We’re in Butte County at the northern reaches of Sacramento Valley, just outside of Forest Ranch, about 20 miles northeast of Chico, looking for LaRocca Vineyards, one of California’s more remote and isolated wineries.

We’d been hearing that in addition to its reputation for hiking, cycling, fishing, rafting and drinking beer, Butte County is positioning itself as one more Northern California wine region worth visiting.

As we scan the pines and oaks for some sign of LaRocca Vineyards, we are growing increasingly skeptical. We are well aware that Butte County is planted to far more English walnuts and almonds than wine grapes – 54,000 acres of the walnuts and 40,000 acres of almonds compared with just 163 acres of grapes. Yet, we press on.

We’re also mindful, after all, that several notable pioneers in the region – Leland Stanford, Peter Lassen, John Bidwell – early on tended wine grapes in Butte County and neighboring Tehama County. They had middling success, not so much that grape growing and winemaking ever took hold in the region.

But lately several entrepreneurs with a thirst for fine wine have ignored that history and begun to plant vines and make wine about Oroville, Durham, Chico, Bangor, Forest Ranch and other small settlements scattered across Butte County.

Almost invariably these aspiring commercial vintners are new to the trade. Two are registered nurses. One is a retired physical education teacher. One is a retired California highway patrolman.

What they share is passion, energy and an abiding confidence that Butte County’s volcanic soils, abundant water and even more abundant sunshine and heat will provide the foundation for an eventually flourishing wine culture.

Abruptly, the road straightens, a lush vineyard materializes on our left, and above it sprawls the ramshackle winery LaRocca Vineyards. Out back, we find Becky De Victoria wading through a seething tank of zinfandel, treading grapes the old-fashioned way.

la roca
Becky De Victoria treads grapes the old-fashioned way at LaRocca Vineyards outside Forest Ranch, Butte County. Mike Dunne Special to The Bee

And then, from between a couple of tall fermentation tanks, emerges Phil LaRocca, a San Francisco native who in 1984 was farming apples organically at Paradise to the south when he bought 110 acres of struggling cabernet sauvignon and merlot 2,600 feet up Doe Mill Ridge.

He nurtured the vineyard, got it certified as organically farmed, and was selling grapes to such far-away wineries as Fetzer and Parducci in Mendocino County when in 1991 he began to release wines under his own LaRocca label.

Phil LaRocca is something of an agrarian and culinary legend in Butte County. He was road manager for Creedence Clearwater Revival in the late 1960s when the back-to-the-land movement seized his attention and he headed to Butte County. In addition to apples and grapes, he’s raised cattle, goats and sheep. He’s taught courses in agriculture, organic gardening and vineyard management at local high schools and colleges. He’s published a cookbook and been host of a natural-cooking program on a Chico television station.

Today, he claims he is ready to retire, but he continues to farm without chemical fertilizers and pesticides and makes his wine similarly, without adding sulfites, which winemakers commonly use to stabilize and protect wines.

Yet, a non-vintage pinot noir he is about to release is bright, long in the finish and characteristically fruity with suggestions of strawberries and cherries as he and his daughter Phaedra LaRocca Morrill commence to open and pour samples of their current wines. (LaRocca is one of few Butte County wineries to distribute wines beyond the local area; several LaRocca wines are stocked by Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op.)

Phil LaRocca recalls that the first modern vineyard in Butte County was established by Tony Santos not far from his own plot in 1968. Since then, vineyard growth has been slow in the area as prospective north state vintners settled in more promising locales, almost invariably cooler than frequently torrid Butte County.

Nevertheless, he’s succeeded, making upward of 10,000 cases of wine a year with grapes he hasn’t committed to other winemakers who appreciate their quality and his devotion to organic farming. He sells much of his wine in Butte County, though he’s also found a receptive market in China.

By his experience, he feels that Bordeaux varieties like cabernet sauvignon and merlot and Burgundy’s pinot noir have the best prospects in the higher, cooler reaches of Butte County. Lower down, where temperatures are warmer, he sees a possible future for sangiovese, zinfandel, barbera and syrah among black-grape varieties, pinot grigio among green grapes.

Back on the valley floor, at Butte College in Oroville, Tip Wilmarth is especially enthusiastic about syrah as one variety that could put the county on California’s wine map. “Syrah is the most powerful variety here now,” says Wilmarth, a viticulturist who established the college’s viticultural program in 2003 and who oversees a 5.5-acre campus vineyard, where syrah has flourished. He hopes to start marketing wines from the plot this fall.

Butte County’s nascent wine trade has three things going for it, Wilmarth notes: A long, warm growing season, “plenty of water when we need it” and wineries that don’t produce a lot of any one wine as they explore the potential of this or that grape variety. “Small-lot production is a desirable trend among wine drinkers right now,” Wilmarth says.

Connor Vaccaro, winemaker for Bertagna Family Wineries at Durham, Butte County, alongside the still with which he makes the firm’s spirits. Mike Dunne Special to The Bee

Growers, some of them neophytes, some farmers who have focused on other crops up to this point, customarily are putting in small vineyards – 2 to 5 acres each isn’t uncommon – as they test both the local suitability of various grape varieties and consumer response to their wines. An exception is Bertagna Family Wineries of Durham, where Berton Bertagna farms 40 acres of grapes for his family and other growers in the area.

Bertagna markets his wines under two brands, Bertagna Son Kissed Vineyards and Almendra, Spanish for “almonds,” which his family has farmed in the area for half a century. His winery, which occupies a former massive grocery store, also includes a distillery, both overseen by Connor Vaccaro, a Chico native who earned a degree in viticulture and enology at Oregon State University.

Vaccaro sees several Italian varieties – barbera, sangiovese and pinot grigio, in particular – as the grapes with the most potential for Butte County. “If you look at the climate data, there are some very strong similarities between certain Italian regions and where we are,” Vaccaro says.

Wine tourists face one obstacle in visiting Butte County’s 15 or so wineries – they are scattered all over the landscape, with few clustered conveniently in any one place. So far, LaRocca Vineyards is the only winery to open a tasting room in downtown Chico, while in Oroville the Butte County Wine Co. is a wine bar and brew pub that offers a rotating selection of local wines and beers.

Butte County vintners compensate for their remoteness and low profile with cheery imagination and ambition. Virtually every winery promotes itself as a venue for weddings and other special events. At Purple Line Urban Winery in Oroville, owners George and Kate Barber – he’s the former California highway patrolman – have developed alongside their utilitarian winery a veritable park with bocce courts, a gazebo for wedding vows and a deep-pit barbecue capable of roasting up to 10 pigs at a time. (The name “Purple Line” is a play on Oroville’s “Greenline Tour,” a route to lure visitors to such local attractions as museums, the Feather River Nature Center and the notorious Oroville Dam spillway. Eventually, the Barbers would like to see a purple line painted on roads to connect the region’s wineries.)

A bottle of the Gale Vineyards 2013 Estate Primitivo against the top of one of the barrels in the winery’s tasting room at Durham, Butte County. Mike Dunne Special to The Bee

Similarly, at Gale Vineyards of Durham, owners Steve and Creasia Gale take advantage of their lush grounds and cozy tasting room for weddings, “paint and sip” art nights and the like, though they also are quick to show off their wines, in particular their jammy, spicy and warm 2013 estate primitivo, which won a bronze medal at this year’s California State Fair.

In styles of wine, Butte County’s vintners are tackling everything from sparkling wines to port-emulating dessert wines, and at this early stage stand apart from contemporaries elsewhere in the state for their eager embrace of unconventional blended wines. At Purple Line, for one, the Barbers blend pinot noir, merlot, grenache and syrah into a balanced and buoyant proprietary blend called “Little Red Panties,” while at Dog Creek Cellars of Durham owners Neil and Judy Cline, who are registered nurses when they aren’t growing grapes and making wine, blend zinfandel and sangiovese for their ripe and rich “Rescue Red.”

Other than determination and patience, Butte County vintners have an advantage over Stanford, Bidwell, Lassen and others who made a stab at growing grapes and making wine in the region in the mid-1800s: All the experience and knowledge that have accumulated since then. What they make of it is what is unfolding today.

Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at dmichaeldunne@gmail.com.