Dunne on Wine

Dunne on Wine: The Tao of tasting in the foothills

A vintage car is parked in front of Solune Winegrowers just outside of Grass Valley.
A vintage car is parked in front of Solune Winegrowers just outside of Grass Valley. Mike Dunne

It might be called trail, route, path or way, but every respectable wine region wants one to guide pilgrims to enological enlightenment.

Now the Sacramento region has what may be the newest and shortest, yet most diverse, one on the planet.

It is called Wine174, after Highway 174 in Placer and Nevada counties, connecting Colfax and Grass Valley.

Those are the larger dots on the map. The smaller dots, which constitute the heart of Wine174, are Chicago Park and Peardale, separated by a mere 5 miles.

Along or just off that curvy and hilly stretch are three wineries that have teamed up to create Wine174 to promote the area’s scenery, history and, to be sure, wines. Once given over traditionally to peaches, plums and pears, the area now is seeing more primitivo and petite sirah being cultivated.

For motorists who venture out that way, what can they expect aside from the tempting pies of the Happy Apple Kitchen along the route?

Start at the Colfax/Chicago Park end of the trail and move to the Grass Valley/Peardale end.

Montoliva Vineyard & Winery

In the late 1990s Mark Henry’s fondness for Italian wines prompted him to scout for potential vineyard land so he could see how well Italian grapes would perform in California. While touring the Sierra foothills he stopped at Happy Apple Kitchen in Placer County, where he learned that during the 1880s Italian American immigrants from Chicago settled in the area to cultivate orchards and vineyards.

He and his wife, Julianne, bought a small spread next to Chicago Park Elementary School and put in vines of Italian heritage, such as sangiovese and aglianico. The vines have responded well, producing wines that have developed an enthusiastic following. The couple farm 4 acres of Italian varieties, with plans to add three more.

They opened their winery in 2005, making wines from Italian varietals that – in addition to sangiovese and aglianico – include nebbiolo, primitivo, negroamaro, falanghina, teroldego and barbera.

Henry likes richness and mass in his wines, but also freshness and buoyancy. One of his few white wines, the 2014 falanghina ($24), is richly textured and fruity, not far removed from gewürztraminer or riesling in its floral aroma, but it is light on its feet. His 2011 nebbiolo ($28) is sweetly fruity and leanly built, without the grippy tannins often associated with the variety. His proprietary blends show careful attention to mutually flattering compatibility and balance. The 2013 Mark’s Magia ($30) is a dark, juicy and anise-laced blend of primitivo and negroamaro, while the 2012 Sierra Bella ($16) is a fully grown and solidly structured mix of sangiovese, teroldego, barbera and nebbiolo.

Some of the wines – including the falanghina and Mark’s Magia – are sold only to members of Montoliva’s wine club.

Over the past decade Montoliva has developed a fiercely loyal following, evident in the newly expanded vineyard downslope from the winery. Unable to raise capital through crowdsourcing because of restrictions on providing alcoholic products to investors, Henry came up with an Adopt a Vine program. Under the plan, people pay a one-time adoption fee of $75 per vine. In exchange, a plaque with the investor’s name is hung over his or her vine or vines. Other investor perks include two bottles of wine made from the first harvest of the varietal they helped underwrite, either negroamaro or primitivo, the varieties Henry put in with the funds he raised.

Montoliva, 15629 Mount Olive Road, Chicago Park, noon-5 p.m. most weekends; 530-346-6577.

Katoa Cellars

Open since summer, Katoa Cellars occupies a former residence and barn on a bucolic hillside along Powerline Road.

Riki Pollock, a native Maori from New Zealand with a grounding in mechanical engineering and the manufacture of plastics, was drawn into winemaking after nearly a decade of being a stay-at-home father. As he mulled returning to work outside the home, his wife, Andrea Tiernan-Pollock, became acquainted with Jacques Mercier and Andrea Hamer of the winery Solune Winegrowers, who wanted an assistant, so for the next seven years Pollock helped Mercier make wine.

Pollock buys grapes from growers scattered throughout Northern California. He is making about 500 cases per harvest but hopes to ramp up output to 1,500 cases a year.

His wines, which he makes at Solune, include a lively and tropical 2014 chardonnay made with fruit from Mendocino County ($20), a smokier and more buttery 2014 chardonnay from the same Mendocino County vineyard ($20), a spicy if understated 2013 pinot noir also from Mendocino County ($24) and a ripe and rigid 2013 zinfandel from Lake County ($20).

The two chardonnays constitute what Pollock calls his “Yin Yang Project.” One half of the batch of chardonnay – the “yin” – was processed solely in stainless-steel tanks to highlight fresh fruit and sharp acidity. The other half – the “yang” – was processed with oak staves stuck into tanks to yield a wine with more weight and a note of wood. The side-by-side tasting is Pollock’s way of showing how cellar technique affects flavor and style.

In Maori, “katoa” means “for everyone,” and Pollock hopes to provide wines to please every palate. Beyond that he’s still searching for his winemaking signature, but is confident it ultimately will run to “letting the fruit shine.” “I basically use oak as a seasoning, that’s why I use staves instead of barrels; they give me complete control over what’s going on with the wine,” he said.

Katoa Cellars, 14556 Powerline Road, Chicago Park, noon-5 p.m. most weekends: 530-272-9463, 530-574-1048.

Solune Winegrowers

Since his first crush under the banner of Solune Winegrowers in 2003, Jacques Mercier’s winemaking goal has been to temper the richness and weight that the California climate packs into grapes with an appreciation for the leanness, sharpness and sense of place customarily identified with European wines.

And he applies that ambition to perhaps the widest range of varietals and styles to be found at any tasting room in the northern Sierra foothills.

Not long ago 19 wines were listed on the Solune menu, though on any given day only about half of them will be opened for tasting.

Mercier and his partner, Andrea Hamer, who tends their vineyard at 2,700-feet elevation, produce around 1,000 cases yearly, most of them in small lots likely to sell out quickly.

We tasted varietal wines notable for their accurate and vivid representation of what they were supposed to be, while blends were creatively but intelligently conceived to provide spark and finesse.

We especially liked the unusually aromatic and sweetly fruity yet dry 2014 barbera rosé ($22); the perfumey and supple 2011 barbera ($25), a persuasive argument for other producers to forgo the oak that is distracting from the fruit of many barberas; the densely colored and refreshingly long Titan XVIII ($22), a blend of petite sirah, tempranillo and tannat; the meaty and smoky 2014 malbec (expected to be $22/$23 when it is released this spring); the stylish 2014 cabernet sauvignon, also expected to be $22/$23 when released this spring; and the P.O.S.H. ($21), a rich yet buoyant dessert wine inspired by port but breaking from tradition in its grapes – petite sirah and barbera as well as tempranillo and touriga nacional. (P.O.S.H. stands for port out, starboard home, the cooler and thus favored accommodations of ships originally on the England-India route.)

Solune, 16303 Jewett Lane, Grass Valley, noon-5 p.m. weekends.

(A fourth winery in the Chicago Park area – Clavey Vineyards & Winery with a tasting room at 232 Commercial St., Nevada City, – isn’t part of the Wine174 group.)

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.