Dunne on Wine

Dunne on Wine: Sera Fina’s a short drive from Sacramento

Paul and Whitney Scotto founded Sera Fina in 2010.
Paul and Whitney Scotto founded Sera Fina in 2010.

On a map – remember those? – Sera Fina Cellars is well poised to attract wine enthusiasts seeking adventure in the Sierra foothills.

The winery is in Amador County, off Highway 16 just east of the Sacramento County line and the affluent enclave of Rancho Murieta. Sacramento is about a half-hour drive to the west. Residents of El Dorado Hills and Folsom can mosey on over on leisurely Latrobe Road. In short, Sera Fina Cellars is nicely placed to be the first or last stop for wine pilgrims exploring Amador County.

But since Paul and Whitney Scotto founded Sera Fina in 2010, they’ve faced challenges in attracting visitors, but not for lack of trying. Sera Fina faces Latrobe Road, which doesn’t carry near the traffic as nearby Highway 16, where they erected a sign to direct motorists to the winery; county officials made them take it down. Then the Scottos floated a helium-filled balloon that looked like a dirigible, sure to catch the eyes of motorists no matter their approach; pranksters set it free and let it drift away. The Scottos dressed up a guy like a bunch of grapes and had him dance on the shoulder of Highway 16, but then took pity on him in the area’s withering heat and moved him into the comfort of the tasting room.

All those gimmicks helped attract visitors to Sera Fina, which occupies a contemporary former residence that sprawls across a gentle knoll just north of Highway 16 where it meets Latrobe Road, but traffic has been light. Maybe wine enthusiasts starting their day don’t expect to come across a winery so soon, not when Sera Fina isn’t within Shenandoah Valley, where most of the county’s wineries and vineyards are concentrated, only a few more miles up the road.

Yet, Paul Scotto is undaunted. To also help draw visitors, he built two bocce courts. He installed a television set in the tasting room. He takes advantage of the home’s expansive patio for pizza parties and the like. He’s big on urging visitors to take their time and just relax as they appreciate the bucolic view beyond the tasting counter.

Mostly, he’s confident that the quality of his wines eventually will make Sera Fina Cellars a popular destination for wine explorers. To help set it apart from most other Amador County wineries, for one, he puts as much emphasis on white wines as red, the latter, especially zinfandel, being the genre of choice for many of his neighbors.

“Wineries up here might have one white wine; I have four,” says Scotto by way of introducing them. His lineup of whites includes one of the snappier viogniers to come out of the region, the Sera Fina 2013 Sierra Foothills Viognier ($18), an elegant and persistent interpretation made with grapes grown at Clos du Lac Cellars of Ione.

His whites also include the fresh, balanced and well-structured Sera Fina 2013 Sierra Foothills Sauvignon Blanc ($16) and the unusually rich Sera Fina 2013 Sierra Foothills Pinot Grigio ($16), about a quarter of which actually is sauvignon blanc, which Scotto added to prolong the wine’s finish.

His fourth white is a novelty blend inspired by the grape costume he put on the guy who used to dance down by the highway in hopes of attracting visitors. The Dancing Grape Winemaker’s White Blend ($12) is a sweet and beefy mix of sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, viognier and malvasia bianca. “Dancing Grape” is the brand he also uses for a similarly styled and priced blend of red grapes; not as sweet as the white, it’s also more interesting for its complexity, tenacity and peppery spice.

In style, price and accessibility, the “Dancing Grape” wines harken to the Scotto family’s winemaking history, particularly its high-value jug wine Villa Armando, which dates to 1948.

The family’s winemaking history began with Salvatore Scotto, a farmer, sailor and winemaker who emigrated from the Italian island of Ischia west of Naples to New York in 1883. In the early 20th century, his son Dominic was making his living primarily by repairing and rebuilding wooden sailing ships along the East Coast, but on the side he made wine he sold in 5-gallon jugs from a horse-drawn wagon. Then Prohibition came along, but with its repeal he and his brothers opened one of Brooklyn’s first liquor stores, which is still in business, but under different owners.

One of Dominic’s sons, Anthony, picked up his father’s practice of making wine, bottling it in jugs and selling it by cart. By 1963, however, Anthony was ready to split for California, so he bought a winery at Pleasanton in the San Francisco Bay Area and turned over to his brothers the family’s Brooklyn wine company.

In 1948, during their Brooklyn heyday, the Scottos introduced Villa Armando. “It was a Prohibition-era bathtub-style wine – sweet and high in alcohol,” says Paul Scotto, one of Anthony’s grandsons, who grew up near the Pleasanton winery and who continues to live with his family in Concord.

The Scottos still make Villa Armando, marketing it with the same colorful label drawn by a relative who was a Franciscan priest. The wine is still sweet and high in alcohol (16 percent), with youthful fruit, refreshing flavor and dashes of spice, the kind of Central Valley jug wine popular at college parties for decades. Though distribution of Villa Armando is concentrated in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, Scotto stocks it at Sera Fina.

The Scottos lost the Pleasanton winery during a difficult financial stretch in the 1980s, but Paul Scotto’s father, Anthony II, remained in the trade.

He didn’t discourage his six children from the wine business, but urged them to first get experience in other lines of work. Today, four of the six have returned to the wine trade, following their father’s legacy with gumption and imagination. They own five wineries – three in Lodi, one in Napa Valley and Sera Fina in Amador County. They make wine under 45 brands, several of them targeted to specific regional markets. They recently went into the cider business, producing hard cider under the labels Pacific Coast and William Tell. In high-profile moves to enhance the stature of their wines, they’ve hired longtime Napa Valley winemaker Mitch Consentino for their 50 Harvests brand and Amador County veteran Mark McKenna, formerly of Andis Winery in Shenandoah Valley, for their Lodi operations.

Paul Scotto earned a degree in viticulture and management at UC Davis in 2002, but in following his father’s advice sold construction equipment for seven years before jumping into the wine trade. In 2009, he joined his brother Anthony III at Lodi, where five years earlier he had established Scotto Family Cellars.

Also in 2009, his father made a wrong turn while visiting wineries in Amador County and happened upon a 40-acre parcel for sale. Today, that’s the site of Sera Fina Cellars, which Paul and Whitney Scotto established in 2010. “Sera Fina” is Italian for “fine evening,” and originally was to be the name of their first child had she been a girl. “But we had a boy, and a boy, and a boy, so this is my baby girl,” says Scotto of the winery. Their sons are Dante, Luca and Carlo.

The property came without a vineyard, so Scotto bought grapes from foothill growers for his initial wines. In front of the winery, however, he’s developed an approximate 5-acre vineyard, split among the varieties primitivo, sangiovese, barbera and malbec. The first three varieties are planted extensively in the foothills, but the malbec is a relative newcomer. “I wanted to see how it would grow in Amador,” Scotto says.

He picked the first commercial crop of malbec off his young vineyard just this past fall. Up to now his red-wine portfolio has run to firm and balanced takes on such usual foothill suspects as zinfandel and barbera. Scotto doesn’t shy from supplementing his varietals with atypical blending. The Sera Fina 2010 Amador County Zinfandel ($24), for one, is bright, clean and silken, its berries and pepper enhanced with a dash of syrah. With the fleshy and concentrated Sera Fina 2011 Sierra Foothills Syrah ($24), he blended in 17 percent barbera to soften the wine’s tannins while sharpening its edge. On the other hand, his luxurious and sweetly fruity Sera Fina 2010 Amador County Barbera ($24) is solely barbera.

The Scottos have found that establishing a winery in fairly virgin territory hasn’t been easy. Ravenous birds forced them to adopt the costly practice of wrapping vines with nets. Equally hungry squirrels and voles prompted them to build owl boxes about their vineyard. Nervous about the reliability of their well, they parked a 7,000-gallon water tanker next to the winery. And don’t even mention the day someone inadvertently left open the gate to the vineyard, allowing deer to have the run of the fruit.

But the Scottos boast five generations of winemaking and wine marketing, some of it in unusual places, like Brooklyn and Pleasanton, so they have history and adaptability going for them. The isolation of Sera Fina shouldn’t be much of a challenge for long.

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 mikedunne@winegigs.com.

Sera Fina Cellars

The tasting room at Sera Fina Cellars, 17000 Latrobe Road, Plymouth, is open 11 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Fridays and 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.

Several of the Scotto family’s wines, including releases of Sera Fina, also are poured at Cinque, the family’s tasting room at 83 Main St. in Sutter Creek, open 11 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Thursday through Monday.

In the Sacramento area, Sera Fina wines are sold at the retailers Total Wine & More in Sacramento and Folsom, the Davis Food Co-op, Compton’s Market in Sacramento, Corti Brothers in Sacramento, Boom Supermarket in Folsom and Bonanza Market in Nevada City. Restaurants that carry Sera Fina wines are the Sloughhouse Inn at Sloughhouse, Evan’s American Gourmet Café in Sacramento, and Sienna Restaurant in El Dorado Hills. Sera Fina wines also are poured at Painted Studios in Folsom. No one outlet carries all Sera Fina wines, however.