According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, California produced 3.9 million tons of wine grapes in 2014 – making the 2014 harvest the third largest on record. Despite California’s drought conditions, it still was a successful year for California wineries. While Napa Valley ranks as one of the most popular wine regions in the U.S., Placer County can hold its own when it comes to quality winemaking in California.
Nestled between Lake Tahoe and Sacramento in Northern California, the Placer Wine Trail is located on the east-west corridor of Interstate 80 which makes it easily accessible for tourists. Placer County’s winemaking history dates back to the 1800s and is known for its successful agricultural industry. With its Mediterranean micro-climates and soil, Placer County is an ideal wine growing region. The Placer Wine Trail (classified with the “Sierra Foothills” appellation) boasts some of the most diverse, award-winning wines in northern California.
With over 20 wineries and counting, Placer County’s boutique wineries offer a more personalized tasting experience compared to the larger, commercial California wineries. The wineries located on the Wine Trail are family-run and operated. Winemakers, Michael Duarte and Zane Dobson, lead busy lives with full-time “day” jobs and spend their free time pruning grape vines and bottling wine.
Duarte, owner/winemaker of Popie Wines in Loomis, sums up his love for wine making in one word: heritage.
“I’m a fourth generation grower and love that aspect of the wine growing and making process. I actually started making wine as a fluke when I had four tons of grapes I couldn’t get rid of in 2006 and that forced me into winemaking,” Duarte said. “It’s been a tough road juggling a day job and the winemaking, but very rewarding and gratifying as well. My passion has always been to be a farmer just like my father. I’m very proud of my father and what he’s done in his lifetime, and that is why my wine brand ‘Popie’ (pronounced poppy) is in honor of him.”
Duarte’s father shared this wise piece of advice over the years: if you can grow fruit trees then you can grow grapes. Loomis has the perfect micro-climate for citrus fruit such as mandarins, which also makes it an ideal area for growing grapes.
Zane Dobson, owner/winemaker of PaZa Estate Winery in Auburn, replaced his passion for fast cars with winemaking.
“I always joke that I traded in my Porsche for a Kubota.”
Dobson, who is a board member of the Placer County Vintners Association, also made a name for himself with his wines. Like Duarte, he grows the grapes and bottles the wine himself. His winemaking philosophy is simple: less is more. He is also committed to sustainable growing practices and produces healthy wines that contain fewer sulfides. Dobson is one of three winemakers in California who grows the Albarino (Spanish-influenced) varietal and the only one in Placer County.
Duarte and Dobson agree that winemaking in Placer County comes down to craftsmanship and a devotion to wine. While both winemakers have their own unique flair, they lean towards Old World/Italian-style winemaking. Producing about 500 cases per year, Popie and PaZa make “drinkable” wines that pair easily with a variety of food. Their top-selling wines range from single varietals (i.e. Barbera, Petite Syrah, etc.) to blends.
Over the years, both wineries have won numerous awards for their wines, including the prestigious San Francisco Chronicle International Wine Competition. Popie recently won a silver medal in an international French wine competition. Duarte pointed out that this wine won’t be released until late spring and only a limited supply will be available (his wine members get first dibs).
Shawn and Karrie Smothers, Auburn residents and Popie wine club members, are big fans of the Placer Wine Trail. They love the down-to-earth camaraderie of the winemakers. Over the years, they have become good friends with Duarte and he even made a special custom wine label for their wedding last year. They tend to steer away from Napa, and prefer the local wineries because they are less pretentious.
While there is friendly competition among the wineries, they continue to support and help each other. As Placer County winemakers look towards the future, Dobson shared a common goal: to continue to produce high quality wine and remove the stigma that Napa Valley is the only great California wine region.
With its friendly ambiance and award-winning wines, Placer County wineries have developed a solid reputation among the “big players” in California’s wine industry. Dobson predicts that winemaking will continue to boom in Placer County, and he wouldn’t be surprised if the wineries grow to 30 plus within the next ten years.