Nevada City Winery: Rebirth of a classic

NOW IN ITS 37TH YEAR, NEVADA CITY WINERY is tightly connected with the town that it proudly displays on its label, as well as the history of modern-day winemaking in the foothills.

Founded in a garage on the outskirts of Nevada City, the winery moved to its present location in 1982, the Miners Foundry Garage on Spring Street, less than two blocks from where the town’s original winery stood a century ago.

Under founder Allan Haley, Nevada City Winery helped to revitalize winemaking in the county and northern Sierra Nevada foothills. Its winemakers such as Tony Norskog and Mark Foster were instrumental in persuading local grape growers to plant varietals that are best suited to the area, such as Cabernet Franc and Syrah.

Since then, Nevada City Winery has grown to become the county’s largest winemaker.

Now the historic winery—located in the heart of the emerging Spring St. neighborhood—is poised to grow much further. This summer, the privately held winery completed a tender offer for its outstanding shares that has cleared the way for the biggest capital expansion in its history and resulted in new leadership.

“The winery is having a rebirth,” says General Manager John Chase. “We are treating it like a startup company again.”

The majority owner is Susie Bavo, a long-time Nevada City resident, dedicated volunteer to local nonprofits, and an early investor in the winery. Chase is in charge of the daily operations. He is a former co-owner of Sierra Knolls Winery, with an extensive background in wine and business.

Along with the staff and board, they join veteran winemaker Mark Foster, who has been winning major awards for his wines since he joined Nevada City Winery in time for the ‘92 crush. Foster is considered a dean of foothills winemaking, and he has consulted with other local wineries to improve their wines.

Nevada City Winery’s new team is energized, as we observed on a recent visit. Mark said he recently received the go-ahead to buy more costly pinot grapes from the Russian River Valley, and he will be making a premium Pinot Noir, a new release. A premium label also is in the works for Bordeaux blends, due for release in 2-3 years.

The winery will sell three tiers of wines: table wines (Sonata, Alpenglow and Rough and Ready Red); varietals (Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay and Rhone blends); and premium. It is building up its inventory of wine and winning new accounts in the Sacramento and Tahoe areas. Now it will seek to increase sales in Reno. The wines are sold at stores ranging from boutique wine shops to Safeway and Whole Foods Market.

Nevada City Winery also will step up its custom crush. One label was produced for Beale Air Force Base to honor Lockheed U-2 “Dragon Lady” and SR-71 “Blackbird” pilots. Another is being produced to honor the 150th anniversary of the Nevada Theatre. Others have commemorated the 55-year-old Nevada City Classic Bicycle Race.

At the winery, Mark is replacing the older oak barrels with newer ones, including French oak. “The oak barrel is the frame, and the real picture is the fruit,” Mark says poetically.

He and the winemaking staff are planning upgrades, including pumps, filters and the tank cooling system. They also are researching new press technology, which is more gentle on the wine.

Upstairs, in the tasting room, hours have been expanded to 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Local artwork is displayed on the walls and “Songwriter Sundays” features local live music. The staff also is remodeling the tasting room, adding alcove seating and new furniture.

The new management values its staff. It paid for them to attend “Starry, Starry Nights,” the Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital’s annual fundraiser, for a night of dining and dancing at Empire Mine State Park. The winery also donated a 16-liter bottle of Syrah for the Hospital Foundation’s raffle, generating $1,600.

The winery aims to work closely with local businesses and nonprofits, including the Hospital Foundation, The Center for the Arts, KVMR and Music in the Mountains, among others. “We want to be an integral part of the community,” says John.

(Photo: David McLellan)

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