Sierra Knolls new wood-burning pizza oven is a masterpiece

THE ITALIANS WHO CAME TO THE Gold Country in the mid-1800s brought winemaking to the region—but they also introduced the culinary tradition of baking in stone ovens.

Many Italian families used outdoor stone ovens to bake bread, a vital part of Italian culture. “Around 100 stone ovens have been identified in Calaveras, Amador and Tuolumne counties and dot the countryside where the Italians settled,” according to the Sacramento Italian Cultural Society.

Sierra Knolls’ Bear River Wine Tasting room, just off Hwy. 49 at 10024 Linnet Lane in North Auburn, has revived the tradition. Winemaker John Chase has hand-built a wood-burning Italian pizza oven for guests to enjoy freshly baked pizza with a glass of wine.

The wood-burning oven, which took four months to build, is a masterpiece: It is seven feet deep, five feet wide and eight feet tall. It weighs about two tons and includes 250 fire bricks.

Sierra Knolls’ oven burns oak wood, and it gets as hot as 1400º, says Chase. A pizza is cooked at 700-800º in about two minutes, he adds.

We enjoyed one the other day, with a crispy thin crust and fresh veggies on top. The oak imparts a rustic flavor to the pizza, redolent of campfire cooking.

The pizza oven is fired up on Friday nights from 5-8 p.m. for “Fine Wine & Great Times,” and musicians play live music. Sierra Knolls serves a vegetarian pizza (with mushroom, bell peppers, artichoke, olives, cheese and sauce); pepperoni; and a fresh tomato and basil pizza.

The vegetables come from a local farm, Jardin del Rio (Garden of the River), just up the road. Jardin del Rio (JardinDelRio.org) also has a farm stand at Sierra Knolls, selling fresh fruit and produce on weekends. A culinary-school trained chef, Kate Weathers, makes the pizzas. She also teaches pizza-making classes at Sierra Knolls.

The Bear River Wine Tasting room is a destination for wine and food enthusiasts, with wine tasting, pizza and the farmers market. The tasting room opened in May 2011 and is a 2,400 sq. ft. Craftsman-style building with a 30 ft. long bar, pub tables and casual seating. It opens onto a wine tasting garden, picnic grounds, ponds and falls. A gift shop offers a unique and varied array of wine-related items.

The location along Hwy. 49 makes Bear River Wine Tasting room a “gateway” to Nevada County wine country, so it’s an ideal first stop. The winery is owned by Chase and his wife Linda, and Steve and Brenda Taylor, longtime friends and wine enthusiasts.

Bear River Wine Tasting
10024 Linnet Lane adjacent to Hwy. 49
530-269-2327
SierraKnollsWinery.com

(Historic Italian oven in Calaveras County. credit: Calaveras County Historical Society)

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