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  • Writer's pictureGuy Tucker

Sierra Vista: Old Vines, New Life

Updated: Jul 9, 2023




Grafting is the act of taking an old vine, cutting it off so that only the roots remain, and melding a young vine onto the existing roots. The fresh, new life above ground benefits from the established anchorage below. The combination of old and new can produce magic.


Such grafting is taking place at Sierra Vista Vineyards & Winery in the Sierra Foothills, both literally and figuratively. This historic winery is being transformed from the ground up, but not so much from the ground down. Jim Czachorowski who recently purchased Sierra Vista fully recognizes that the 50-year-old roots underfoot, along with the history they represent, form the foundation for the rebirth of the winery. His efforts to respect and build on the past without being stuck in it have Sierra Vista sitting on the precipice of something special.


The Sierra Foothills wine history is itself an interesting mix of old and new. It dates back to the Gold Rush era when a thriving wine and spirits industry provided miners libations for their successes and salves for their disappointments. The industry met its demise during Prohibition and then slowly crawled back to life in the decades following repeal. Recently, there has been a tidal influx of investors and talented winemakers who recognize the potential of the Foothills. The attractiveness of the region stems from its well-draining volcanic soils, myriad slopes and microclimates, and an uncommon beauty where rolling vineyards are backdropped by snow-capped mountains and towered over by Ponderosa pines.

Sierra Vista, perched high in the Pleasant Valley region of El Dorado County, uniquely encapsulates this history, from the land’s distant past to the winery’s pioneering origins to its modern-day team, each of whom brings their own stories to the mix. To fully understand the new Sierra Vista, we have to understand its roots, and to fully understand the roots, we have to understand the man who planted them and the land they were planted into.


FROM TIGER LILY TO SIERRA VISTA


John MacCready was born and raised in Yuba City, California in 1932. Wild grapes, uvas, that grew along the riverbank gave the city its name. Yuba City sat on an expanse of land that had been owned by John Sutter, the same John Sutter who also owned Sutter’s Mill in El Dorado County where the discovery of gold would set off a chain of events that would shape California. Grapes and Gold Country would also shape MacCready.


MacCready left California to attend college in New Mexico and then Missouri, earning a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering in 1970. Along the way, he fell in love and married his sweetheart, Barbara. After graduation, John and Barbara decided to return to California to raise a family and to begin their careers. While teaching and working engineering jobs in and around Sacramento, MacCready fell in love with Gold Country, especially El Dorado County, and they decided to make it their home.


El Dorado County was in the middle of an agricultural crisis. A pear blight had ravaged the county’s principal crop and was threatening the livelihoods of a generation of local farmers. Most were pivoting to apples in what would prove to be a hugely successful move as the region soon became known as Apple Hill and grew to become one of the largest agricultural tourism destinations in the country. Apple orchards were the smart play for anyone getting into El Dorado agriculture. Never one to follow a trend or make the obvious move, though, MacCready set his sights on grapes, and he and Barbara purchased about 100 acres at 2800 feet of elevation in Pleasant Valley and set out to start a vineyard.


Western El Dorado County showing the proximity of Sierra Vista to Sutter's Mill where gold was discovered in 1848.

The Sierra Foothills are made up of ridges of rock and deposits that extend downward from the Sierra Nevada Mountains like fingers descending from the knuckles of a fist, each carved by raging rivers which carry silt and yes, sometimes gold. Atop a large finger between the American River system and the Cosumnes River system sits Pleasant Valley, whose geology and positioning create a relatively gentle ramp down the Sierra slopes. Shortly after the discovery of gold in 1848 a few miles to the north on the American River, this unique valley was used to as the western terminus of the first wagon road across the Sierra, built to help Mormon laborers traverse from Salt Lake City to Gold Country. The trail was also frequented by gold rush pioneers and settlers, and soon the town of Pleasant Valley arose and would become the largest in the county.



Tiger Lily Winery and Hotel in Pleasant Valley in El Dorado County of the Sierra Foothills Gold Country
The Tiger Lily Winery and Hotel in Pleasant Valley near the location of Sierra Vista.

The miners and settlers needed comforts and vices. Many were European with a penchant for wine and sometimes with grape vine clippings in tow. Vineyards started blanketing the landscape. Tiger Lily Winery and Hotel, named after the local wildflower, was born and became the largest winery in the region and, by some accounts, in the state. It thrived for several decades before Prohibition brought the wine and spirits industry crashing to a halt.


In the early 1970's, John and Barbara MacCready were certain wine could flourish again in El Dorado county. They weren’t entirely alone. A few miles to the north, near the town of Placerville, two other families, the Boegers and the Bushes were bucking the apple trend and giving grapes a go. They none knew much about growing grapes and making wine, but they were all eager to learn and experiment. The families regularly met and drank wine and became self-taught experts. What resulted was the creation of the Boegers’ Boeger Winery and the Bushes’ Madroña Winery near Placerville, and the MacCreadys’ Sierra Vista Winery in Pleasant Valley. All three are still in business, and the triumvirate helped establish the El Dorado wine region.


MacCready was different than most vintners. He wasn’t a farmer, and he didn’t come into the venture with a lot of wealth. He was an engineer. He was smart, driven, passionate, and multifaceted. He was also lucky. When he started clearing the forest of pines, firs, and oaks at the top of the knoll of his property for the vineyard he was going to plant, an amazing view of the Sierras revealed itself. Instantly, he had a perfect name for his winery to be. The luck didn’t end there. When he started planting, he found the soils to be incredibly deep and well-draining. He had, in essence, discovered his own kind of gold.


Exterior and tasting area of Sierra Vista winery in El Dorado County of the Sierra Foothills
The Sierra Vista Winery built by John MacCready still has the exterior wood panels milled from trees he cleared in the 1970's.

By the 1970’s European grape varieties were almost exclusively the wine grapes being planted in the vineyards of California. This species, vitus vinifera, is highly susceptible to phylloxera, a tiny, sap-sucking insect that loves to feed on the roots of grape vines. Grape vines native to America evolved to develop a defense against phylloxera. It thus had become, and still is, conventional to graft European vine species onto the roots of American vine species to transfer the protection to the European species. However, grafting vines required time and money, and MacCready had neither. He elected to throw caution to the wind and plant the European varieties on their own roots. It was a risky bet, but it paid off. Fifty years later, the roots of the original plantings remain healthy and productive. Whether it is due to the soil’s resistance to the insects, the care taken to prevent their arrival, or just more good luck, MacCready’s own-rooted vines are now some of the oldest in the state and are a priceless component of what is Sierra Vista today.

old vine, own-rooted Cabernet Sauvignon at Sierra Vista in El Dorado County of the Sierra Foothills
Nearly 50-year-old own-rooted Cabernet Sauvignon vine planted at 2800 feet in the Sierra Foothills at Sierra Vista

The earliest plantings at Sierra Vista included varieties that one would expect at the time, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Chardonnay, all of which were proving to be successful across California, but MacCready soon expanded his vision. He recognized the climatic similarities of his property with the Rhone Valley of France and started planting Rhone varieties as well. Soon, Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, and Viognier occupied choice spots in the vineyard. MacCready would go on to become the founding president of the Rhone Rangers, a group dedicated to the promotion of Rhone varieties in California, a few years later. He was also smart enough to plant varieties in separated blocks with each block having a different aspect and different way in which it received sunlight. Aspect can greatly affect the character of a developing grape, and this variation allows each block to express itself differently. This can add complexity to a blend and can hedge against seasonal variations.


MacCready loved and tended to these venerable old vines until he passed away in 2018. They, more than the winery or the wines he made, are his legacy. These vines are the roots upon which one of the most exciting wineries in the Sierra Foothills is being built, but the vines needed help.


Help would come in the form of a wine-loving, tile magnate from Michigan.


FROM TIGER STADIUM TO TIGER LILY


One of the great things about owning a tile company is that, inevitably, it takes you to Italy at some point. More than twenty years ago, Jim Czachorowski (checker-ow’-ski), the owner of the Great Lakes Tile and Contracting Corp. in the Detroit area, found himself and his soon-to-be wife sipping wine while looking over a Tuscan vineyard. It was then that Czachorowski got the inspiration to own a vineyard. Many people have gazed out at a Tuscan landscape and had a similar dream, but Czachorowski isn’t one to have idle dreams that do not come into fruition. Once he has a vision, he’s going to make it happen.

New Sierra Vista owner Jim Czachorowski at sunrise in his vineyard
The sun rises over a new era at Sierra Vista as new owner Jim Czachorowski takes over (photo courtesy Sierra Vista)

Two decades later, he did. After an exhaustive search across California, the Sierra Foothills kept popping up. When he discovered that the historic Sierra Vista Winery was for sale and when he further learned its history, Czachorowski grew intrigued. A chance meeting at a Napa bar with Chaim Gur-Arieh, a food scientist turned winemaker, helped seal the deal. Gur-Arieh is a transplant to El Dorado County and owner of C.G. di Arie Vineyard & Winery and has become a Sierra Foothills evangelical. Following Gur-Arieh’s influential words and far too many other signs to count, Czachorowski knew this was his place, and the purchase of Sierra Vista was completed in 2019.


Soon there was a new vision. During the purchasing process, Czachorowski grew to understand the value of the old vines MacCready so loved and cared for. Then, awed by those vines once he had his hands on them, Czachorowski became determined to make Sierra Vista the best winery in the Sierra Foothills. It would certainly be a challenge. He knew a lot about drinking wine, mostly Napa Cab, but not much about making it. Still, he knew he would do whatever it took to make the most of these vines he was now entrusted with.


Czachorowski’s own roots are in Michigan where he was born and bred. A tireless worker with midwestern sensibilities and a J.K. Simmons demeanor, Czachorowski built Great Lakes Tile into a success from nothing. “Successful enough to be able to buy a winery” he quips with equal parts humility and self-acknowledgement. Czachorowski is both a hands-on worker and a demanding boss. His employees either love him or hate him, some staying with him for decades and some quitting on their first day. As one worker put it, “Jim just has no time for incompetence.” All of this not only established the means for purchasing Sierra Vista, it also provided perfect training for what making over an historic winery would require of him.

Before and after of Sierra Vista wine processing area showing fermentation tanks and cooling system
Before (left) and after (right) photos of the processing area following Czachorowski's updates (before photo courtesy Sierra Vista)

It certainly didn't take long to realize how much needed to be done, so it was time for Czachorowski to roll up his sleeves. The most pressing needs, pun intended, were updates to the winery infrastructure. The inherited winemaking operation was antiquated and replete with rigged systems like a handmade coolant and tank insulation system. Czachorowski installed temperature-controlled fermentation tanks, a catwalk to help with processing, a cooling system for storage, and updated solar panels to power it all.

Before and after of exterior paneling at Sierra Vista winery
Before (left) and after (right) photos of the same exterior wall of the winery that you see on arrival (before photo courtesy Sierra Vista)

Czachorowski then turned his attention to the exterior. First, unruly growth was removed to better expose the winery’s exterior paneling of wood that had been milled from trees cleared by MacCready in the 1970's. Then the exterior was landscaped to provide an inviting outdoor tasting and picnic area. A stage was added for concert performances with a vineyard backdrop.


Before and after of tasting room at Sierra Vista winery in El Dorado County AVA of the Sierra Foothills AVA
Before (left) and after (right) photos of the tasting area (before photo courtesy Sierra Vista)

Some of the most dramatic changes happened in the tasting room building. The tasting room itself was updated from a hoedown-showdown feel to a more classy and clean, but not stuffy, look. Adjacent to the tasting area, a wasted and windowless room that had been used for case storage was converted to a beautiful, multi-use event room. Czachorowski used more of the wood that had been milled during the clearing 50 years prior to panel the room. Large windows were added to look out at the vineyard and mountains, and

Before and after of event room at Sierra Vista winery
Before (left) and after (right) photos of the transformation of a case storage room to the event room (before photo courtesy Sierra Vista)

little touches were included like tabletops adorned with old Sierra Vista labels and a grand piano corner backdropped by an homage to his beloved Detroit with photos ranging from Eminem to Tiger Stadium. Oh, and then there was the new sign, which Czachorowski built by hand over ten non-stop days, probably his favorite accomplishment.


New marble sign at Sierra Vista winery in El Dorado County of the Sierra Foothills
Czachorowski's tiling skills came in handy as he built the new sign out of marble and with raised lettering cut by hand

The operations were getting in place, and Czachorowski had the winery ready to really start taking off. Then there was Covid. While some of the wine industry found the pandemic and quarantine to be boom times with people staying at home and drinking, it hit the Sierra Foothills wine industry hard since most of the wineries in the region were so dependent on visitations for business. This was especially true for this new version of Sierra Vista which in many ways was again like a start-up winery in desperate need of new customers. To help, Czachorowski devised a pod system where visitors could taste in safe isolation.

Owner Jim Czachorowski with 7000 pound pizza oven hauled from Michigan to Sierra Vista winery in Northern California Gold Country
Czachorowski with a pizza fresh off the 7000 pound oven he had transported across the country (phot courtesy Sierra Vista)

Czachorowski also knew that where there are difficulties, there are also opportunities. One of these opportunities presented itself when he caught wind that a pizza restaurant in the Detroit Airport didn't survive the shutdown. Czachorowski remembered that the restaurant had a 7000-pound ceramic pizza oven that would be a great addition to the winery. After some phone calls recently, all it took was the closing of a gate at the airport, craning the oven from the restaurant to and through the airplane gate and onto the tarmac where it was taxied to a truck, hauled across the country, driven through the winding roads of the Foothills, and finally unloaded, installed, and hooked up at the winery. No sweat.

Beginning of Caldor Fire new Omo Ranch and southeast of Sierra Vista Winery in El Dorado County
Caldor fire at its origin 9 miles southeast of Sierra Vista. The 2021 fire burned over 220,000 acres in El Dorado County and came within about 2 miles of the winery

Unfortunately, the challenges kept coming. There was the Caldor fire, one of the largest fires in the history of California, that hit in the middle of the 2021 harvest. The fire itself threatened the winery and caused an evacuation and shutdown that was difficult enough, but the real devastation came from the smoke of the fire that tainted most of the grapes in the area rendering them unusable for high end wine. Then in the spring of 2022, there was a very late, extreme frost that wreaked havoc on the vines and led to miniscule yields later in the fall harvest.


Undeterred, the setbacks gave Czachorowski time to sit back, plan, and reformulate. He was getting to know the lay the of the land and the industry. One thing Czachorowski set his mind to was expansion and emphasis of a Tiger Lily line of wines. Originally the brainchild of John MacCready, the line would pay homage to the region’s past with elevated, reserve, or otherwise special wines and with specially designed bottles and labels. He also wanted to start introducing some new grape varieties to the vineyard.


Most importantly, Czachorowski knew he needed a team that shared his desire for perfection and commitment to excellence. He needed a fulltime winemaker and a new winemaking strategy.


That was when Czachorowski found a perfect match, right next door.


FROM NEIGHBOR TO NEW HOME


Technically, the ground Sierra Vista sits on is Cohasset series soil made up of very deep, well drained soils of decomposed volcanic rock. The real foundational rock of the winery, though, is new winemaker Ryan Wright.


Winemaker Ryan Wright looking at old vine chardonnay at Sierra Vista winery in El Dorado County of the Sierra Foothills
Winemaker Ryan Wright surveys the canopy of the nearly 50-year-old Chardonnay vines at Sierra Vista

Wright has the Sierra Foothills in his blood. He was born and raised in nearby Placerville where he grew up tending to a small family vineyard. His father had him “doing the unfun stuff like pruning and weeding,” he says with a sideways smile and distant gaze that suggest he actually thinks of that as the fun stuff. He is most at ease when strolling through the vineyard, studying and adjusting each vine as he walks and talks. Wright doesn’t enjoy talking about himself, but he lights up and gushes when talking about the vines and wines of Sierra Vista, a place he clearly loves as if it were his own.


Wright couldn’t have scripted his training and apprenticeships any more perfectly for preparing him to manage an historic winery in the Foothills. He studied forestry in college but grew to realize wine was his passion. He landed an entry level job at Madroña Winery, one of the three original El Dorado wineries that was started in the 1970’s and was soon working in the cellar under the tutelage of Paul Bush, the current owner and winemaker (and son of founders Dick and Leslie Bush). For more than seven years as assistant winemaker at Madroña and then the spinoff Rucksack Cellars, Wright soaked up the knowledge of Bush’s decades of Foothills knowledge. Thirsty for more, Wright left to work in the cellar at Lava Cap Winery, another long standing, top winery in El Dorado County. There Wright worked with legendary winemaker Joe Norman previously of Heitz Cellar fame where he had created some of the best wines ever made in California. Wright spent every possible second at Lava Cap learning from Norman’s wisdom and calls the short experience the most impactful of his life.


About the time Wright was transitioning to Lava Cap, he met Czachorowski. Years earlier, coincidentally, Wright and his wife had purchased 40 acres of land that abutted Sierra Vista. Other than that, though, he had no connection to the winery. He did know its history, he knew about the old vines, and he was intrigued by the new ownership. Czachorowski was so impressed by the meeting, he knew instantly Wright was going to be his winemaker. Wright had just accepted the position at Lava Cap and felt it was in his developmental best interest to experience working with Norman. So, they would have to be patient. Less than a year later, during the harvest of 2021, the two decided it was time to officially make Wright the winemaker, and Wright shortened his commute to a few steps across the property line.

Winemaker Ryan Wright pouring wine at Sierra Vista Winery
Winemaker Ryan Wright also manages the Tasting Room at Sierra Vista and pours wine at events (photo courtesy Sierra Vista)

Wright’s skills are undeniable, and his gentle manner exudes a quiet confidence. A smile of self-satisfaction comes across his eyes when he talks about the wines he has made, he is in the process of making, and the ones he envisions making. He cares so much about the winery and its success, when the tasting room manager spot became available, Wright volunteered to take over that role, too, and Czachorowski immediately agreed. Being both the winemaker and the tasting room manager for a winery the size of Sierra Vista is a tall task, but it works. Customers receive a heightened experience in the tasting room with Wright being so hands-on and available. More importantly, Wright gets firsthand feedback that he can take with him back to the cellar.


Czachorowski and Wright form a great team that complement one another perfectly. There was still a piece missing, though. Even perfectly made wines from own-rooted old vines in an historic setting don’t sell themselves.


A worldly and otherworldly free spirit would soon complete the team.


FROM HERE TO THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORLD AND BACK


Beka Scher grew up in El Dorado County and is even the granddaughter of one of the originators of Apple Hill, but Scher was raised and shaped far from home. At the tender age of 17 and by a remarkably strange, divinely-interventional story (she has lots of those), Scher ended up at a missionary school in Perth, Australia alone and on her own. A year later, she moves to India building orphanages and helping care for deaf children in Darjeeling, Hyderabad, and Mumbai, all while fighting off aggressive men, wild packs of roaming dogs, and spiders, a bite from one of which put her in the hospital and almost killed her. She was powered emotionally by a strong distaste for injustice and powered physically by a strong taste for biriyani and street chai.


Her experience in India transformed her world view. She had started her mission work from a desire of wanting to help people. Through her work, she grew to understand that “help” implies some superiority in a way. She came to realize it is better to “serve” than to “help.” “How can I serve you?” became a mantra. Service is humble and egalitarian, not condescending like help can be.


Scher returned to the United States at 19, already with more experiences, excitements, and traumas than most people have in a lifetime. It isn’t surprising she had a hard time finding her footing. Scher first moved to Nashville to study voice in pursuit of a singing career, then to a freezing part of Illinois where she fell in and out of love, and then in a state of depression to Arcata in far Northern California. In her escape to Arcata, she lived in a one-bedroom apartment with eight friends, sleeping on the floor and working at a café. She also suffered through the tragic death of a close friend, a “get it together, Beka” moment.


As is perfectly fitting in her stranger-than-fiction story, Scher broke out of her whiskey-numbing doldrums after a unicycle-riding juggler from Colorado named Nic rolled into the café, laid eyes on Scher, and told her she was beautiful. After bonding over vinyl record playing sessions before he left and then after having the good fortune of getting laid off from the café, Scher packed everything into her Datsun long bed named Gromit and headed for Colorado. The two fell in love and traversed the country in Nic’s Volvo named Wallace. Cheese.


The two moved to Placerville, got married, and Scher returned to a new life of providing service, first working at the Mother Lode Rehabilitation Enterprises with neurodivergent adults, herself being one with ADHD, then as a job coach for individuals with disabilities, then with autistic students in the El Dorado County schools, and then as a Campus Monitor at El Dorado High School, her favorite job. During all of this, she applied to and was accepted into UC Davis School of Law which she decided against after coming to the realization that she could do more good outside of a courtroom than in it. In self-reflection, Scher realizes that in her service work, she had subconsciously been striving to be the person she herself had needed during her youth and trying times. As it turns out, she had also turned herself into the person Sierra Vista needed.

Beka Scher serving and pouring wine for Sierra Vista Winery in El Dorado County of the Sierra Foothills
Beka Scher brings uncommon experience to her job serving members and managing the Sierra Vista social media (photo courtesy Sierra Vista)

After the birth of her son, longtime friend Ryan Wright, by then the fulltime winemaker at Sierra Vista, asked her to come into the tasting room and pour wine a couple of days a week. She loved working with Wright and Czachorowski and helping them embody their vision. She loved working with the customers and providing a different kind of service than most are capable of, a deeply rooted one. It didn’t take long for her role to expand, and she is now the Wine Club Liaison where she is adored by club members and the Social Media Manager where she heads up one of the best and most active social media programs for Foothills wineries.


The team is now complete. This modern version of Sierra Vista is thus made up of these four component parts: MacCready, Czachorowski, Wright, and Scher. Though no longer with us, John MacCready is still very much alive in the vineyard, embodied in the roots of the vines. The new members have grafted themselves onto those old roots, and this quanternarium is making some of the most exciting wine and experiences in the Sierra Foothills.


FROM HOMESPUN TO WORLD CLASS


Sierra Vista was never considered a bad wine, per se, but it also wasn’t winning awards on a world stage. MacCready was respected for his vision, ingenuity, and community leadership, and Sierra Vista wines were respected for their unmistakable local flair. However, with MacCready’s declining health and with the winery increasingly in need of update, the quality had slipped.


That has now changed, and how. The winery is unique in the Foothills in the way it is embracing the old and the new. What makes Sierra Vista so special is the careful and thoughtful way the old is used and respected. The history of the winery isn’t a distant relic that is merely mentioned in passing, but it isn’t awkwardly preserved like an amusement park exhibit, either. The winery is more of an homage to the past but with modern updates, and the wines convey this feel and spirit as well.


There are many different wines being made here, but every wine has one common denominator. It comes from these old historic roots. Beyond that, though, each wine takes on its own life and its own style. When it comes to the winemaking, the wines of this new version of Sierra Vista, it seems, can be generally placed into four categories: (i) the laissez-faire, (ii) the expansions, (iii) the transformations, and (iv) the serendipitous. Each program utilizes and honors the old roots in a different way.


It is important to keep in mind that with any winery under the new ownership, it takes time to change the course of wines being produced. When you add to this the additional delays to the timeline caused by the pandemic in 2020 and the fire in 2021 and when you consider there wasn’t a fulltime winemaker until after the 2021 harvest, the wines of the new Sierra Vista really can only be thought of as beginning with the 2022 vintage.


The Laissez-faire


Laissez-faire is the art of knowing when to let something be. Some of the old, own-rooted vines are in perfect shape and are producing wonderful fruit. It would be a shame to do anything but harvest and let this fruit speak for itself. For these grapes, it is as simple as letting the modernized facilities and the gentle hands of Wright turn it into world class wine, the likes of which we haven’t seen come out of this winery before now.


A perfect example of this is the Syrah program. Nearly fifty-year-old Syrah vines are grown in two blocks separated by the property’s fall line. One block, the Mountain Ridge, is oriented with an aspect to the southwest which catches the afternoon sun in the heat of the day. The other block, the northeasterly facing Red Rock Ridge, gets the early morning sun at


Old vine Syrah with Sierra Mountains in the background
The 50-year-old own-rooted Syrah vines in the Red Rock Ridge block receive the morning sun as it rises over the Sierras

first light. Syrah’s character is greatly influenced by the manner in which it receives sunlight, especially in the Foothills, so these blocks provide two very distinctive versions of Syrah for either separate bottling or with the potential to be blended together for an extra complex version. The Red Rock Ridge block comes with some added mystery, too, in that is has an unexplainable ripening pattern with the lower, cooler rows ripening before the upper, warmer rows that receive more sunlight. Picking in multiple passes, each pick with its own ripening profile character, further adds to the complexity of the wine.

Old vine Mourvèdre, Mourvedre inflourescence at Sierra Vista Winery in El Dorado County in the Sierra Foothills
Nearly 50-year-old Mourvèdre vine in inflourescence with Grenache vines in the background at Sierra Vista

Several other Rhone variety wines at Sierra Vista fall under this category. The Mourvèdre has one of the prettiest noses you will find for the varietal. The Grenache Noir is brooding and haunting. The Viognier has the fruit and florals you expect and a bright crispness you do not. The Roussanne has Old World charm and depth with surprising uplift. With Wright just getting to know these wines, it will be fascinating to see where they go in his hands in coming vintages.


The Expansions

Some of the new wines being made at Sierra Vista are similar to the Laissez-faire wines, but are also expansions of previous programs. One such expansion is the Tiger Lily line of wines, named after the Gold Rush era Pleasant Valley winery, and which was the original idea of John MacCready. Now, spearheaded by Czachorowski, the line is growing with new vigor. The Tiger Lily Cabernet Sauvignon is an expressive, reserve style version of the regular line but from vines of a different clone that are positioned higher on the slope. In a few years, this wine may well be regarded as one of the best Cabs in the Foothills, if not beyond. Wright's time spent under Cab-master Joe Norman only makes this development more intriguing.

Old vine Chardonnay at Sierra Vista in El Dorado County AVA in the Sierra Foothills AVA
Sierra Vista's nearly 50-year-old Chardonnay vines extend for days

The most exciting expansion, though, is in the Chardonnay program. Chardonnay is a difficult grape to grow well in the Sierra Foothills. Unsurprisingly, that didn’t stop MacCready from trying. He planted close to four acres, which is a lot by Sierra Foothills standards. He also had the foresight of recognizing the value of having two different versions, an unoaked version and an oaked version. The new team at Sierra Vista, in addition to improving on the existing two versions, is now also adding a third Goldilocks-style version under the Tiger Lily line.


With this new version, there are now three very different styles of Chardonnay available to suit any taste. For the Unoaked Chardonnay, the grapes are picked early to maintain acidity and to keep the sugars and the

Tiger Lily old vine Chardonnay from Sierra Vista Winery in El Dorado County of the Sierra Foothills
The Sierra Vista Tiger Lily Chardonnay is a balanced version between the crisp Unoaked version and the rich Oaked version

alcohol low. It is then both fermented and stored in stainless steel without undergoing malolactic fermentation. It is bright, refreshing, citrusy, and puts one in the mind of Chablis, at least as much as a warm-climate Chardonnay can. The Oaked Chardonnay is on the other end of the taste spectrum. It is rounder with more pear and tropical fruit and with baking spices from oak aging and creaminess from malolactic fermentation. The Tiger Lily Chardonnay is a happy medium. It takes the fruit used for the Oaked Chardonnay but is more refined in its processing which results in a very interesting version that is in many ways the best of both of the other versions. Think of them, if you will, as a Chablis version, a Côte d'Or version, and a stereotypical California version. All three are excellent examples of their respective style, are fascinating to drink side by side, and make Sierra Vista a must-go-to winery for any Chardonnay lover.


The Transformations

Picpoul Blanc scion grafted onto Viognier vine at Sierra Vista Winery
Picpoul Blanc scion grafted onto nearly 50-year-old Viognier own-rooted stock

Normally, field grafting is used to place new varieties of grape vines atop phylloxera-resistant root stock. Here at Sierra Vista, field grafting is being used to place new varieties onto old, originally own-rooted vines. The results are these unique conglomerations of, for example, new Picpoul Blanc on old Viognier roots, new Cabernet Franc on old Syrah roots, new Petite Sirah and Barbera onto old Zinfandel roots, and new Sauvignon Blanc and Petit Verdot on old who-knows-what roots.


These modern centaur vines are showing early signs of producing some unique and powerful wines. The first glimpse we get is the Picpoul Blanc. In 2020, half of the existing old Viognier block was grafted over to Picpoul Blanc, a white wine grape from the Rhone Valley and the Languedoc in the South of France and known there for its tart acidity, so much so that the grape is named for its lip stinging capabilities. Picpoul Blanc is relatively rare in California but has recently been showing some life in the warm climate of the Sierra Foothills where it is most often used as a blending grape to add acidity. Varietal versions can be a real treat. The fruit was dropped in 2020 and then the 2021 harvest was tainted by Caldor Fire smoke, but ah, the 2022.

Bottle and glass of Picpoul Blanc from Sierra Vista Winery with Sierra Foothills in background
The 2022 Picpoul Blanc is one of the first results of the grafting program at Sierra Vista

The 2022 Picpoul Blanc, which is the first vintage entirely in Wright’s hands, is nothing short of spectacular. The wine is laser-focused and razor-sharp. It has the crisp acidity and citrus notes you expect, but then a hint of tropical fruit starts creeping in midpalate. This is, to be clear, a very different wine than a Picpoul de Pinet, but it is also a very different wine than a traditional New World Picpoul Blanc. Even in its first real vintage, this wine is showing real potential for being considered one of the best white wines in the Foothills. The only problem with it is that the 2022 yields were so low because of the spring frost, this wine is in limited supply. The good news is that the 2023 vintage is so far, knock wood, looking excellent, and Sierra Vista is hoping for 4 tons of Picpoul Blanc in the coming harvest. That is a remarkable amount of this variety.


The Cabernet Franc is also progressing with equal anticipation. The 2021 fruit was looking perfect before being tainted by the fire smoke. Wright has been using some interesting tricks to make the most of the wine and is also using some of the fruit too tainted for quality wine to make brandy and neutral spirits for a future port program. The 2022 is in barrel and is hinting to be a contender for one of the best Cabernet Francs in the region, albeit also in short supply. Of all of the bright spots on Sierra Vista’s horizon, the Cabernet Franc program may well be the most eagerly awaited.


The Serendipitous


This brings us to the climax of our story and a wine that in large part is the inspiration for this piece. How is that for burying the lede?

Portrait of bottle of White Grenache from Sierra Vista Winery
2022 White Grenache Blanc from nearly 50-year-old own-rooted Grenache Noir vines. Serendipity in a bottle.

The wine is a 2022 White Grenache Noir. Not to be confused with Grenache Blanc or with Grenache Rosé, this wine is not only novel, it is a unicorn. It is the serendipitous result of incredibly good fruit from old vines, tremendous skill and know-how, freedom to operate without confines, and a whole lot of blind luck.


On a low, south-facing slope sits a block of own-rooted Grenache Noir vines that were planted in the 1970’s. These vines are fickle and produce massive clusters of varying ripenesses, sometimes even within the clusters. This variation was further exacerbated by the obscure 2022 season and the spring frost. For whatever reason, grapes from these vines that tested at 19 to 20 degrees Brix (one degree Brix is one gram of sucrose in 100 grams of liquid) in the field and were picked for rosé came in at 17.5 Brix after pressing. The pressed juice also had absolutely no color. Somehow, though, it tasted promising to Wright, so he rolled with it. A couple of weeks later another pass through the same block gave more grapes, again with no color after direct press, but they were again tasting intriguing to Wright.

Winemaker Ryan Wright holding old vine Grenache vines
Winemaker Ryan Wright showing off the Grenache Noir vines whence came the 2022 White Grenache unicorn

Many winemakers would have panicked, rushed out to find ready red grapes to provide some color, and would have blended it in to save the rosé, but not Wright. He recognized there was something special going on here, and he decided to let it sing. He processed the lots with very little intervention, blended them to taste at a 60:40 first lot to second lot proportion, and got 140 cases of bottled enchantment.

Bottle and glass of White Grenache from Sierra Vista Winery in El Dorado County with Sierra Foothills hills in the background  on yellow table
2022 White Grenache. Yes, this is a white wine made from Grenache Noir grapes.

There is nothing like this wine. It is pleasantly disconcerting with its pale straw color that telegraphs a certain expectation, but then hits you with an aromatic curveball. White wine isn’t supposed to smell like this. It is bright and lemony but also rich and tropical. It is floral but not perfumy. It gives a vague impression of a Torrontés but without the soapiness. Once on the palate, the uniqueness of the wine continues. It has the body of a Chardonnay with a thick coating texture, but nothing else about it is like a Chardonnay. It has the structure of a Sauvignon Blanc with racy acidity, but nothing else about it is like a Sauvignon Blanc. It also continues to evolve in the glass as it breathes. After some time, strawberries start to slowly announce their presence, and they just camp out and linger on the palate. This shockingly good wine has the flavors and structure to make it pairable with almost anything, but it is probably best savored on its own.


The White Grenache Noir may well be fleeting, but that’s okay. Wright says he will try to replicate it in future vintages, but his eyes give away his suspicion that this was a one-time gift from the wine gods. While it is sad that it may never be duplicated, the encouraging thing is that this wine came about because of Wright’s experience, knowledge, and recognition, and was enabled by Czachorowski’s trust and the resources he has provided. The fruit came from MacCready’s unique vines, and everyone knows Scher will be able to use her unique skills to serve and sell it. None of these things are going to disappear, so it is very likely there will be many more unicorns to come.


Framed in this context, it is clear that Sierra Vista has a future even brighter than its past. This is a winery that offers the best of the Sierra Foothills with its setting, its facilities, its wines, and its people. Most importantly, Sierra Vista has successfully grafted new life onto some deep old roots. The combination is indeed producing magic.


Outdoor winery tasting area with fig tree and vines at Sierra Vista Winery in El Dorado County of the Sierra Foothills
A wise old fig tree has seen a lot of history at Sierra Vista, but never before with a future as bright as now, with its current team fully utilizing the old vines they inherited from a Sierra Foothills legend

Foothills Wino would like to express great appreciation to the staff at Sierra Vista for opening up the winery to us with great patience, access, and availability during the 3 month of work on this feature.


© 2023 Foothills Wino

All writings, pictures, and descriptions (except where indicated) are the sole and exclusive property of Foothills Wino and may not be duplicated or reproduced in any manner, in whole or in part, without our express written approval.


This feature is available for re-publication by contacting guy@foothillswino.com






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