Wineries of the Sierra Foothills, Sierra Starr Vineyard & Winery

Jack and Phil Starr. | Johan Martin

It’s almost an unfair advantage to have a wine judge in the family, and this selfsame judge has not only a great palate but also a knack for making interesting wines.

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from the second edition of the popular guidebook “Wineries of the Sierra Foothills: Risk-Takers & Rule-Breakers” available now on Amazon. All sales support Tahoe Weekly.

Add to the mix a founder (Dad) who is an experienced hand at intense farming and a good winemaker in his own right, a Mom who charms the customers in the tasting room, and another son whose professional musicianship draws crowds to the winery’s outdoor events and you end up with great wines, a beautiful setting in which to enjoy them, and a sky’s-the-limit attitude toward innovation.

That summarizes the verve of the Starr family in Nevada County, and explains why so many award-winning wines are giving this wine-growing area a place not only on the terrestrial wine map of the Sierra Foothills, but in California overall.

Sierra Starr started small, with a parcel that included 5 vineyard acres on the outskirts of Grass Valley. Phil and Anne Starr purchased this acreage in 1995 with the thought of relocating their Monterey County flower growing nursery to the more serene Sierra Foothills. Perhaps it was the old vines calling out to them that changed their minds. The heritage vines that had been planted in 1979-80 (Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel) gave a great baseline for vineyard and wine experimentation.

Phil planted an acre of Cabernet Franc in the summer of 1998, and in 2000, a Zinfandel vineyard using scion (fruiting) wood from the Ciapusci Vineyard, a lauded 100-year-old vineyard in Mendocino County. And then, in 2006 and 2007 more planting – additional Cabernet Franc vines and new plantings of Petite Sirah and Alicante Bouschet were added to the home ranch. Today, Sierra Starr vineyards comprise 12 acres of fruit and the winery produces 2,500 cases annually.

The experimentation never stops: Dry farming. Concrete egg for convection-current fermentation. A gravity-flow winery for energy efficiency. Semillon. Riesling.

Maybe it was the experience of farming in Monterey County that gave Phil and Anne their gumption. There are the long hard workdays – a given in farming – but there is also the let’s-try-it attitude toward risk-tasking that comes with the turf of an agribusiness venture.

Time is on the side of Sierra Starr and other wineries in this region. With global warming an established fact, the higher altitudes of the Sierra Foothills lend themselves to relatively cool nights and a longer growing season. The result is a bright fresh fruit character that shows through in the wines, with a nice acid retention.

“Climate change has put us in a sweet spot,” declares son Jack, who joined the family business fulltime in 2005. “We’re already seeing an enhancement of our area’s potential as a great grape-growing and winemaking region.”

The hot summer days in Grass Valley whet the appetite for a glass of cool white wine, and Phil is a huge fan of Sauvignon Blanc. “I am a fanatic about it. I read about it. I visit the regions where it is grown.”

Fortunately, his vineyards have rewarded him with great Sauvignon Blanc fruit. “Our winemaking is a process of trial and error, as it is for any winemaker,” Phil explains. “We ferment our Sauvignon Blanc in many ways: stainless steel tanks, concrete egg, new French Oak barrels. And we blend from all those modes, and the blends vary.” A popular blend is Sierra Starr’s Solstice, which gives a great sense of Nevada County terroir with crisp and fresh flavors.

For Jack, his training as a wine judge and his own natural palate direct him more toward red wines.

“Regardless of all the great reds out there, I personally keep coming back to Zin. It is, after all, the heritage grape of California, and I love the spicy brambly red-fruit taste that is a bit high octane.”

Sierra Starr’s Old Clone Zinfandel is an all-estate wine made from the oldest Zinfandel vines in Nevada County, planted in the vineyards in 1980. It has a sense of place and highlights the characteristics of Foothills Zinfandel.

Sierra Starr’s Tasting Room is located at 124 W. Main St. in Grass Valley. Call for schedule. | (530) 477-8282, sierrastarr.com