Wineries of the Sierra Foothills: Viña Castellano

Teena Wilkins. | Johan Martin

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.


When the Abuelita blend of Spanish varietals from Viña Castellano was awarded a Best of California designation in the 2014 California State Fair, Teena Wilkins was emotional. “All these years of hard work, family investment and involvement, risk taking and course corrections, all that was finally recognized, and it felt so good.”

Wilkins is the co-owner of Viña Castellano Estate Vineyards and Winery in Auburn, which started in 1999 when she and her late father, Gabe Mendez, put in Tempranillo and Syrah. The vineyard, now 10 acres, sits on land owned for 40 years by her forebears, the Mendez family. From the beginning, it was a family venture.

Shared cultural traditions are what led Wilkins into this enterprise. “I grew up with my grandmother, Mercedes Maria-Mendez, living next door; she made 200 gallons of wine every year from the time she was a young girl until she was a very old woman,” she recalls. “Wine was part of our food life, and Sunday dinners introduced us to the taste of wine with food from a young age.”

In 1998, Wilkins started taking classes at UC Davis that were designed with would-be winery owners in mind. She was inspired in part by her father’s trips back to visit relatives in the Castile region of Spain. He’d come back with the gleam of Tempranillo in his eye and a conviction that his Sierra Foothill’s land was similar to the terroir in which Spanish wine grapes were growing. They pooled resources and dreams and planted the Tempranillo and Syrah.

By 2003, the vineyard yielded enough fruit for a first crush, which took place at a facility in Cloverdale near Auburn. Work was under way to excavate a cave on their own property. The construction of the cave, including lining it with large granite stones that had been removed when the vineyard was planted, took some years. But, by 2005, winemaking began there.

Today, the cave provides Wilkins and her winery consultant, Derek Irwin, with plenty of room to produce 2,000 cases of estate wine. There are now 10 planted acres, and another 15 acres will be planted in the future. Barrels take up a goodly portion of room in the cave; the Old-World winemaking style for which Viña Castellano is known means that many of their wines are aged in the barrel for three or more years.

“We call ourselves Old World Winemakers with a Modern Twist,” she says. “We have to deal with the tendency of Sierra Foothill wines to have higher alcohol and yet make sure our wines are food-friendly and balanced.” Viña Castellano’s Mediterranean-like soils combine with warm days and cool nights to produce luscious grapes that result in intense and full-bodied wines.

Although known as Tempranillo experts, Viña Castellano is continuing to search out, plant and produce wines of Spanish heritage as their signature wines. They’ve planted Verdejo (an important white grape from Spain), Garnacha (Grenache), Monastrell (Mourvedre) and they also make a Rosado (Rosé) using Syrah. To emphasize the family’s Spanish heritage, the winery is named in honor of the family’s Castillan roots.

“Viña is the Spanish word for vineyard and Castile is the region in Spain from whence the Mendez and Maria families emigrated and where they still have family today; Castellano is what you would call a man from that region,” Wilkins explains.

The wine-tasting experience in Viña Castellano’s cave is one that’s convivial. “You don’t have to be a connoisseur to enjoy our wines,” notes Wilkins. “Our wines are approachable, fresh, yet complex.”

At 1,300 feet elevation, the winery and vineyard offer beautiful Foothills scenery and a view of the Sierra Nevada. Salut.

Viña Castellano is located at 4590 Bell Road in Auburn. Check in advance for tasting schedule. | (530) 889-2855,