Thursday, October 23, 2008

Mount Brow Winery, La Bella Rosa Vineyards and Irish Vineyards - Sierra Foothills

The town of Sonora is found in the beautiful Sierra Nevada Foothills, in the heart of California’s “Gold Country.” It was founded by Mexican miners during the California Gold Rush (to remind them of the state of Sonora, Mexico), who settled the City in 1848 and Sonora still echoes some of its history through preserved architecture. Known as the “Queen of the Southern Mines”, this pristine City still holds on to its historic charm with many of its existing buildings dating back to the 1800’s. In fact, a walk along most streets in the City allows one to reminisce with days gone by; a brick or stone building, a slate wall, an iron shutter or fence, or a historic home nestled in an old fashioned garden.

Incorporated in 1851, this hastily established mining camp took on the identity of a town and while gold mining was the driving force of the City it quickly evolved into the commercial, government and cultural center for the region. The prosperity of California ’s “Mother Lode” that drew the gold seekers of yesteryear to this beautiful area is still being discovered today as Sonora remains the center of commerce for the region.

Along with museums, art galleries, live theater, year-round outdoor recreational opportunities at resorts, campgrounds, lakes, golf courses and high country waterways are several very fine wineries.

On Saturday October 18th I took the two hour drive from the San Francisco Bay Area up to Sonora to visit two fine wineries, Mount Brow Winery and La Bella Rosa Vineyards, and then jotted over to Vallecito to sample the wines of the foothill’s finest wineries - Irish Vineyards.

Mt. Brow Winery

Mount Brow Winery, located at 10850 Mt. Brow Road in Sonora California, is a 12 year old family owned and operated winery located in Tuolumne County, in the foothills of Central Sierra Nevada Mountains. The climate provides a long growing season with warm days and cool nights.

While tasting the wine I had to opportunity to learn about the winery from Jim Costello, a first generation American of Italian descent. Mt. Brow Winery was licensed in 2002 and opened in 2004. The 6 1/2 acreage vineyard was planted in 1993 on their 82 acres of property. The estate varietals on the 14 year old vineyard include Sangiovese, Merlot, and Zinfandel. They produce about 1,800 cases a year; 1,200 cases come from the Estate vines and the another 600 cases are made from grapes in addition to purchasing grapes from other Tuolumne County vineyards, such as La Bella Rosa Vineyards, giving us access to excellent Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.

Before opening the winery Jim worked in the Timber industry which came in handy when it came time to clear the land along with his eldest son Dennis. The Costello family made wine for many years just to share with friends and family in the celebration of life and Italian heritage. Eventually the popularity of their wine demanded that they increase production and then in 2003 at the winery experienced their first commercial crush with the first release of their wines in November, 2004.

Jim wears many hats around the winery including winemaker, business manager, and overall ‘godfather’. He is inspired by his grandfather who made wine in his San Rafael home with grapes purchased grapes from Sonoma.

Jim’s wife Pam Costello is the bookkeeper and retail sales manager and Dennis, the eldest son of Jim and Pam, is the Operations Manager for the vineyard and the production aspects of the winery. Dennis trained in viticulture through the U.C. Davis Ag Extension Program and he did the research, selected the original varietals and root stock, and laid out the original vineyard. He did everything from drive the D7 to rip the hillside selected for the vineyard to installing every post, wire, and emitter of the trellis and irrigation system.

While at the winery I tasted their Sauvignon Blanc ($12) “Caruso” named after the famous Italian opera singer Enrico Caruso, who was a relative of Jim Costello, as well as a White Sangiovese ($16), the Estate Sangiovese ($16), Merlot ($15) and a Red Blend called Tartaglia, named after Jim’s grandfather. It is a blend of Cabernet Franc (50%), Syrah. Merlot, and Sangiovese. I then tried their 50-50 blend of Cabernet and Merlot called “Twice Red” and finally their excellent port wine which is made from a blend of Zinfandel, Tinto Cao and Sangiovese. At only $14 its a great buy so I picked up a bottle. The wines are available only through the winery and a few local stores and restaurants.

For more information:

La Bella Rosa Vineyards (“The Beautiful Vineyards”)

My next stop was at La Bella Rosa Vineyards is located at 17990 Old Wards Ferry Road in Sonora. Owned and operated by Ron and Lynda Peterson, the property was purchased 11 years ago and the 8 acre vineyard was planted 2 years later with Cabernet Cauvignon (6 acres) and Syrah (2 acres). While visiting the winery I was able to chat with Lynda who was watering the flowers in front of the tasting room when I arrived as their cat sat comfortably on top of a nearby wine barrel. Lynda’s husband Ron, who has a background in construction, handles the wine making side of the business while Lynda handles the sales and hospitality. The wines are also available only through the winery and a few local stores and restaurants.

While chatting in the tasting room, I tasted the 2005 Chardonnay ($10), the 2005 Sangiovese ($16), the 2005 Merlot ($15), and the 2004 Cab Franc ($15). Their two best wines are the 2005 Estate Syrah ($18) and my favorite the Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($20).

I purchased a bottle of the Cabernet to share with friends the following evening. On Sunday morning I had some Black Currant preserves with crumpets and later in the evening when I enjoyed the bottle with friends over dinner, it was remarkable how strongly this wine reminded me of the preserves I had for breakfast.

One of the most unique experiences at the wineery is the the 2004 Aglianico (pronounced “ah-LYAH-nee-koe”) ($18). It is a full bodied wine with firm tannins and high acidity and very concentrated. The wine color is a deep garnet and it has strong notes of chocolate and plum aromas.

This is a rare varietal in California. Aglianico is a black grape grown in the Campania and Basilicata regions of Italy. The vine originated in Greece and was brought to Campania by Greek settlers. In early Roman times, it was the principal grape of the famous Falernian wine which was the Roman equivalent of a First Growth wine today.

Traces of the vine have been found in Molise, Puglia and on the island of Procida near Naples, though it is no longer widely cultivated in those places. The grape was called Ellenico (the Italian word for "Greek") until the 15th century when it got its current name Aglianico.

In Basilicata, Aglianico forms the basis for the region’s only DOC wine, Aglianico del Vulture, and is concentrated around the areas of Matera and Potenza.The most sought-after productions of Aglianico del Vulture come from the vineyards located in and around the extinct volcano Mount Vulture. In Campania the area in and around the village of Taurasi Aglianico's only DOCG wine is produced, also called Taurasi. More Aglianico can be found in the province of Benevento. In Campania, it is also the principal grape of Aglianico del Taburno and Falerno del Massico.

For More Information:

Irish Vineyards


I then made a trek over the hills to Vallecito for my final stop for the day, as the Autumn sun was beginning to set, at Irish Vineyards where I had the opportunity to chat with the owner and wine maker, Russell Irish. I first visited this winery in 2004, about a year after it first opened and it is amazing to see how much this winery has grown and improved. I have been to about 30 or so wineries in the Sierra Nevada Foothills and I have to say that this is one of my favorites.

In 1998, the Irish family left the California Valley in pursuit of their dreams, hoping to find a quaint location where they could raise their children and build a winery. The small town of Vallecito had both, and the historic Batten house became the foundation on which this dream would grow. The Batten farmhouse, built in 1867, offered the family a new beginning, and the 8.3 acres was the perfect place to plant grapes and start their winery.

The family-owned and operated winery offers many wines including small lots of a number of Rhone varietals including Alicante Bouschet, Apricot Wine, Blarney Red - Blend Of Merlot And Cab Franc, Blarney White - Blend - Chenin and Chardonnay, Cab-Shiraz Blend, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sparkling Wine, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Dry Rosé, Graciano, Grenache, Late Harvest Malvasia Bianca, Malvasia Bianca, Merlot, Petite Sirah, Petite Sirah & Cab Sauv, Portugal Varietals, Shiraz / Syrah, Tannat, Touriga Nacional, Viognier, and Zinfandel. Their Signature Varietals are the Petite Sirah and Blarney Blends.

While chatting with Russell, I tried the 2004 Viognier ($16), the 2005 Petite Sirah ($29), the non vintage Blarney Red ($20), a Meritage blend with 50% Cabernet Franc and 50% Merlot, the Kilkenny Red ($26), also a non vintage, a blend of 45% Petite Sirah, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon and 45% Zinfandel, the 2006 Barbera ($39), and the 2006 Grenache ($24). All of these wines were absolutely superb and I’ll be visiting again in a couple weeks to pick up a case or two.

For more information or to visit:

Irish Vineyards
2849 Highway 4,
Vallecito, CA 95251
Phone: 1-209-736-1299

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