Features, stories, and reported articles written by Julie Brown.

Drink Local

Moonshine Ink, June 2011

This story originally published in Moonshine Ink, an independent monthly newspaper based in Truckee, California. Read the story on MoonshineInk.com.

The first time I visited the Truckee River Winery it was snowing. A late May storm had blown in as we walked up the brick path leading to the winery's cherry-red barn, which was built in 1968 on South River Street in downtown Truckee. A few inches of snow cloaked the barn's shoulders and dusted the naked apple and aspen trees out front. Young vines recently planted by the Truckee River Winery were still enduring the record snow and icy temperatures of one of the area's longest winters. It's no wonder they call themselves 'the highest and coldest winery.'

PHOTO: Emily Dettling

In a few years, those hardy, high-altitude vines will produce enough fruit to make the first case of wine grown and bottled in Truckee. But until then, inside the shelter of the barn, Truckee River Winery continues to craft world-class wine with fruit sourced from regional vines, which grow in much more temperate climates.

The distinct aroma of oak, aging wine, and must hit me as soon as I stepped inside the barn. White boxes full of the 2009 chardonnay, Volo, a California red table wine, and Zanos, a red blend, were stacked to my right. Five-hundred-gallon oak barrels — mostly French, some American — filled the rest of the barn. Winemaker Russ Jones and Mike Kalan, assistant winemaker, were just putting labels on a few bottles of chardonnay. Jones popped a bottle open and poured us a glass.

Spring is a slower season in the winemaking business compared to the fall, when the harvest occurs. Jones sources his grapes from growers in Colfax, Lodi, and Monterey. Once the harvest comes in from the vineyards, Jones and Kalan spend the next couple of months crushing the grapes, storing the fruit in open-top steel fermentation vessels, and then putting the wine in oak barrels where it will age for at least the next two years. During fermentation, the skins of the fruit must be punched down about four times daily, a process that gives the wine its color. According to Jones, true winemaking — the moment where the fruit turns to wine — occurs once a year during fermentation.

"I made up my mind at some point that I was going to make wine for the rest of my life," Jones said. "So, that's what I’m going to do."

Truckee River Winery is a family affair. Jones met his wife, Joan, at Truckee High School. After graduating in 1977, Jones studied fermentology science at U.C. Davis, including enology, the study of winemaking, and viticulture, the science of grape growing.

"[Winemaking] is really hands-on," Jones said. "It's somewhere between art and science."

After college, Jones moved to the Willamette Valley in Oregon, which is a land known for pinot noir, the varietal Jones says is his calling in winemaking because "it's more expressive." Both of Jones’ pinot noirs recently won awards at the 2011 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. The 2008 Truckee River Winery Pinot Noir won the Best of Class, and the 2007 Best Man Pinot Noir, one of Truckee River Winery's reserve wines, won a gold medal.

From the Willamette Valley, Jones moved to Paso Robles. But it wasn’t too long before his hometown called him back. Jones and his wife moved back to Truckee and opened Truckee River Winery in 1989. Today, he produces about 1,000 cases a year featuring chardonnay, zinfandel, pinot noir, and a couple of red blends — but no cabernet sauvignon. Nearly two years ago, Truckee River Winery also opened up a separate tasting room on Brockway Road, complete with a wine bar and bocce ball court.

"[Bocce ball] is a perfect wine-drinking ball game," Jones said.

PHOTO: Emily Dettling

Back in the red barn on the snowy day, we started talking about the wine in the barrels. Jones pulled out a 'wine thief,' a syringe so named because, as Kalan says, it "steals from the barrel," and poured a taste of 2009 Pinot Noir from the barrel into my glass. Jones gets his pinot noir grapes from Garys’ Vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands, a region known for its cooler coastal climate that is ideal for growing pinot noir.' The Garys, Gary Franscioni and Gary Pisoni, sell their grapes to wineries all over California, including Morgan Winery and Miner Family Vineyards. It's up to the winemaker to take the grapes and infuse their own style and knowledge into the fruit. Jones’ pinot noir is delicate and embraces more of the dark fruit flavors, as well as licorice and cola. But it was still a bit sharp to the taste. This barrel has another year of aging to go, Jones said.

"It's losing some of its young flavors from fermentation," Jones said. "Tannins haven’t quite softened up yet."

We moved on to another barrel on the bottom of the stack in the back room, which housed a 2008 Old Vine Zinfandel and featured grapes that Jones sourced from Lodi. This barrel happens to be Kalan's favorite — caramel, vanilla, oak, and fruit are all nicely balanced on this wine, which will likely be bottled this summer.

"You’re really picking up on the oak flavors on that one," Jones said. "But there's also a lot of berry and fruit flavors."

In a few years, Jones hopes to be making wine from grapes he grows himself here in Truckee. But, as evidenced by the spring snowstorm outside the barn, Truckee is not an easy climate to grow grapes. Spring and early summer are critical for the high-altitude vines, because once temperatures get warm, they must stay warm.

"The longer it's cold the better," Jones said. "So long as the vine stays dormant, it will survive the snow … Then you need lots of warm days."

Rows of vines are planted just outside the Truckee River Winery's tasting room. Jones is growing brianna, a white varietal, and frontenac, known for dry red wines. Both grapes are said to be hardy and able to survive colder temperatures. Jones said he would likely make blends out of his homegrown varietals, or ice wine, which involves freezing the grapes on the vine before harvest. To help insulate the crops, Jones planted hops in between the rows of vines with the theory that the hops will add warmth and protection.

Last year, Jones harvested a basketful of grapes. His vines still need a few more years before they will produce enough fruit to make wine to sell.

"We’re waiting for them to take off," Jones said.

Waiting is definitely part of the game of winemaking. From the harvest to the barrel to the bottle, a glass of wine is years of hard work. But Jones is a patient man and said he enjoys just watching the process: "Watching [the wine] take place, age, and improve."