Central California Wineries
--Wines & Vines Magazine/June 2005
Story & Photos by Bill Stephens
Some people told Jim and Debbie Van Haun they were making a mistake
picking East Fresno County. But in 1999, the Van Hauns left Southern
California and settled in Central California, where they ultimately
opened a winery bed & breakfast making premium wine.
Today, their bed & breakfast fills up quickly, their tasting
room is a popular destination, and Jim's wines are winning awards.
Van Haun is one of a feisty band of small, boutique winemakers
who've recently started making premium wine in Central California.
As much as anything, they battle the perception that Central California
is the sun-baked province of big wineries who mass produce inexpensive
These Central California boutique winemakers are launching wine
tasting rooms, wine trails, and associations. And they're winning
awards. "Central California is the next hot spot of winemaking,"
says Cal State Fresno enology professor Ken Fugelsang. "It's the
new frontier. We're seeing vineyards produced for maximum flavor
rather than for maximum yield. And we're seeing small premium
wineries pioneering what we hope will be a flourishing winemaking
Says Nat DiBuduo of Allied Grape Growers: "The quantity of wine
produced by small boutiques wineries isn't large. But they've
started tasting rooms and winery trails--which we've never had
before in Central California. These new boutique wineries are
adding interest, romance, and respect."
Some of these boutique winemakers are newcomers. But many are
people from local farming families. These folks are helping bring
a new approach to Central California--progressive, personalized
growing and winemaking and direct sales to customers.
Boutique destination wineries are popping up for several reasons.
When Central California wine grape prices were depressed in recent
years, some growers decided to make their own commercial wine.
Also, land costs are relatively low. Says Patterson, California
boutique winery manager Hunter Vogel: "If you want to start a
winery coming from the outside, it costs less. It's the new frontier
here, the Wild Wild West."
Also, many people from the Bay Area and Southern California are
moving to the Central Valley, bringing with them a thirst for
wine tasting experiences small local wineries provide, and creating
a market for local premium wine.
There's also a realization that Central California grapes can
make excellent wine if appropriate techniques are used, including
crop limitation, hand harvesting, small batch production, and
oak barrel aging.
And techniques have improved for growing grapes in warm weather
climates, where many of the world's grapes are produced. "Warm
weather viticulture and enology take extra work," says Fugelsang.
"But today we have the means to produce a better product-- using
irrigation and canopy management, and picking target harvest days
for optimal maturity based on the flavor profile of the grapes."
The emergence of Cal State Fresno in recent years as a center
for viticulture and enology, with its own working winery, has
helped growers and winemakers improve quality.
The small boutique wineries in Central California do face challenges,
including becoming known, competing for shelf space, and finding
Then there's Central California's image. "The Central Valley has
a horrible and undeserved connotation," says Madera winemaker
Ray Krause. "It's never been the chi chi place to grow wine."
The boutique wineries are using various strategies to succeed.
In addition to pouring at charity events, they rely heavily on
direct sales to customers--through wine clubs, internet sales,
and particularly through tasting rooms. Some sell to local wine
shops, supermarkets, and restaurants.
Many Central California boutiques focus on making a few specialized
wines, including alternative varietals, in order to create a niche.
They are forming new associations like the Madera Vintners Association
and the Central California Winegrowers to promote themselves.
And they are encouraging others to start wineries to create more
The hottest boutique winery scene is in Madera, just north of
Fresno. In 2001 the Madera Vintners Association (MVA) was created
to help promote the burgeoning small local wineries.
The Association persuaded local government officials to let them
put up wine trail signs. The wineries are mostly open on week-ends
and by appointment. MVA stages three Madera Wine Trail events
per year. The Wine Trail events are drawing more visitors each
time, the most recent attracting 2000.
Visitors purchase a wine glass, which entitles them to winery
hop. The winemakers provide food and entertainment, and chat with
visitors, who arrive via limos, buses, cars, and motorcycles.
There's now talk of a shuttle service.
"The week-end Wine Trail events are attracting visitors throughout
the state ," says MVA president Ray Krause. "We're even getting
Los Angeles people."
Krause, who owns Westbrook Wine Farm, says the Wine Trail designation
has helped boost awareness and sales for the local wineries.
Krause, active in the the wine business for years, in 1994 bought
property in the scenic eastern Madera County foothills, with an
eye to making premium wine. Selling wine directly to visitors
since 2000, he now makes premium wines, ranging from $15 to $55.
Krause says three more small wineries are starting up nearby.
"I'd like to see 10 more small, passionate family winemakers in
Madera, all specializing in something unique."
John Lasgoity, who comes from a local farming family, converted
his home winemaking hobby into a winery business (Chateau Lasgoity
Winery) four years ago with sister Michele. In addition to selling
grapes to large wineries, he now makes 3200 cases per year of
his own premium wine, which sells from $7 to $9. Lasgoity, who
has been winning awards for his wine, sells to retail outlets,
to tasting room visitors, and to regular customers.
"It's rewarding to make wine, and meet your customers," says Lasgoity
who tends bar week-ends at his tasting room. The wine trail events
bring him so much business he wishes they were once a month.
Madera's two longtime premium dessert wine producers, Ficklin
Vineyards and Quady Winery, have tasting rooms and are expanding
Peter Ficklin: "Our core is still port dessert wine. But since
MVA we are changing our stance a bit. Starting a tasting room
has encouraged us to also make a rose, dry red wines, and a sherry."
At nearby Quady Winery, Mike Blaylock says that the winery's tasting
room and gift shop get many visitors, especially during Wine Trail
events. "The Madera wine trail was something that was lacking
in the area because the big wineries aren't open to the public.
People are thrilled to have quality boutique local wineries where
they can come with friends and show off the area." Quady is introducing
South of Madera, fast-growing Fresno has its own fledgling boutique
winery scene. West of downtown Fresno sits Engelmann Cellars and
Nonini Winery. Three others are poised to start in this area.
Bret Engelman started Engelmann Cellars five years ago. Growing
up on the local family farm, he studied winemaking at Cal State
Fresno. Unlike others, he stayed in Fresno, working at a large
local winery before launching his own premium winery.
When Engelman came out with his first two wines, the first wine
shop he went into said nobody would pay $12 and $14 for Fresno
"I told them they were wrong," Engelman says. "And that I'd be
back in a few months with some new wines."
Within a few months, Engelman says, people were asking for his
wines, and the wine shop never complained about the price again.
Today, Engelman makes 2,000 cases per year of premium wine, selling
from $12 to $18. He has won 49 medals. While Engelman sells mostly
at his tasting room through his wine club, he recently secured
a distributor for local merchant sales. He's created a small park
adjacent to his winery for weddings and special events.
"I'm getting a lot of wine tasting visitors from Fresno. People
still don't realize there are small wineries in Fresno making
premium wine. When they do find us, they're not as intimidated
because we're local."
Engelman is trying to organize a Twin Rivers Vinters Association
for the growing number of Fresno County wineries.
Visitors can soak up history at nearby 1930s Nonini Winery while
tasting various wines. James Jordan notes that while it's a challenge
getting local wine lovers to realize they don't have to drive
to the coast, he sees a thriving Fresno wine scene emerging.
On the east side of Fresno on the road to Sequoia National Park,
sits Sequoia View Winery Bed & Breakfast, started six years ago
by the Jim and Debbie Van Haun. Jim Van Haun was a biologist in
Orange County. Wine lovers, the Van Hauns wanted to start a bed
and breakfast in wine country. "Starting in the mid-1990s, we
began looking at coastal wine areas," says Jim. "We found them
expensive and saturated, and realized we'd be a small fish in
a big pond. Then we discovered this area."
"We were originally growers here, but it made economic sense to
also make wine," says Jim, who learned winemaking from Cal State
Fresno grad students. He now makes 1,000 cases of $11-$17 premium
wine per year, and is expanding. The winery bed & breakfast, set
in a vineyard, attracts national park visitors. Locals visit the
special events and tasting room.
Cal State Fresno, whose viticulture and enology department has
a working commercial winery making more than 20,000 cases of $5-$10
premium wines per year. Not only is Cal State Fresno wine winning
awards, but the university is training viticulturists and winemakers,
some of whom want to stay in Central California. The school also
conducts outreach seminars, currently partnering with Central
California Winegrowers on a demonstration project at six Central
California vineyards to show growers how various strategies impact
"We 're proving, and local small wineries are proving, that quality
wine can be grown in Central California," says Bob Wample, who
heads Cal State Fresno's viticulture & enology department. "The
fruit is good, and we can make it even better."
To the north, in the greater Modesto/ Stanislaus County area,
a number of small family wineries are cropping up. As yet, there
is no local association or wine trail. But things may move in
Mid-sized McManis Family Vineyards is in Ripon, north of Modesto.
After growing grapes for years, Ron McManis started his own winery
in 1998. Today, in addition to bulk wine, he makes premium wines
for under $10. McManis wine is sold in restaurants and wine shops
Silkwood Wines, outside Modesto, is attracting attention with
its premium wines. Owner John Monnich started the winery in 1978,
eventually relocating in 2000 to Central California in part because
of more reasonable land costs. He makes 10,600 cases per year,
including cabernet for $14 and syrah for $24, using 36 distributors
in 31 states. A tasting room and wine club are planned.
Other local wineries are also proving small wineries can make
premium wine in Central California. Wend-Tyler Winery, in Modesto,
has been making premium wines since 2001, including an $18 Chardonnay
that can be sampled by appointment.
Thirty-year old Hunter Vogel of Kit Fox Winery in Patterson plans
to grow from the 15,000 cases of premium wine to 60,000 cases
in two years, and to start a tasting room and event center. "It's
good for the small local wineries to cooperate and focus on quality,"
Diablo Grande Vineyards and Isom Ranch Winery, which is part of
a golf resort/ residential community near Patterson, has taken
the unique step of opening a tasting room in downtown San Francisco.
The southern end of Central California in Kern County, has yet
to embrace the boutique destination winery trend. But it does
have three-year-old Harper Hill Oildale Winery, whose two owners
enjoy jabbing wine business pretensions and giving people a laugh
with their RedNeck Red and White Trash White labels. The wines
are hot $12 novelty gift items, though made at another winery.
At pouring events, Terry Hill and partner Clete Harper wear bib
overalls and red bow ties ("Okie tuxes") and play with the Oildale
Winery bluegrass band.
The future appears bright for boutique wineries in Central California.
Ken Fugelsang foresees many more destination boutique wineries
up and down Central California. "Agri-tourism is growing very
popular, and many will be winery B&Bs."
He adds: " Central California can take the lead making quality
wine at a reasonable price. Our market is Central California,
and then others will discover it and come."
Says Peter Ficklin: "Central California will always have grapes
grown in quantity. But the next 20 years we'll see a transition
to premium wines and to becoming a destination. There's an awakening
in Central California."
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