Clarksburg Chenin Blanc: Journey from Grape to Glass

By Susan Brown CSW / Photography By Penny Sylvia | September 01, 2014
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Delta Acreage Home to Wine Grapes
The Delta’s 20,000+ acres planted to wine grapes contributes to the bucolic setting of the area.

The Farm to Fork movement in the greater Sacramento area has focused attention on local food production and consumption. This emphasis on products that end up in a kitchen and on a plate is important, but it would be remiss to overlook that which ends up in a wineglass. With over 200 wineries, vineyards and tasting rooms within an hour’s drive of the city, no discussion of Farm to Fork would be truly complete without consideration of the region’s wine grape crops.

The spirit of the movement supports the cultivation of agricultural crops that are appropriate for, and are successfully grown within our area, and this is certainly applicable to many grape varieties.

About 20 minutes from downtown Sacramento is the appellation of Clarksburg. Vineyards dominate the agricultural landscape of this area, which is located within the Delta, and one grape variety that has helped to build the area’s reputation as a premium wine region is Chenin Blanc.

Because the Clarksburg appellation is nestled amongst both large and small waterways within the Delta, a microclimate is created that is conducive to wine grape growing.

Warm days and cool evening temperatures are important variables that affect success. Those cool nights keep a nice acid balance in grapes, and acidity is a hallmark characteristic of good Chenin Blanc.

While the majority of acreage planted to the grape is under contract to big producers such as Gallo and Sutter Home, smaller, local wineries are making their own premium Chenin Blanc these days. The San Francisco Chronicle’s Jon Bonné has been keeping an eye on the varietal, writing about it in both 2011 and 2012. The Wall Street Journal’s Lettie Teague covered the topic in 2013; both authors mention Clarksburg as a region of note.

Clarksburg Chenin Blanc
Elk Slough waterway in the Delta
Clarksburg Wine Company's tasting room at Old Sugar Mill
Photo 1: Look for these local examples of Clarksburg Chenin Blanc.
Photo 2: Elk Slough is one of the waterways which helps create the microclimate in the Delta
Photo 3: Thinning leaves from the canopy keeps light & airflow optimal.
Photo 4: Clarksburg Wine Company tasting room at the Old Sugar Mill.

This white wine was at its height of popularity in California in the 1970s and 1980s, but by the late 1990s the grape was seeing double digit declines in its statewide acreage numbers. Just a few notable mavericks, namely, Dry Creek and Pine Ridge Vineyards, kept producing Chenin Blanc bottlings. Both sourced their grapes from what David Stare, founder of Dry Creek said was “one of the finest regions in the state for the grape, Clarksburg”. Over the years both producers have earned accolades for their Clarksburg Chenin Blanc, and some of that credit ought to go to Ken Wilson and Wilson Vineyards, a historic supplier of grapes to both wineries.

The Wilsons have farmed in the area since 1922, and Ken is the affable president of Wilson Farms and Vineyards. The family has 1,000 acres planted to wine grapes in the area, with a little over 60 of it to Chenin. While farming in the Delta isn’t without its challenges, Ken and his family take it all in stride. The Wilsons have grape farming down to a science and they know how to deliver exactly what their customers need.

In addition to Dry Creek, current Chenin customers include Vinum Cellars, Picnic Wine Company and local producer Clarksburg Wine Company. It is worth noting that the Chenin produced with Wilson fruit by all three wineries has been recommended by San Francisco Chronicle wine reviewer Jon Bonné over the last few years.

The Clarksburg Wine Company is a great example of a local winery trying to showcase the region as a premium wine destination. They originated as a custom crush facility and then created their own label as an extension of the brand. Clarksburg offers a full portfolio of red and white wines, but they get a lot of attention for their three variations on Chenin: a single varietal Chenin, a Chenin/Viognier blend and a Chenin Blanc VS (Vouvray Style). They work closely with their grower, Wilson, to ensure they get fruit to their specification. Winemaker Andy Gaudy gets right out there in the field to see what’s going on and communicates specific cropping, harvesting and training requirements to Wilson.

Other local producers are bottling their own uniquely styled Chenin. Revolution Wines, Six Hands, Heringer Family Vineyards, Twisted Rivers, Rendez-vous, Carvahlo, Andis, Herzog Wine Cellars and Dancing Coyote are all working with this grape, most offering single varietal examples. Carvahlo offers two different blends of Chenin/Sauvignon Blanc, one dry and one slightly sweet, and Twisted Rivers offers a Chenin Blanc/Viognier blend called White Raven.

One local winemaker, Craig Haarmeyer of Revolution wines, has been making fine examples of the varietal since he took over the reins in 2009. His most recent 2013 Clarksburg Chenin Blanc was just selected as one of the "10 Best Wines to Pair with Oysters" in the 20th annual Pacific Coast Oyster Wine Competition. It was the first year Haarmeyer entered the competition, and his wine was the only Chenin to make it into the top 10.

The Revolution Chenin has had a following for a while. A few years ago, Rick Mahan, owner and head chef of One Speed restaurant in East Sacramento, began serving the wine as its house white. He even has it bottled as a private label.

Ken Wilson of Wilson Farms & Vineyards
Ken Wilson of Wilson Farms & Vineyards.

Haarmeyer is well respected and that has a lot has to do with his fundamental approach to winemaking… a terroir - driven vision. He wants a wine to be what it wants to be, not so much what he wants it to be. Operating with that philosophy in mind, Haarmeyer is able to highlight the vineyard as well as the vintage and he feels that if he creates dry wines, those characteristics of site and vintage can more aptly shine through. He is experimenting with a few variations on his Chenin; by sometime in 2015 you could see two sparkling versions and two additional still versions of this white.

In addition to the devotion to the varietal by the likes of Revolution, the growers and vintners in Clarksburg know that they need to create demand for Chenin Blanc in order for price and quality to increase. One effort that may help is that the Green Restaurants Alliance Sacramento (GRAS) has taken up the cause for advocacy of this grape. David Baker, president of GRAS, says that the group feels that promoting the consumption of Chenin Blanc as a local wine is, in essence, an extension of the Farm to Fork and Slow Food movements.

They promote the variety through an annual Clarksburg Chenin Blanc tasting, periodic bike tours of Chenin vineyards in the Delta, and they participate in the Farm to Fork Legends of Wine event held at the Capitol.

If you want to mix up your white wine repertoire, consider drinking Chenin Blanc. This varietal is a canvas that responds well to a winemaker’s hand. Whether it is a heavy influence, one that brings out flavors caressed by oak and residual sugar, or a lighter hand, like that of Haarmeyer, who stresses terroir and bright, clean flavors, there’s a Chenin out there for everyone. If you’re sipping Clarksburg Chenin Blanc, ideally al fresco with a bit of Delta breeze blowing through your hair, well, it just doesn’t get much more local than that.


Susan Brown is a certified specialist of wine who lives, blogs and drinks wine in East Sacramento. Follow her wine posts at brownuncorked.typepad.com and @susanbrownsac.

Penny Sylvia is an international lifestyle photographer specializing in capturing real moments. When not traveling the world shooting weddings and commercial work, Penny enjoys her family, good food and friends. pennysylvia.com.

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