More Winegrapes for Nevada County

New operator takes over foreclosed vineyard in Sierra Foothills AVA

by Jane Firstenfeld
Penn Valley Vineyard
The once-neglected Penn Valley Vineyard, where last year's fruit withered on the vine, is now pruned and ready for a productive year.
Penn Valley, Calif. -- A Lodi-based grapegrowing and bulk wine operation has leased a 240-acre vineyard in Nevada County in the Sierra Foothills, and come to the rescue of local vintners. Until 2008 the vineyard, then known as Pendango Vineyard Estates, had supplied roughly half of the locally grown winegrapes used by the county's 23 wineries. Last year, facing foreclosure, the former owners neglected the vineyards and left both the grapes and the wineries hanging.

In December, S & L Vineyards Stokes Brothers Farms leased the property, and have begun to restore it to productivity. According to Allen Lombardi, a partner in S & L with brothers Mike and Bill Stokes, pruning has been completed, and with the vineyard gates open, “Several neighbor wineries have already come in and have signed contracts for this year’s harvest.”

Lombardi expects more contracts will be signed following an open house barbeque the partners will host March 25: All the local wineries have been invited to meet the S & L crew and taste local wines. “Our intention is to market most of the grapes within the district. We’re actively reaching out,” he told Wines & Vines. This will allow county producers to label their wines with the Nevada County AVA.

The property was renamed Penn Valley Vineyard. Lombardi said that S & L had “diligently” attempted to lease the vineyard as early as 2008, but that, without a written contract, former owner Catlin Properties had neglected the 2009 crop, allowing the grapes to wither on the vines and the vineyard and irrigation equipment to fall into disrepair. Now, with a multi-year lease directly with the bank, the S & L partners are protected, although the property will be on the block at a trustee’s auction March 19.

Nevada County is a high-altitude wine region; most wineries and vineyards are well above 2,000 feet, and one winery is located above the 6,000-foot elevation. There are significant diurnal temperature variations, sometimes as much as 35ºF in summer. Lombardi said the Penn Valley Vineyard is planted mostly to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, with smaller blocks of Sangiovese, Syrah, Primitivo and Barbera. “The elevations vary,” he said. “Some blocks are very steep, and we will have to hand-pick them, but for economic reasons, we’ll try to machine harvest most of it.”

Because the vineyards were neglected last year, Lombardi conceded, the 2010 growing season may prove to be “a bit of a challenge. Certain portions were abandoned,” he said. “It’s difficult to predict the yields, but we will do the best job possible to maintain the best quality for the region. We’re hoping to maintain about 3.5 tons per acre.”

S & L Vineyards got its start about 10 years ago, Lombardi said, when he teamed up with the Stokes brothers, third-generation winegrape growers from Lodi. Today, S & L farms an estimated 1,000 acres in the Lodi and Clarksburg regions, and exports fresh grapes, juice and bulk wine all over the U.S.

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