Yolo County wines: casual California wine country secret
Yolo County wines are an insider secret, hidden in plain view just west of Sacramento in the California wine country. Discover a rural atmosphere and tasty, award-winning wines with a howdy kind of welcome.
Roaring along the eight-lane interstate slicing through Yolo County, it’s hard to imagine a taste-bud-tantalizing California wine country just behind the cattle ranches and cornfields lining the freeway.
Ah, a secret waiting to be discovered by more wine lovers, those Yolo County wines. Nestled directly west of Sacramento in one of California’s richest agricultural regions, Yolo County wineries are casual, country, hey-nice-to-see-you establishments – only about an hour from California’s internationally established Napa Valley but really worlds apart. Let’s say flavorful and friendly without the fuss and falderal.
But don’t let the relaxed nature fool you. Yolo County wines span the palate-pleasing gamut: You can sip on cheery, crisp Albariños or Petite Sirahs with subtle hints of blackberry. Consider a dry rosé with aromas of fresh fruit or a Verdejo that pops with green apple.
“Yolo is a warm growing region that produces wines with lots of fruit characteristics and a lush mouthfeel,” said Lane Giguiere, co-owner of idyllic Matchbook Wines in a burg called Zamora you will have to work to find. “I like to say you can taste the sunshine in the fresh fruit of both the white and red wines.”
California wine country road starts in Yolo County
Doesn’t hurt that Yolo County’s largest town of Davis is home to internationally renowned oenological-focused University of California, Davis. At Yolo County wineries, you may not find medieval castles, Victorian mansions, or Persepolis architecture, but you will find expansive vineyard views, comfortable tasting rooms, and a rural feel, not to mention award-winning wine.
“What you get when you come to Yolo County to taste wine is an experience that is rooted in agricultural history,” said Corinne Martinez, president and COO of Berryessa Gap vineyards.
But that isn’t Yolo County’s only tie to Northern California’s winemaking fame. The county is in fact the southern terminus of California State Route 128, the 144-mile rural road that winds through the California wine country. It heads north from Yolo County, through Napa Valley and Anderson Valley wine country up to the Pacific Coast in Mendocino County. If you want to go to Napa, you really should start in Yolo or, if you prefer, start in Mendocino, and then thread your way through Napa to Yolo to Visit 128 wine country wineries. The route offers plenty of side trips to great regional wine destinations just begging to be your next California road trip.
Wine-making diversity in Yolo County
Just about everybody who drinks and loves wine around the world has heard of Napa. Perhaps even Sonoma. And maybe even Mendocino. But Yolo County wine? “Where’s Yolo County,” is what we’d hear, even from Californians. And when we told people we’d been in Yolo County for the weekend, the response would often be an eyebrow raise followed by, “What’s in Yolo County?”
“Yolo County isn’t on the map … yet,” said Chris Turkovich, who runs Turkovich Family Wines with his wife and winemaker, Luciana. “It’s Napa without ‘the Napa.’”
You get a wine country that has not yet been fully discovered but still offers a wine-lover’s experience with the 13 wineries now in the county winery association. Do you want great wine and smaller crowds? Take the 1–2-hour drive from San Francisco or the quick 30-minute hop from the state’s capital of Sacramento and then stay a while. Once spring rolls around, the cities of Winters, Davis, Esparto, and others, as well as the wineries roll out concerts, dinners and other special events with a real hometown feel.
“Yolo offers the experience of tasting great wines produced by family-owned wineries in the middle of their vineyards,” said Giguiere of Matchbook. “And you’ll probably meet the family while you’re there.”
How about sipping a cool sparkling rose on the shaded patio at Matchbook in Zamora enjoying the rolling hills all around you? Or sitting on the covered patio at Turkovich Family Wines with a glass of to-die-for Albariño before heading off on a tour of sunflower fields?
In the rural outskirts of Davis, stop in at Great Bear Vineyards for a glass of wine with locals. And you can always stroll around historic downtown Winters, taking the time to drop into either Berryessa Gap’s or Turkovich’s cozy tasting rooms.
Three Yolo County wine country AVAs and another pending
Due to the diversity of terrain and climates, the rural county with its growing wine region is already home to three American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) with another pending. “Each AVA has unique growing conditions and distinctive wines as a result,” said Martinez of Berryessa Gap. “You’ll find multiple producers of Tempranillo, Petite Sirah, Cabernet, Malbec, Grenache and Syrah reds as well as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Albariño and Verdejo whites. But as far as I know there is not one single grape/wine variety that is grown by every winery in Yolo County.”
Martinez is in fact behind the application of the new AVA, to be called Winters Highlands. At this time, it would include Turkovich Wines and Berryessa Gap wineries, and is home to 134 acres of established vineyards with another 20 acres in planning. At the time of this writing, its approval was still pending, but Martinez was optimistic it would be approved in late 2022 or early 2023. Establishing an AVA is no small feat, with a sheaf of government paperwork to satisfy requirements.
An American Viticultural Area is a designated appellation for American wine in the United States with boundaries defined by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) of the United States Department of the Treasury. Each one must be unique in its geography, geology, and climate. In the United States there are 261 AVAs, with California home to the majority at 143. No wonder Napa Valley is always the talk; its AVA was the first in California, established in 1981.
“Once you get an AVA, people will pay attention,” Martinez said, “and we get to tell our story.”
Dunnigan Hills AVA is home to Matchbook Wines, an AVA that was established by the Giguieres in 1993. Capay Valley AVA is in the northern part of Yolo County, and Clarksburg AVA to the south straddles Sacramento, Solano, and Yolo counties with its sub-AVA of Merritt Island only in Yolo.
“Clarksburg is a little cooler than Dunnigan Hills,” Giguiere explained, “and it can grow delicious grapes like Chenin Blanc. Dunnigan Hills is warmer, so we concentrate on grapes that love the heat like Tempranillo, Petite Sirah and Petit Verdot.”
Yolo county winemakers come with experience
The Giguieres of Matchbook Wines aren’t exactly newcomers to the wine business. Lane, her husband, John, and John’s brother Karl founded R.H. Phillips Winery, with its Toasted Head brand, in 1983 on the family farm in Dunnigan Hills. They sold it in 2000 as it approached 500,000 cases a year. Matchbook was “going to be a little retirement business,” he said. Yeah, right. The first planting at the vineyard was in 2002. Today, there are 1,700 acres and Matchbook produces more than 190,000 cases. Little retirement business? “You’re either all-in or all-out,” John Giguiere said. “You can’t dabble.”
One piece of trivia you must know: The name “Matchbook” stems from how John and Karl were “little pyromaniacs” as kids – his words.
Berryessa Gap Vineyards sold its first wine in 2004, selling out a few months later. Corinne Martinez’s father had been farming apricots, almonds, and walnuts when her brother Dan said, “Let’s plant some grapes.” The planting started in 1999, and the rest is history. The first vintage (a Petite Sirah and just 200 cases) was released in 2004. (The first vintage was 2001 and, per Martinez, they threw it all away.) She was in marketing at Microsoft in Seattle but moved back to Yolo County in 2005, not actually retiring from Microsoft until 2020. “It’s a passion and a love,” she said, about operating the winery. Winemaker Nicole Salengo joined the team in 2013. Today, Berryessa Gap produces about 8,000 cases a year.
At Turkovich Family Wines, Chris Turkovich is a third-generation farmer. While at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, his senior project was a plan to start a winery – but it wasn’t serious. Then, in 2007, he talked his dad into letting him indeed start planting — a small 14-acre patch of vines. Today, Turkovich produces about 7,500 cases a year with the winemaker-chemist’s work done by his wife Luciana, from Argentina with a deep family wine heritage. You will note a Spanish varietal theme there – because of the climate and culture. “Yolo County is the Tempranillo place,” Chris said.
Great Bear Vineyards is farther east within Davis city limits but outside the university town and surrounded by flat country roads. Founders Jenny Meadows-Smith, former president of the Yolo County wine association, and her husband, Marcus, started the business in 2018 to make their own wine. The original plan was to make three or four barrels of wine for friends and family, Marcus told us. Ok, so sometimes things get carried away. Now, they are up to more than 100, and they think of their vineyard, where they grow mostly Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, as a community hangout.
Next time you are dodging traffic on Interstate 80 west of Sacramento, slow down and take an exit to head toward your own Yolo County wine experience. The name “Yolo” may not roll off the tongue like the names of other wine regions, but behind those cattle ranches and cornfields is a casual, country world of delicious wine waiting to be tasted.
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