Saturday, May 14, 2016

Elyse, Naggiar, & the Sierra Foothills AVA

Elyse Winery ( was established in Napa Valley in 1987 by Nancy and Ray Coursen, transplants from Boston.  Their history is available at their website.  We became interested in Elyse after tasting and subsequently purchasing three of their wines.  The structure, fruit, minerality and fineness (finesse) of these three wines so impressed us we decided to take a look at Naggiar Vineyards in Nevada County where much of the fruit was sourced.  That, in turn, led us to a brief look at the Sierra Foothills AVA (American Viticultural Area), home to Naggiar, and then to new insights regarding the future of that region.

The three wines we purchased included a very impressive white, 2012 L'Ingenue (naive girl), which was sourced entirely from Naggiar.  It's a Rhone-style blend of 45% Roussanne, 24% Marsanne, 23% Viognier, and 8% Grenache Blanc.  The Elyse website characterizes their wines individually and uses philosophical language like "big but balanced" and "vineyard-driven" to emphasize their point of view.  We thought the white was the best of the three.

The 2012 C'est Si Bon (It's so good!) is a red Rhone-style blend of 47% Grenache, 28% Mourvedre, 14% Syrah, 7% Cinsault, and 4% Counoise.  The 2011 Nero Misto (mixed black) is 42% Petite Sirah, 42% Zinfandel, 7% Carignane, 4% Syrah, 2% Barbera, 2% Grenache, and 1% Mourvedre.  C'est Si Bon is 100% Naggiar fruit; Nero Misto carries a California label designation, which reflects the Elyse desire to source fruit based on longstanding grower relationships.  The website includes a map proudly showing where their growers are located within Napa along with a nod to Naggiar, the outpost in the Sierra Foothills.

The Sierra Foothills AVA was established in 1987 but the vineyards actually began in the 1850's when European immigrants arrived with vines in tow.  They came for the gold rush, of course, but they ended up starting the wine industry.  Napa and other esteemed wine venues were developed years later.

The Sierra Foothills AVA is the third largest in California after the Central Coast and North Coast.  It contains five smaller AVA's within it: Shenandoah Valley, El Dorado, Fair Play, Fiddletown, and North Yuba.  It also spans parts of eight counties: Yuba, Nevada, Placer, El Dorado, Amador, Calaveras, Tuolcemne, and Mariposa.  Two hundred fifty wineries call the Sierra Foothills AVA home.

The Sierra Foothills AVA is actually a segment of the Cascade-Sierra Mountains.  Since the foothills face west, the border to the east is the actual mountain range.  On the west the border is the Central Valley AVA.  Producing 70% of California's grapes, the Central Valley would be the largest AVA if it weren't subdivided.  By contrast, Sierra Foothills produces just 5%.

Ray Coursen of Elyse Winery clearly likes the quality of Naggiar fruit.  It is the only vineyard he uses outside of Napa.  Naggiar is located in Nevada county towards the northern end of the Sierra Foothills, where we have learned the best quality comes from.  As underdeveloped as the area is, it seems only a matter of time until it's discovered by all kinds of winemakers.    

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