Take a Sip at Trinity County's Wineries
By Kerri Regan
Earth & VineMay 2015
By Kerri Regan
Photos: Lyn Regan
If you've explored Trinity County, perhaps you were lured by the promise of backpacking the rugged Alps, whitewater rafting, pristine forest camping or exploring Gold Rush history.
But the vineyards in this picturesque wilderness area are also growing as a destination. The climate and soil of Trinity’s mountains infuse unique tastes into grapes grown there, and their vintners welcome guests with unpretentious charm. Hot days, cold nights and frequent threat of frost create brain-teasing challenges for these winemakers, but their vineyards have produced award-winning wine in the 96,000-acre Trinity Lakes Viticulture Area.
ALPEN CELLARS WINERY: It takes a certain kind of persistence to make wine in the Trinities. Simple activities like receiving shipments of wine bottles become all-day events for Keith Groves, as a semitruck can’t navigate the narrow dirt road that leads to Alpen Cellars. Instead, the truck parks miles away, and pallets are shuttled individually up the path. It’s a small price to pay for the pastoral bliss found in his tasting area. Simple picnic tables overlook the vineyards and a spacious meadow, where a waterwheel stands sentry over a pond of ducks. The alps stretch up in the distance and fall off into the haze, mirroring the sketch on Alpen Cellars’ wine label.
His winery sits in an area that’s largely undeveloped in this Gold Rush county. “The east fork of the Trinity River didn’t carry any gold,” says Groves, who was born in Stringtown, which flooded when Trinity Dam was built.
The Alpen Cellars property was founded as a ranch in 1855, and Groves’ father, Mark, planted the first grapevines in 1981. There were no vineyards in Trinity County then, but Keith Groves did a feasibility study in college that supported the idea that “yeah, you could grow grapes here,” he says.
They established a commercial winery in 1984, and they now produce 45,000 to 60,000 bottles per year – four whites, a rose’ and four reds.
Everything is bottled by June 1, and from July to September, the winery is open daily. They get 3,000 to 4,000 visitors per year, depending on the lake level. “Kids bring footballs and Frisbees and run through the sprinklers and play with the horses,” he says.
Ten miles from the nearest power grid, the winery is powered by hydroelectricity and a bit of solar energy, a lifesaver when water is scarce (they ran out of power on June 1 last year). Another challenge? Keeping deer and bears out of the grapes.
One of several warehouses on the property holds rows of wooden barrels that aren’t as similar as they look. American oak infuses vanilla and orange flavors, while French oak is more lemony, and so on. Each wine is a blend of at least three barrels, since “the whole is better than the parts,” Groves says. “It adds different complexities.”
The old kitchen in a circa-1930 house serves as the bottling room. They fill and cork 12 bottles a minute, all by hand. “We could spend $100,000 on a bottling line, but it would still be 12 bottles per minute,” he says. “Part of this is to create jobs.”
Unlike wineries in more metropolitan areas, “90 percent of the time, you’re dealing with one of the owners when you visit,” says Groves, whose father still gives him advice and whose 87-year-old mother, Betty Jane, is the gardener. “We talk wine, but also timber politics and fishing and whatever they want to talk about.”
ONE MAPLE WINERY: When Ernie Bell moved to Trinity County from New Hampshire about 30 years ago, he brought some sugar maple trees with him. “All of them died but one, and we planted it at the top of the vineyard,” says his wife, Kristel. “It’s still there.”
The tenacious tree is not only their winery’s namesake, but it’s symbolic of the Bells’ determination. They planted vines on the 12-acre undeveloped property in 1998. “We had lots of family and friends over, and we planted each one by hand – 10,000 plants,” she says. “My husband wanted a vineyard when he retired. This was his dream, and by golly, we made his dream come true.”
They built the tasting room in 2006. A botanical garden pathway leads to Grass Valley Creek, which naturally irrigates the vineyards. Their daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren also have a home (and beehives) on the property. Old English babydoll sheep “mow” the vineyards, and Dolly the dog greets visitors. The wine is bottled on site. “It never leaves until it goes out the door with a customer,” Bell says. They produce Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Syrah and Tempranillo.
The difference between Trinity County wines and those from other regions? “It’s all about the soil and climate. We have more of that rocky clay soil, which makes the wine earthier and fruitier than other areas.”
One Maple occasionally hosts special activities, including a harvest party, art events and weddings at a gazebo down by the creek. “A couple had their first date here during a concert, and two years later, they got married here before the concert of the same performer,” Bell says.
ALPEN CELLARS WINERY
East Fork Road, Trinity Center
Memorial Day through Labor Day:
Open daily, 10am to 4pm
Open by appointment
the rest of the year
ONE MAPLE WINERY
4271 Lewiston Road, Lewiston
May through October:
Open daily, 10am to 6pm
Wednesday through Sunday,
10am to dark (or by appointment)
Also worth a visit:
• Butter Creek Ranch in Hyampom
(530) 628-4890 (call for appointment)
• Dogwood Estate in Salyer
(707) 616-0566 (call for appointment)
• Sumner Vineyards in Hayfork
(844) 430-4310 (call for appointment)