Capay Valley Vineyards is sustainability pioneer

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Pam Welch checks some grapes at Capay Valley Vineyards. Photo by Marcy Bradshaw- Angier

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What a great spot in the Capay Valley! Located in a beautiful valley in the northwest corner of Yolo County bordering Napa and Lake counties, just east of Napa over the Blue Ridge Mountains, you will find Capay Valley Vineyards.

Tom Frederick and Pam Welch, purchased their property in the Capay Valley in 1979 and started growing crops. At first, nothing was planted here on those rolling hills. But as history would have it, as early as 1861, there was a vineyard in Capay Valley that was awarded the prize for the finest wine grapes in California. Finally, in February 2003, Capay Valley was designated an AVA (appellation).

An American Viticultural Area (AVA) is a designated wine grape-growing region in the United States distinguishable by geographic features, with boundaries defined by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) of the United States Department of the Treasury.

Today, Capay Valley Vineyards produces award-winning wines, on a vineyard with views of rolling hills in every direction. Tom and Pam have always been very passionate about planting food for themselves: almonds, walnuts, oranges, lemons and grapefruit. They had a vision of one day using their land to open their very own vineyard, and that vision came true when the first vines were planted in 1998.

The vines cover 25 acres on the 110-acre property. Now, it is a family owned and run business, where all vineyard tasks — pruning, shoot thinning and harvesting — are done by hand and tailored to each variety.

“We plant, harvest, process and sell our grapes. We feel that making wine is a great accomplishment,” said Tom. “The intensity of the process is amazing. To get the results you want, you must put in the effort, no matter what you do, seven days a week.”

It is very important to Capay Valley Vineyards to have a minimal carbon footprint, and produce wines in the most sustainable way possible. They plant native grasses between the rows to add nutrients back into the soil. Only three-fourths to one acre foot per year of water is used in the entire growing process (almonds use six acre feet per year, per acre).

Grapes don’t take much out of the soil, so nitrogen has only been added one time in 20 years. They really have learned how to be sustainable, and they are considered pioneers in this area.

“This has been a learning of a lifetime… from the school of hard knocks.” said Tom of his vineyard operation.

As the vines ripen early the color attracts birds to nest in the nearby trees. The deer prefer Viognier grapes and the birds like the Tempranillo.

“They all have their favorites.” said Pam of the local animals.

To reduce the number of free meals, netting has saved the crop the last couple of years.

All the winemaking happens in their mission building, built and modeled after a favorite mission located in upstate New York.

“We enjoy doing our work in this old-style mission building. It feels very authentic,” said Tom.

This is where they store their tools of the trade: the de-stemmer, the crusher, bottling station and testing instruments. Using winemaking tools in combination with modern technology has sped up several of their winemaking processes. They can get sampling results quicker, and have access to other important information needed for harvesting decisions.

Their usual harvest runs from August thru September. During harvest they use an outside labor crew and are so happy to be fortunate enough to use the same crew every year. Esteemed local winemaker Terry Strain puts her 35 years of experience and expertise at Capay Valley Vineyards.

“She comes by and tastes through things, and helps us with our lab results as well. She has amazing taste buds” said Pam. “She combines the best of science and art to bring out the fruit characteristics of each varietal.”

Harvesting is done at night to ensure that the fruit is cool to start the winemaking process. They pick the grapes for their sparkling Viognier earlier than the other varieties at a lower alcohol content. This first “base” wine is then refermented to achieve sparkling — an all-natural process. The reds, such as Cabernet Franc and Syrah, go through both a primary fermentation and a malolactic process. They keep reds in a barrel one and a half to two years. The whites are fermented in stainless steel and are ready to bottle as early as three months after harvest.

Capay Valley Vineyards produce about 5,000 cases per year. Sometimes they sell grapes and bulk wine. They also bottle the ”House Sparkling“ for Park Winters, a local wedding event venue. Their wines are sold at Lorenzo’s Town & Country Market and a variety of retail stores in the area.

Capay Valley Vineyards is located at 13757 State Highway 16 in Brooks, and is open every weekend for tastings. Drop Mom and Dad off at the casino and stop in for a visit.

For more information, visit www.capayvalleyvineyards.com.

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