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South Nevada County: A gateway to local food and wine



FOR GENERATIONS, NORTHERN CALIFORNIA'S ROADSIDE FARM STANDS, specialty grocery stores and wineries have been a welcome reprieve for travelers. The long-lasting ones have helped shape their region's identity.

Examples include the Oakville Grocery Co. in Napa Valley, a gourmet's delight; V. Sattui, where you can buy your favorite wine and enjoy a Napa picnic on site; and Kozlowski Farms in Sonoma County.

In the foothills, Ikeda's and Machado Orchards in Auburn are longtime favorites for fresh pies, fruits and veggies off I-80.

Despite the beauty and agricultural bounty in the surrounding hillsides, the stretch of historic Highway 49 that borders Placer and Nevada counties is largely nondescript.

But an exciting food and wine destination — celebrating the fresh, local food and wineries in both counties — is taking shape at the Bear River Tasting Room run by Sierra Knolls Winery.

The tasting room is open year-round. Every Friday night, visitors can enjoy live music, fresh pizza from a stellar wood-fired pizza oven and Sierra Knolls' popular wines.

On weekends during the summer, the nearby Jardin del Rio farm sets up a farmers market with fresh, local produce, rounding out the experience.

All told, the Bear River Tasting Room is becoming a roadside destination and moreover, a gateway to wine country. Naggiar, Viña Castellano and Fawnridge wineries are nearby, to name a few.

"We want people to realize they're in wine country," says winery co-owner and winemaker John Chase. "You can taste wine, buy local produce, have a picnic, listen to music and learn about neighboring wineries."

The Bear River Tasting Room is located at Linnet Lane, near the scenic Bear River, on Highway 49 between Auburn and Grass Valley.

It has evolved slowly in recent years but now is reaching its prime. There's the tasting room, farmstand, wood-fired pizza oven, shaded wine garden patio, picnic area and newly planted vines (to compliment the established vineyard at the nearby Sierra Knolls Winery).

Bear River Tasting Room is celebrating its second anniversary in late July.

For more information, visit SierraKnollsWinery.com.

SIERRA KNOLLS

Sierra Knolls Vineyard & Winery is a small family-run winery. The owners, Steve and Brenda Taylor and John and Linda Chase, are longtime friends and wine lovers. The wines are aged in French and American oak barrels in a 50-foot barrel cave in the nearby foothills.

Starting with the first vintage in 1999, the wines have won numerous awards at the California State Fair, Orange County Fair and other local contests. The wines include Estate Merlot and Zinfandel, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Sangiovese, Cabernet Franc, Barbera, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Syrah. All the grapes come from local vineyards.

The winery is green-minded. As part of that philosophy, Sierra Knolls now offers two premium table wines in refillable 1-liter bottles – a tradition in Southern France. It sells a delightful Chocolate Dessert Wine made in the traditional port style.

The Bear River Wine Tasting Room provides a relaxing atmosphere with air conditioning, a handsome wood bar, country-style furnishings and a gift shop. Tasting room manager Bob Krogman, a longtime South County resident, is knowledgeable and friendly.

Sierra Knolls' wood-fired pizza oven is a masterpiece. It burns oak wood and gets as hot as 1400 degrees, says Chase. The pizzas are made with fresh, local ingredients from Jardin del Rio's farm. A culinary-school trained chef, Kate Weathers, teaches pizza-making classes at Sierra Knolls.

JARDIN DEL RIO

The Jardin del Rio farmers market offers fruit and vegetables in summer. The produce is grown on Rincon Way near the Bear River in Nevada County on about 10 acres. The veggies are grown from seed.

"Our farmers market lends itself naturally to the winery; it is creating a real sense of community," says Aubree Young, who manages Jardin del Rio (Spanish for "Garden by the River" and pronounced "Hardeen").

Featured produce includes lemon cucumbers (and other varieties), Burgess Hollow stuffing tomatoes (and dozens of other varieties), exotic melons such as Thai Golden Round Melon (and the standards too) and various types of fresh produce. The wide selection includes artichokes, beets, bell peppers, carrots , cherries, leeks, okra, peaches and plums.

Fresh eggs, raw, unfiltered honey and pickled vegetables also are offered. The farm's produce has won multiple awards at the Nevada County Fair, a testament to its quality and flavor.

For more information, visit JardinDelRio.org.

RINCON DEL RIO

Like many rural Northern California counties, Nevada County has an aging population that will require more senior housing in coming years — or risk losing its population and tax base to neighboring counties.

The South County is home to a project called Rincon del Rio with a motto of "successful aging and abundant living." It sits on 225 acres bordering the Bear River. About 85 percent is reserved as open space. Some homes could be constructed by late 2014.

What we find intriguing is the philosophy of senior living that is welcoming to families, a growing challenge as Americans live longer. Too often, visiting grandma can be uncomfortable and awkward for children.

Rincon del Rio aims to tackle that with amenities such as a well-stocked fishing pond, paths along the Bear River, walkable spaces akin to a village or "downtown" and a rural environment. It can be an enjoyable, less stressful place for a family reunion.

"There's space for children to run and play while the grown ups talk or to visit comfortably with their grandparents," says project developer Carol Young, an affable, longtime South County resident.

For seniors, housing options include cottages, a co-housing neighborhood and lodge residences. We like the detailed amenities such as raised vegetable gardens, which are accessible to seniors in wheelchairs. Gardening is a lifelong passion for many people.

REAL ESTATE REBOUND

The foothills' real estate is rebounding, and the South County is a catalyst. "It's the best it's been since 2006," says Debbie Krogman, who's been selling real estate in the region for 36 years.

She points to the friendly community, abundant outdoor activists and affordability. One improvement: A new, $3.1 million dollar renovation of the clubhouse at Lake of the Pines.