Fine varietals

Taste of the season: Forest Ranch vintner crafts earth-friendly, award-winning wines

Photo By Andrew Boost

Enjoy live music, wine tasting and hors d’oeuvres made from local, organic ingredients during the LaRocca family’s annual holiday party at the winery’s tasting room in downtown Forest Ranch. The festivities go from about noon-7 p.m. on Dec. 15.

Fall is the perfect time for a short drive to Forest Ranch to explore Northern California’s own organic winery, LaRocca Vineyards. Philip LaRocca, owner and vintner, is more than happy to guide tours of the winery and share the panoramic view of Butte Creek Canyon, which is even more priceless than the 12 gold medals his wines have won.

For 17 years, two generations of LaRoccas have been committed to producing 100 percent organic wines. The grapes are grown using no synthetic herbicides, and the wines are processed without synthetic chemicals, such as sulfur dioxide, a key ingredient in conventional wines, LaRocca said.

“It’s important to be organic because it’s healthier to the human body and certainly healthier to the environment,” he said. “Our wines are organic, but they don’t taste much different from conventional wines.”

Over the years, the family’s organic operation has flourished, now producing 22,000 cases annually.

Forest Ranch is home to the main vineyard, where cabernet sauvignon and merlot are grown on 110 acres at an elevation of 2,700 feet. The second vineyard is located on 86 acres at the base of the Sutter Buttes, where the family’s chardonnay, zinfandel and chenin blanc are farmed.

These days, the winery’s varietals are distributed in 30 states and internationally in China, Japan, Taiwan and Canada. Among the numerous awards the family has won is a gold medal in 2005 for Lush Zinfandel, a late-harvest dessert wine that LaRocca was very confident about.

“It’s very expensive to enter wines into contests,” he said. “I knew I had a winner.”

The LaRoccas have recently unveiled what they believe is the world’s first certified organic sparkling wine. It can be sampled at the winery’s tasting room in downtown Forest Ranch.

But people can also make appointments to visit the winery. LaRocca says the grounds are stunning in the fall and winter time, when the leaves are changing from green to gold and red, and the air is crisp.

Visitors will enjoy a history of the winery and the business, followed by a walk to the highest point of Doe Mill Ridge to observe the vineyard. Guests will also visit an area of the winery where the fermentation process takes place, and then go to the wine cellar before tasting eight different wines.

“It’s a very fun event,” LaRocca said. “Everyone is very knowledgeable about our wines and can answer any questions.”

The menu lineup for a LaRocca tasting is cabernet sauvignon, merlot, chardonnay, three different zinfandels, chenin blanc, pinot noir, the new sparkling wine and of course, cheese and crackers. So cleanse your pallet, gather some friends and family, and make the short drive to LaRocca Vineyards (see listings below for more information).

Butte County wineries

Grey Fox Vineyards
90 Grey Fox Lane, Oroville, 589-3920, Wine tasting and tours noon-5 p.m. on weekends; Weekdays by appointment.

LaRocca Vineyards
A 15-minute drive east of Chico on Highway 32 in Forest Ranch. 899-WINE (9463), Tasting room open Fridays, 1-6 p.m.; weekdays, 12-6 p.m. Winery tours and private samplings by appointment.

Long Creek Vineyards and Winery
233 Ward Blvd., Oroville, 589-3415, Open by appointment.

New Clairvaux Winery
26240 Seventh St., Vina, 839-2200, Run by monks and founded in 1955, it is also a unique winery experience. Tasting room open weekends, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.

Odyssey Winery and Vineyards
6237 Cohasset Road, Chico, 891-9463. Saturdays, 1-6 p.m.

Quilici Vineyards
72 Quail Hill Place, Oroville, 589-5088. Open by appointment.

Stanford Oaks Winery
9345 Stanford Lane, Durham, 891-1264, Features Tuscan Ridge wines and is a beautiful wedding locale.

Jesu Alda (left) assists Judy LaRocca, who regularly sells an array of organic LaRocca varietals at the Saturday Farmers Market.

Photo by Andrew Boost

Other notable wine destinations

Creekside Cellars
250 Vallombrosa Ave., 894-7696, Wine and cheese shop offering wine tasting with complimentary hors d’oeuvres and outdoor seating. Store open Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Tasting room open Thursday-Saturday, 4-7 p.m.

Monks Wine Lounge & Bistro
128 W. Second St., 343-3408. An extensive wine list with more than 100 labels available (more than 50 by the glass). Cheese boards, other small plates and desserts. Open daily from 4:30 p.m.

Vino 100
704 Mangrove Ave., (in Park Plaza shopping center), 898-8466 (VINO), Selling 100 great wines for $25 or less. Open for shopping and wine tasting Monday-Saturday.