The birth of a winery

Jess and Vanessa Pitney pour their hearts into Nesseré Vineyard

Jess and Vanessa Pitney enjoy a rare relaxing evening on the back patio at their newly opened Durham winery.

Jess and Vanessa Pitney enjoy a rare relaxing evening on the back patio at their newly opened Durham winery.

Photo by Meredith J. Cooper

Nesseré Vineyard:
3471 Durham Dayton Highway, Durham; 345-9904;
Tasting room open Sat.-Sun., noon-5 p.m.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, the tasting room at Nesseré Vineyards was filled to the brim with local oenophiles eager to take a first sip of what the new winery had to offer. Judging by the smiles and laughter, that sip—or more accurately, sips, as there were seven wines to sample—was satisfying indeed.

“We like bold, high-octane wines,” Vanessa Pitney, one of the winery’s owners and its namesake, said over a glass of sangiovese a few quieter nights later. Her husband and partner, Jess Pitney, agreed: “We like to stress the grapes out a little bit.”

The Pitneys bought their vine-studded property off Durham Dayton Highway—just 10 minutes from downtown Chico—in 2008, after a long search for an orchard-type place to live and raise a family. After two years of tending to the grapes and selling them to other winemakers, they decided it was time to learn the craft for themselves. They took a few classes at UC Davis, visited a ton of wineries big and small, and eventually served as apprentices of sorts, under the tutelage of Tod and Alyse Hickman, who own Hickman Family Vineyards in nearby Bangor.

“We have a similar philosophy,” Jess said of the Hickmans. “We both use organic grapes, no additives. We really want the grapes to speak for themselves.”

Three of the Pitneys’ wines are estate-grown—the sangiovese, pinot noir and barbera. Others use grapes grown mostly in the Sierra foothills, but from as far away as the Sonoma coast. “We’re committed to good grapes,” Vanessa said. “But we aren’t afraid to blend—that’s the art of it, blending to make something completely different.” Aside from using all organic grapes, the couple have a commitment to doing things as sustainably as possible. To that end, much of the supplies used in building the winery were sourced from places like the Habitat for Humanity ReStore. Similarly, everything from the bar and stools to the cellar door and outside tables were all created from second-hand materials.

Building a winery almost from scratch—the grapes were already established—was no easy feat. Jess is a project coordinator for PG&E, and Vanessa works full time as a clinical dietician at Feather River Tribal Health. Plus, they have two small children—ages 1 and 3—who were both born alongside Nesseré. The winery’s name originally was going to be Benessere, which means well-being in Italian, but that name was already taken. It worked out, though, as Vanessa’s childhood nickname was Nesser—hence the pronunciation (ness-ER-eh). “It was meant to be,” she said with a smile.

In the vineyards that surround the winery, the Pitneys maintain their commitment to sustainability. Before the drought, they dry farmed everything. The past few years, they’ve had to do some irrigation, but they water as minimally as possible. And, with a desire to remain a small, family-run and -oriented artisan winery, they have no plans to ship far and wide. Most of their sales will be made on-site, though they aren’t opposed to partnering with a restaurant or even selling in a local grocery store.

To succeed as a boutique business, they hope to tap into the agritourism market and connect with other winemakers to help make the region a destination for wine lovers. They recalled trips to Napa and Sonoma where, because the wineries were so huge, they never got to meet the winemakers or even anyone truly connected to the wine. For the Pitneys, it’s all about that connection. “We want to connect with the community, to help show off what goes into making wine,” Vanessa said. “And we won’t make anything we won’t drink.”