Uncorking an industry

Armed with helpful new zoning ordinance, local vintners celebrate Butte County terroir

TOAST OF THE TOWN<br>Pat Arrigoni, part owner of Grey Fox Vineyards in Oroville, shows off the vineyard’s new winery and tasting room.

Pat Arrigoni, part owner of Grey Fox Vineyards in Oroville, shows off the vineyard’s new winery and tasting room.

Photo By Tom Angel

California crush:California vintners crushed 3 million tons of grapes last year, produced 92 percent of all the wine made in the U.S., and contributed $33 billion to the state’s economy.

In a cinderblock-lined cave gouged out of a red-earth hillside, Pat Arrigoni runs her fingers over one of the huge steel tanks that has just arrived from Italy. Soon enough, this tank will be installed against the wall next to the others, where it will be filled and labeled, its contents carefully monitored for acidity, temperature and taste.

“When we started, we didn’t expect to be this big,” she says, gesturing hemispherically toward over a million dollars’ worth of gleaming, high-tech equipment. A machine the size of a small car sits patiently, waiting for the crush, when it will be fed hundreds of pounds of plump, sticky grapes, the non-metaphorical fruit of thousands of hours of painstaking labor.

The stuff in the tanks is wine, or will be in a few months, which explains the vinegar smell mixing with the construction dust in the air. As soon as the last few panels of foam insulation are put up, the Arrigonis will finally be in a position to begin offering their product to the public. They’ll finally be living their dream.

Bruce and Pat Arrigoni always wanted to retire to a vineyard, where they could live the pastoral life of country vintners at a small boutique winery. With money made from the couple’s office supply businesses, they hoped to create a little facsimile of the Italian countryside where they could tend to their vines and sip cabernet through their golden years. But by 1995, soaring land prices had all but dashed their hopes for finding an affordable vineyard site in California. Then they stumbled upon a plot of land just outside of Oroville.

It was hilly, and there were a lot of trees on the property, but the price seemed about right, so they took a few soil samples and began studying climate patterns for the area. The Arrigonis were surprised to find out, after exhaustive research, that the foothills around Oroville have the perfect climate and soil to grow certain kinds of wine grapes.

“This area may be equivalent to a Napa,” Bruce said. “It’s one of the best-kept secrets [in winemaking].”

In 1996, the Arrigonis, along with their partner, Gary Cecchi (no relation to the other Cecchi family now operating a winery in the area), immediately set out to obtain the necessary permits from the various agencies involved. Wineries are regulated at the federal level by the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, by the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control, and by local zoning codes, making wine production one of the most heavily regulated industries in America.

All of the agencies, including the county, signed off on the little winery, which sits on 11 tranquil acres about 10 miles from downtown Oroville. The land is remote, accessible only by a private gravel road. Since the area is zoned for agricultural and residential use, the Arrigonis foresaw no problems with planting vines and constructing a small winery, from which they hoped to sell about 3,000 cases of sangiovese, syrah and zinfandel wines a year.

But, as soon as they had committed their life savings to the endeavor, county officials expressed second thoughts.

“We had applied through all the normal channels for state and federal permits, and they were granted,” Bruce said. “It wasn’t until a couple years later that the county said, ‘We don’t have any rules or regulations to govern wineries.’ I said, ‘Wait a minute—a million and quarter dollars later, you can’t come up here and tell me to stop what I’m doing.”

The county had heard of problems the Arrigonis had with a neighbor who was concerned about traffic on the little road that links their properties. But county planners decided they didn’t want to shut the Arrigonis down. Instead, they asked them to join with other Butte County vintners to craft a zoning law that could govern and protect their operations. It was a project that would take almost two years to complete, but, in the end, it would not only bring a legal designation to the handful of winery operators in the area, it also would give them further reason to bond together. County supervisors signed off on the new ordinance two weeks ago.

Because the wine industry in this area is so small and so new, all of the local winemakers seem to know each other. Most local vineyards are family affairs, owned and operated by people who simply love good wine and are fascinated by the process of making it.

From the well-established LaRocca Vineyards in Forest Ranch, the biggest winery in the area, to the fledgling Odyssey Vineyards near Cohasset and the tiny cluster of family vintners in Oroville, a community of winemakers has officially begun to take shape. They are a diverse crowd in terms of age and experience, but they have found one thing in common: perfect growing conditions for their crop.

“The soil here is phenomenal,” said Lou Cecchi, owner of Cecchi Vineyards in Oroville. “The French use a term to describe it—terroir. That means all of the conditions are right. The soil, the land, the weather. From the beginning, the quality and quantity of what we’ve grown has been just right.”

Though he began making wine commercially only about six years ago, Cecchi and his wines have already won awards at county tastings. The Arrigonis’ Grey Fox wines have likewise been well-received at industry conventions, as have Odyssey’s and Honey Run’s. Gaining support from other local businesses has also helped spread the word, and plans for more local tasting events are slowly but surely coming to fruition.

With the added sanction of the county’s new ordinance, most of which was lifted from rules already in use in wine-producing areas like Sonoma, local winemakers hope to attract more wineries to Butte County. Though no one seriously believes that the region can overtake the Napa Valley in terms of tourism or wine production, most do think there is a good-sized market just waiting to be carved out.

“I see it as more of an adjunct to the reasons people usually come here,” said Odyssey Vineyards owner Norm Rosene. “Parents come to visit their kids in school; people come to visit their families. [Wine tasting] would just give them something else to do while they’re here.”

Rosene, a Chico dentist, has worked for 11 years to establish his winery on Cohasset Road. When construction is finished this fall, the place will resemble a North Coast winery, “only smaller and more user friendly.” This attitude sums up the hopes of many of the local winemakers, who want their businesses to remain small enough to be easily manageable, yet large enough to be self-sustaining.

As for bringing tourism dollars to the cash-strapped county, Debra Lucero, director of Butte County’s Cultural Tourism Project, said it will take time for the word to get out.

“I think it’s a very good thing for the county,” she said. “[The new wine ordinance] enables the local vintners and people involved in the industry to now open their premises for wine-tasting, which will bring people in.”

Lucero said her group was working on expanding its annual Farm-City tour to include local wineries and restaurants. But she conceded that, even if the ordinance encourages the growth of new wineries, it could take years for them to become a big enough draw to attract tourists from nearby urban areas.

“Right now, in terms of planting, there’s only so much acreage in grapes,” she said. “Wine isn’t something you just instantly produce.”

And neither are tourists. But if the rumors the Arrigonis have heard are true—that large wineries such as Kendall Jackson and Laroche are considering setting up shop in Butte County—then people from all over California may soon be raising their glasses in a toast to Butte County wine.