Vined Ambition

Winters Winery Captures Unique Terroir of Region

By Daniel Barnes
February 2019

There are only two wineries currently operating in Winters, the small farming town 45 minutes west of Sacramento, but Nicole Salengo still fervently believes in the area’s potential to become a winegrowing region.

“I believe every hill in Winters should be planted with wine grapes,” says Salengo, a former geology student and head winemaker at Winters-based Berryessa Gap Vineyards. “I’m very confident that we have these key components to create really high-quality wine grapes.”

Salengo gets her wine grapes from Coble Ranch, a former Winters ram ranch purchased and converted to vineyards in 1998 by Berryessa Gap co-founders Dan Martinez Jr. and Santiago Moreno. This allows Salengo to monitor the grapes all the way from soil to bottle. To fully capture the unique terroir of the 

region, she never blends varietals or sources fruit from other vineyards. “It’s important for me to stay true to the variety,” she says. “A lot of people haven’t had wines from our region.” According to Salengo, the unique Winters terroir is best reflected in the Berryessa Gap Zinfandel. “I personally feel that zinfandel is one of those special varieties that really shows the ground that it’s grown on,” she says. “I try to make what the vineyard is giving us, instead of manipulating it into something it’s not. What our vineyard gives us is this very beautiful, elegant, not too heavy, very fruit forward, savory wine with a nice mineral finish.”

Over the last couple of decades, walnuts have become the favored crop for Winters farmers, but the area has a rich agricultural legacy. “It’s historically known to have a lot of microclimates,” Salengo says. “Winters is special because it’s always been an early ripening area.” She also cites soil diversity, good drainage and favorable weather conditions as the main reasons that wine grapes grow well in the Winters soil. 

“We have Lake Berryessa, which is a manmade lake about 10 miles outside of town,” Salengo notes. “The strong winds that come through the gap pick up cooling capabilities from the lake, and they continue on to our little area. There is so much soil diversity, it’s wonderful.”

Although Salengo did not initially set out to become a winemaker, initially moving to California from the East Coast to attend grad school at UC Davis, she recalls having an early obsession with beverages. “I remember being a kid and having three drinks at the table,” she says. “I’ve always been into blending and combining flavors.” 

After moving out West, Salengo got a job at a Davis wine shop and was promoted to wine buyer within six months, sparking a passion that eventually led her to study winemaking. “I was lucky enough to be exposed to really beautiful and varied wines early on, and I think that helped develop my palate,” she says. “I’ve also had people tell me that I couldn’t be a winemaker. I’m a very hardheaded person, so if someone is going to tell me that, it’s going to push me harder to prove them wrong.” 

Salengo was hired as head winemaker at Berryessa Gap in 2013, and she believes the wines have improved every year as she has honed her craft, culminating with a “perfect growing season” in 2018. “The 2018 wines are the best wines I’ve ever made,” she says. “It was a very long and very hard harvest. Our harvest starts with sauvignon blanc in July and finishes with red varieties in late October.” 

During harvest season, Salengo monitors 50 different lots of red and white wine grapes at Coble Ranch. “It’s a lot of details to stay on top of at any given time,” she explains. “You’re getting pulled in a lot of different directions, you’re making a lot of decisions. It’s really a test of your ability to make wine.”

Another challenge for Salengo comes from sharing the same building with Berryessa Brewing Co. The aromas from the brewery interfere with her ability to smell and taste the wine through the various stages of fermentation, but her main concern is sanitation. “There’s a lot of bacterial issues,” she says, referencing the wine-spoiling powers of certain brewing yeasts. “I love having the brewery over there, but from a winemaking perspective it certainly adds stress.”

More than anything, Salengo is eager to see more grapes planted in Winters and excited to help grow the local wine scene. “I have seen enough to truly know that we can grow high-quality fruit here,” she says. “We need some good winemakers to come into the area. We need some wineries to open and just move forward with it.”

Daniel Barnes can be reached at danielebarnes@hotmail.com

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