By Don Priest | email@example.com
Turning dreams into reality is never a straight forward endeavor. There’s always twists, turns, unforeseen obstacles and surprise encounters along the way. And for self-taught winemaker Christine Flannigan, the idea of creating her own winery meant she literary had to carve it out of stone.
The journey began in 2004 when Christine and husband Chuck moved from Sacramento to a hillside home in Squaw Valley. With a little time on her hands, a bit of land to work with, and an interest in winemaking, the vision of creating her own wines slowly began to evolve. “I love wine,” she says. “I’ve always wanted to have wine grapes – and from that, it follows to make my own wine.”
That process started in 2006 when she and Chuck decided to make some wine for home use and took on the challenge of creating a small vineyard on the rocky slope beneath their home. Which meant working around boulders and augering through decomposed granite to make the holes deep enough for the vines.
Simultaneously, to further enhance her knowledge of the craft, Christine attended winemaking workshops, read books, studied journals, and in 2009 connected with the newly formed Viticulture and Enology Association of Squaw Valley/Miramonte. Whom she blames for planting the idea of starting her own winery in the first place. “We would talk about it in our meetings, share information and tips. And I thought, I could make better wine than you could buy at the store,” she laughs.
That led them to check with Fresno County and Cal Fire to see what it would take build a winery on their property. And promptly encountered a series of obstacles. They knew they wanted to put the winery in the ground, but how do you construct a building in the ground when that ground is solid granite? This is where Chuck’s long career in construction came into play. Being a superintendent on large scale projects throughout the state gave him access to tools & materials needed for the job. “We dug some test holes around what we thought was roughly the footprint of where the building would go,” he says. “And we see it’s a single rock. So now we know it’s possible.”
Then came the Cal Fire regulations. Because of the elevation and terrain of the projected site, they were told they would first have to construct a 96,000-gallon water storage tank for fire suppression. That was almost a deal-breaker – almost.
“I was on the phone with Cal Fire when they told me about the water tank. I was about to give up when the guy tells me to hold on because he remembers something about a Wine Cave,” Christine recalls. Long story short – putting the structure in the ground, surrounded by 3 sides of dirt and calling it a Wine Cave, essentially a subterranean formation for the storage and aging of wine. Doing so meant there was no need for the water storage tank or a sprinkler system. Plus, due to the insulating factor of the ground, it would be cheaper than installing expensive commercial refrigeration units.
With the way now clear, Chuck put a crew together and completed construction in about 3 months. Followed by the time it took to install the electrical and plumbing, purchase the winemaking equipment, and begin the process.
Of course, to have wine, you have to have grapes. But not just any grapes. Christine knew she wanted something special for her estate wines. “I chose unique varietals because I didn’t want to make wines you could find easily someplace else, like Zinfandel or Cabs.” With that thought in mind, she launched an international search for those “unique varietals” to plant in her hillside vineyard.
“It began with the Carmenere,” recalls Chuck. “Christine read an article about how disease had wiped out the Carmenere in the 1800s in France. Then in the 1990s, it was rediscovered in Chile growing well at elevation in rocky, sunny slopes. So that was the first 60 vines she planted in 2006. It was excellent, so she continued with that.
That international search for grapes that would grow well in rocky, sunny slopes of Squaw Valley led to Christine’s choices. For the reds, she planted the Carmenere, along with Mourvèdre, grown in Spain and the Rhone region of France, and Aglianico, mostly grown in southern Italy, For the whites she chose Vermentino, also from Italy.
So now they have the grapes and a winery, but what to call it? “Sierra Peaks” was the logical name for the winery, but a wine wholesaler in Texas already had a claim to that name. So, Christine set off on another search. “I have an affinity for Native American deities. I was looking for something like Kokopelli or one of the Kachinas, “she recalled. “Then I met Huitaca, the Columbian goddess of drunkenness and indulgence. And she has become my best friend.”
The story goes that the moral God, Bochica, grew tired of Huitaca’s antics and turned her into the moon. “He was basically an old grump who wanted the party girl to go away,” says Chuck.
With all the pieces finally together, the 1st wines were made in 2014 and Huitaca has been busy ever since. It took time to develop the techniques and employ the right tools for creating the wines, and 5 years of work with the Viticulture and Enology Association of Squaw Valley/Miramonte to get the region certified as an American Viticulture Area (AVA). Being certified as an AVA means the area is designated as a unique grape-growing region, producing unique wines that are distinguishable from the surrounding areas. “There’s a lot of data goes into that – weather, type of soil, how many acres of grapes, what makes this area different from others (rain & snowfall), elevation,” Chuck explained.
Then there’s the task of getting people to try the wines. To accomplish this Chuck built a deck above the winery, with a gorgeous view of the valley below, where they conduct wine tastings every Saturday during the spring and summer. Christine says that she has proven to be a great way to meet the neighbors and teach folks about wine. “We’re so spread out here it’s been great to get an idea of our community. I also like providing an entertainment venue for people because there’s not a lot of that here. And we’ve had people come winetasting that had never been wine tasting before. They love it – they get educated on wine, and they end up buying a bottle or two. And that’s very reaffirming.”
They also attract people heading up to the national parks, adds Chuck. “That’s kind of a kick in the pants to have somebody roll in from Australia or the UK or wherever. They see the signs and are curious to sample local wines.”
Additionally, they host periodic special events to help enhance the winetasting experience, like matching aromas to the flavor of wine, showing wine-themed movies on an outdoor screen, and demonstrating how music influences the one’s perception of wine. (see attached sidebar)
Because Christine only makes wine in limited quantities, about 1500 bottles a year, large retail distribution is not possible. Meaning her wine can only be purchased at the winery itself or at Gino’s Sierra Inn in Squaw Valley, which sells it by the bottle. Huitaca wines will also be featured in a special Wine Tasting event at the Grant Grove Restaurant in Grant Grove on September 14.
So, after 15 years of love and labor in search of the cave goddess, are they still having fun? “Most days, yes,’ says Christine. “We have some great supporters here. Owning a business is tough, so it makes a big difference to have people who support you and are proud of you.”
“It’s been an adventure,” adds Chuck. “If you told me 20 years ago that I would own a vineyard I would have laughed at you. I’ve also discovered it takes a tremendous amount of beer to build a winery.”
Sierra Peaks Winery is located at 50806 Bramble Lane in Squaw Valley, CA. Approx a 40-min drive from Fresno up Hwy 180.