Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Spirits in the Foothills- Winemakers Figure out Work-arounds with Butte Fire Conditions

Joe Gates, winemaker-owner at Catano Winery, San Andreas, Calaveras County, had to figure out how to carry on.  The Butte Fire changed his plans, but the winery is his livelihood.  Here is his story:

"Wine making dilemma. The port style wines that Catano Winery makes require grape spirits for fortification. The fire started before I could pick up the spirits from Amador Distillery in Jackson. Grapes are ripe, we planned the picking for Saturday, fire starts, no one can come in to pick. I started picking alone, leaving the grapes on truck.

Fire passes within a half mile, heads away down a steep canyon quiets down for the night, I crush. Next day, temperature and wind pickup. By midafternoon fire wakes up and now is headed back to my canyon. Calfire had told me earlier that our ridge top vineyard was the last real fire stop before the fire would threaten San Andreas.

The Calfire dozer operators scouted out our ridge top and noted that they couldn't contain the fire here as it is too steep to cut a trail to the bottom. They had already stuck a D8 dozer on the ridge across from us. My winery operation was a minor significance at this time. Then came the DC 10's, three of them. After painting a few ridges red, a mile away, the fire was halted for the evening. It would pop up the next afternoon, but wander away from us.

So now, I need that grape spirit on hand to stop a fermentation at the right time. I was still in a no return situation, if I left. I was sure, it would be trouble if I tried to sneak it though the woods on a cattle road and got caught with highly flammable spirits.

So I waited another day, then when down the road to talk to CHP blocking the main road, enquiring on if I could return after leaving. Yes I could, just show ID. and he would still be on duty when I returned. After some small talk to make sure he would remember me on the return, away I went for spirits. I had not been off our ridge in 5 days. The return was easy, I was waved in.

We are over 2/3 done on the picking. Beside having the fire, 2015 could be a great port style wine year for us. The grapevines are now 25 years old. 3/4 of the vineyard has been dry farmed the last 6 years. Production is about 1/2 ton per acre, just like in Portugal. I have learned thru many mistakes over the years. 2015 could be a year for a great vintage style port for us. Only time will tell."

Thanks, Joe, for sharing!  Ya gotta do what ya gotta do...
I enjoyed reading about your port/dessert wines, and I'm sure 2015 will be a great year for you!
     ~Barbara Keck, author
       Wineries of the Sierra Foothills

You can learn more about Catano and their wines at

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Barbara! You are providing a wonderful service for all of us who wish to keep informed of the winemaking and grape growing challenges of the wildfires