Thursday, November 20, 2014

Wineaux: Yes, she’s the winemaker


From page A9 | September 04, 2014 |

Berryessa Gap’s Nicole Salengo gets a lot of “You’re the winemaker?”

She’s young (and looks even younger), she’s female (yes, winemaking is still a male-dominated enterprise), she’s the opposite of arrogant and snobby (the stereotype of a winemaker that is, alas, sometimes accurate). She’s also smart, articulate and passionate about her craft.

A couple of columns ago, I mentioned two easily confused, newly released, award-winning Berryessa Gap whites, the Verdejo and the Verdelho, which I hope you’ve since tried — both are delicious. This column I want to focus on their creator.

Unlike so many of the winemakers I mention, Nicole didn’t start out at UC Davis. Nor did she start out in viticulture and enology. A graduate of SUNY Oneonta in eastern New York, she majored in political science and geology with a special interest in the environment.

She did work in a brewery in Cooperstown, N.Y., but she didn’t start learning about wine until she came to California in 2004 and took a job waiting tables — something she had done since was 14 — at Tucos in downtown Davis. Put in charge of the wine list, she had to learn fast. And in the process, she “discovered” wine herself.

Nicole gained experience at several other local wineries before her appointment as BG’s winemaker. She’s especially grateful to Mark West of Rominger West Winery (now, sadly, defunct, as you probably know), who hired her almost 10 years ago and volunteered to teach her to make wine. At that point she had no real wine experience besides working on that Tucos list.
Her first hurdle at RW was harvest. Mark told her that she’d know by the hard, grueling, hot work of harvesting grapes if she was really cut out for a winemaking career. By the end of the first week, she was hooked.

I met Nicole a couple of years later — I’d see her behind the bar at Rominger West, at various Rominger events and at the Farmers Market, where she also worked. We talked wine, and I loved her enthusiasm and commitment — and ever-expanding knowledge.

After her years at Rominger West, she took a job at Putah Creek Winery, where she “learned a lot” from their consulting winemaker; she went on to a six-month internship at Kenzo Estate winery in Napa. Then New Zealand. It was while she was furthering her wine studies there that the folks at Berryessa Gap contacted her about their winemaker opening.

Like many young California winemakers, Nicole is taking a “minimal intervention” approach to her work. Once she has the very best grapes, her job, she says, is “not to mess up” the magic that happens in the vineyard and during fermentation. I noticed in Rominger West days that Nicole had a wonderful palate (much better than mine); she talks about “letting the wine speak” to her, and you can tell from her first BG releases that she’s a very good listener.

One of the wines Nicole is most proud of: a newly released proprietary red from BG’s Coble Ranch. A blend of the very best grapes of the vintage, this year it’s petit syrah, tempranillo (BG’s signature grape), grenache and a touch of syrah. It’s a lovely, balanced, full-bodied, spicy, earthy red that provoked a lot of “Wow, this is really good” from my group of tasters. In fact, they were so enthusiastic that I didn’t get more than a few sips myself.

The most expensive of BG’s wines (retail $35), it still costs much less than most wines of this quality. And it would make a perfect gift for the wine-lover in your life — especially one you wanted to impress with the excellence of our local “terroir.”

I also had a chance to try the new sauvignon blanc release — and, unlike the red, I drank it at my leisure. It went beautifully with my weekly (during this season of abundance) roasted tomato pasta — and even with the accompanying green salad (young, sprightly flavorful leaves from Fiddlers Green). Its stone fruitiness and citrus finish would make it a perfect pair for a cheese plate, too.

This sauvignon blanc is, by the way, blended with 5 percent semillon and 1 percent chenin blanc. Delicious. If you’re put off by the gooseberry grassiness of New Zealand sauv, you should try this quite different style. It’s $18 at the tasting room or winery.

I’m generally impressed, by the way, with the quality of our local sauvs. I recently had a bottle of the 2013 Route 3, for example, which received Best of Class for the region this year and 92 points at the State Fair competition. Like the BG, it has a core of delicious stone fruit, primarily peach and nectarine, plus a touch of grapefruit, lovely minerality and tart acidity that pairs well with all manner of food, including sea food and sharp cheeses. It worked very well indeed with a roasted tomato pizza one Friday night.

Less expensive than the BG, it’s available for about $13 at Valley Wine, the Co-op and Whole Foods — a real bargain for a quality wine.

But back to Berryessa Gap: To get a good sense of Nicole’s accomplishments, mark your calendars for the weekend of Oct. 3-5 — the 10th anniversary of the opening of the BG downtown Winters tasting room. On Friday, the winery will be featuring Library wines from their earliest vintages. Obviously, Nicole had no hand in these, but the complimentary tasting should be great fun.

On Saturday, the winery will be releasing its latest red, the 2012 Barbera, and to celebrate, there will be complimentary tasting of all Berryessa Gap wines, including the 2011 Durif and 2011 Zinfandel both of which have been awarded 90 points from Wine Enthusiast. The tasting starts at 11:30 a.m. — and at 6:30 p.m. there will be live music.

On Sunday (Oct. 5), an open house with light appetizers begins at 11:30 a.m., with live music from 2 to 4 p.m. At 4 p.m., there’s a raffle drawing for several bottles of the initial 2002 vintage. The proceeds from this and a percentage of tasting room sales from the weekend will go to the Winters High School agriculture program.

Do plan to meet Nicole and try her wines at one of these events. Don’t say, you’re the winemaker?

— Reach Susan Leonardi at Comment on this column at



Susan Leonardi



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