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Friday, 28 November 2014 19:15

A Legacy of Mandarins in Penryn

Mandarins in chute at packing shed PicmonkeyJust-picked Mandarins come down the chute for sorting

by Dan Clarke

At Mandarin Hill Orchards Tom Aguilar can show visitors trees planted by Welsh settlers in the 1880s. Main street in the little town of Penryn, which is about half a mile away, is English Colony Road. Just a few miles south are the communities of Orangevale and Citrus Heights. These days both are suburbs of Sacramento, but their identities harken to the era when they, too, were all about farming. Citrus orchards were prominent on both sides of the Placer-Sacramento County line and though it may seem incongruous, British settlers were a big part of that.

Tom's ancestors came from Malaga in Spain's Andalusia, which would seem a more likely heritage for farming this sort of crop. His father, Frank Aguilar, purchased 50-acres on Penryn's Rippey Road in 1943 from a Welsh couple who had opted to retire. There was some citrus on the property, including Mandarins and navel oranges, but also pears, plums and peaches. When blight decimated the pear industry in the area in the 1950's, Tom's parents began replacing the pears and stone fruit with Mandarin trees and after several years Frank and Bernice had 20-acres of their own recently-planted Mandarins. “The first few years they gave them away,” Tom Aguilar recalls. “Nobody knew what Mandarins were.” Happily for the Aguilars and other Placer County growers, the public eventually did learn about these little orange fruits and developed quite a taste for them.

Other citrus fruits are also grown at Mandarin Hill. These include navel and Valencia oranges, Marsh grapefruit, an heirloom variety, Meyer lemons and Eureka lemons. However, the ranch is named Mandarin Hill, not miscellaneous-citrus fruit-hill. The Mandarins include Owari Satsumas and Algerian Clementines.

On the day Taste California Travel visited Mandarin Hill, Tom's father, now in his 90's, was working in the packing area, as were his brother-in-law and his son-in-law. It's definitely a family business. With less than half the property's 50 acres dedicated to citrus trees, Tom's daughter and son-in-law, Jacque and Rick Kennedy, have begun planting wine grapes. At the moment they have a couple of acres of Malbec and Nebbiolo in the ground. They're proceeding on a pay-as-you-go basis, adding another acre each year. The slopping hills on this 600-foot elevation site in the Sierra Foothills are likely to produce good quality fruit.

Tom Aguilar with old Mandarin tree PicmonkeyTom Aguilar points out a tree from the 19th Century. It's still producing though the fruit is getting smaller.

Mandarin Hill produce is distributed through grocery stores in the Sacramento area and also in markets from Reno, Nevada, south to Patterson, California. As wholesale buyers and the public in general gravitate toward products sourced nearby, Tom says he no longer identifies his fruit just as Satsumas, but refers to them as local Satsumas. He makes a good case for the superiority of the mountain-grown fruit, saying that he and other small growers in Placer County don't pick green and can wait until fruit is ripe before harvesting. Also, Mandarins grown above the floor of California's Central Valley, experience colder nights, which Tom believes “Makes the fruit a little sweeter, as it shuts the tree down for a while, allowing it to produce more sugar.” Their Mandarins are also believed to have health benefits in relieving colds and allergies. A brochure produced by area growers cites a study by the USDA, which reported, “Owari Satsuma Mandarins grown in Placer County have synephrine concentrations up to six times higher than values previously determined for orange juices.”

In addition to shipping their produce, the Aguilar family welcomes the public to Mandarin Hill Orchards. It's good business, but they really enjoy the visitors and it seems to satisfy them on a deeper level. “You can get a job anywhere,” Tom says, “but the people who come in here—99% of them are in a good mood. If you can give them a little education about farming and their kids are having fun . . . they'll come back. “

Friday, 19 September 2014 14:05

Castile in California's Foothills

by Dan Clarke

Vina Castellano Cave Entrance PicmonkeyVina Castellano tasting cave lies behind the doors

Teena Wilkins says her late father, Gabe Mendez, was known as “Dr. Dirt.” Forty-five years ago he was operating a successful earth-moving and excavating business in Southern California, but wanted a less congested environment for his family—somewhere with fresh air and room for a few animals. When he bought 60-acres northwest of Auburn there were no wineries in Placer County and few, if any, vineyards. Nevertheless, Mendez thought his Northern California property resembled the homeland of his ancestors and had agricultural potential.

Nearly 20 years ago Teena and her husband returned to California. They had been working in Florida; she in public relations and Craig in construction management. Gabe's business had made him successful, but it had kept him too busy to seriously consider developing his own property. At a family dinner, Teena heard her father mention that he might have enjoyed living the life of a farmer—perhaps working with wine grapes or olive trees. Teena was intrigued. She soon called UC Davis to see what she could learn about grapegrowing and winemaking.

Teena Wilkins' mother was of Irish and American Indian ancestry—not much wine tradition there, but her father's parents had emigrated from Ribeiro del Duero in Spain. Wine was a part of everyday life in Teena's childhood, served in moderation with most meals and not just on special occasions. “My abuelita (grandmother) made 200-gallons of wine each year, but was using Mission grapes,” Teena recalls. “After moving to Northern California she found better grapes were available to her here.”

Vina Castellano Teena in Cave PicmonkeyTeena explains cave tasting environment

When the decision was eventually made to put in a vineyard about 15 years ago, Dr. Dirt “ripped and cross-ripped” the land in preparation for planting, says his daughter. He also excavated a cave which was originally used for barrel aging and later put to use as a unique tasting venue.

To acknowledge the family's Castilian heritage the new wine estate was named Vina Castellano. Both Teena and her father Gabe felt their Auburn property had a terroir similar to the Rioja and Ribera del Duero regions and that they could grow the Spanish grape varieties planted there so Tempranillo was included among the varieties planted. “Fifteen years ago nobody had heard of Tempranillo,” recalls Wilkins, who nevertheless planted the Spanish grape. The family's early vineyard consultants had connections to the well-established Clos du Val. That French-owned winery was making mostly Bordeaux-styled wines from Napa Valley grapes. A Gallic influence was felt at Vina Castellano. “We really had more of a Rhône program the first couple of years,” she explains, adding that in addition to the Tempranillo and Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Grenache and Mouvèdre were also planted.

Tempranillo, for all its popularity in Spain, accounts for only 1,000 acres in today's California and there was considerably when Vina Castellano planted it 15 years ago. Other wineries here have begun making Tempranillo, but even now relatively few American consumers are familiar with it.

In time, Vina Castellano began budding over Cabernet Franc and Syrah to Grenache and Mouvèdre. The latter two grapes are well-known in the Rhône Valley of France, but the same varieties are called Garanacha and Monastrell when grown in Spain. Further, these latter two grapes are often blended with Tempranillo. Redefined, those varieties stayed and the Spanish personality of the Vina Castellano estate was further amplified. As a fledgling operation, “we were coming into a market where we had no credibility and no traffic,” says Wilkins. “We heard from the beginning that we were going to have to be unique to give people a reason to want to visit the winery. Why try to do Bordeaux varieties when the best in the world are being made two hours away in a far different climate?”

Vina Castellano Teena Victor Derek PicmonkeyTeena, Victor and Derek at onset of 2014 harvest

As a small winery, Vina Castellano sells most of its wines from the tasting room. Teena's mother, Carolyn Mendez, pointed out that many of their visitors might not be red wine drinkers and that creating a white wine was in order. “I loved Albariño,” comments Teena, and that Galician grape would certainly fit with the Spanish profile, but Derek Irwin, her vineyard consultant and Spanish variety specialist, suggested they introduce Verdejo, a lesser-known Spanish white grape that Teena says has a flavor profile right between Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Vedejo is another wine that helps differentiate her winery, feels Teena, who calls it an “educating wine,” allowing her to help consumers “to step out of the box.”

Perhaps Vina Castellano chose to specialize in Spanish grape varieties primarily because of the family heritage, but the results seem to justify the decision from a grower's perspective, too. In addition to their Tempranillo bottling, the winery has produced wines dubbed “Abuelita” and “Abuelito” in honor of Teena's grandmother and grandfather. The former is a blend of Cabernet Franc, Tempranillo, Garanacha, and Syrah. Comprised of Tempranillo, Garanacha and Monistrell, the Abuelito garnered a Double Gold at the 2014 California State Fair Wine Judging. It also was deemed the Best of Region for the Sierra Foothills and honored as the Best Other Red Blend in all of California.

Gabe Mendez succumbed to prostate cancer in 2011. While he wasn't a lifelong farmer, he took an active role in the operation of Vina Castellano, frequently traveling to Spain to compare notes with vineyard owners there. His daughter Teena runs things now, with invaluable help from Derek Irwin and Victor Brambila, the vineyard manager and cellar master. Teena's husband Craig has a full-time job with DTR Construction, she says, but he and their two sons play the “weekend warrior” role with both vineyard and winery chores.

How would Gabe Mendez have felt about the realization of the vineyard and winery he inspired? His daughter comments that she thinks he felt “it was a dream realized, maybe more than he expected. I think he was gratified that he had provided opportunity for his family.”

Editor's note: Vina Castellano is one of 20 wineries in the fast-developing Placer County wine region. You can find links to the websites of all these wineries, as well as links to hundreds of nearby Lodging and Dining options in the Gold Country listings at Taste California Travel's Resource Directory.

Region: High Sierra     City: Carnelian Bay     Contact: www.laketahoeconcours.com

Frog Jumping Champ SMALL photo courtesy of Calaveras CountyFrog Jumping Champ.    photo courtesy of Calaveras County

It's difficult anymore to find a corner of Earth where we are separated from our electronic devices. Even at  30,000 feet, two little syllables - Wi-Fi - keeps travelers plugged in. But California's Gold Country, the state's northeast/central region connected by meandering Highway 49, offers some steller spots where visitors can disconnect from technology for a digital detox.

Whether unplugging is a choice or a geographic happenstance, California's Gold Country offers everyone the chance to unplug and recharge. Here are twelve places to drop the call:

Rock Climb and Hike, Amador County: Remember what it feels like to be alive by hanging from a cliff by your knuckles 1,000 feet above a pristine mountain lake. http://www.touramador.com.

Cave and Mine Adventures, Calaveras County: Change your perspective zip lining over forests or crawling into the depths of the Earth, 165 feet into Moaning Cavern and through amphitheater-like rooms covered in stalactites. Sometimes visitors can hear the cavern actually moaning. Thankfully there is no cell reception. http://www.caveandmineadventures.com/

Kennedy Meadows Resort and Pack Station, Tuolumne County: Spend days reading books with real pages, petting horses in the stables, trout fishing in the Stanislaus River, or dancing to old country music from the Saloon's juke box—who needs iTunes? For Teddy Roosevelt-like adventure, see Southern Yosemite National Park on horseback. http://www.kennedymeadows.com/

Susan's Place Restaurant, Sutter Creek (Amador County): Nosh on artisanal cheeseboards and homegrown mustards while sipping local wines on a brick patio enjoying the trellised landscape. The sign on the door, "please turn your cell phones off", sets the mood. http://www.susansplace.com/index.htm

Cascade down rivers, El Dorado County: Nobody can effectively shoot the rapids while texting. http://www.visit-eldorado.com/river-rafting.php

Concerts in Ironstone Vineyard, Murphys (Amador County): This year choose a concert by Reba McIntire, John Fogherty, Tony Bennett, Jeff Foxworthy and others while wining and dining at the vineyard. Even if your ring tone is "I left my heart..." it is taboo to leave your phone on. http://www.ironstonevineyards.com

In the footsteps of Ansel Adams, Yosemite National Park: This half-day photography class allows photographers to capture the same images Ansel Adams made famous through his classic black and white images. (OK, there may be a digital device involved.) Step back in time with an overnight stay in the historic Wawona Hotel, a mid-19th century wooden lodge in Yosemite National Park. http://www.yosemitepark.com

Take a soak at Yosemite Bug Rustic Mountain Resort, Highway 140/Midpines: Buy a day pass for access to a 10-person stainless steel hot tub, cold-rain shower, cedar hot-rock sauna and a seven-jet show in the Health Spa. www.yosemitebug.com

American River Bike Trail, Folsom (to Sacramento): City cyclists will enjoy a break from competing with autos on the longest continuous paved cycling path in the United States. With 32 miles of trails, there are plenty of options for riders of all levels. http://www.visitfolsom.com/cycling/

Christmas Tree Vineyard Lodge, Forest Hill (El Dorado County): Escape the news at this rustic six-room bed and breakfast abode because rooms are TV, radio and telephone-free. http://www.christmastreevineyardlodge.com

Off Road, Placer County:See this beautiful area on ATV's and motorcycles down mountain trails and through parks. www.visitplacer.com/northern-california-off-road.aspx

Jumping Frog Jubilee, Calaveras County:Immortalized by Mark Twain, this annual event in May attracts young and old, individuals and teams (and their bug-eyed competitors) for the Jumping Frog Jubilee at the Calaveras County Fair.  Visitors aren't off the grid here but might have their hands full. http://www.frogtown.org

The northeast/central California region known as the Gold Country, where gold was discovered in 1849, is an area made up of 12 counties and dozens of historic towns dotting Highway 49. It has been named one of the top ten U.S. travel destinations to see in 2012 by Lonely Planet. For more information call toll free (U.S.) 800-225-3764 or 916-985-2698, or visit www.calgold.org.

 

(TravMedia.com contributed to this article)

 

Editor's note: Links to the websites of hundreds of lodging and dining options in Gold Country can be found at Taste California Travel's Resource Directory.