With about 20 wineries and vineyards across Butte County—from the small, family-owned Odyssey Vineyards in Chico and Durham’s Almendra Winery and Distillery to Oroville’s Purple Line Urban Winery and Bangor Ranch Vineyard and Winery in the southeast part of the county—there is no shortage of places to unwind for a glass or procure a favorite vintage for a special occasion.
Historically, a flourishing wine presence in Butte County seemed unlikely. Some of the area’s earlier pioneers unsuccessfully gave wine grape-growing a go: Leland Stanford, Peter Lassen, and even famed prohibitionist John Bidwell took a swing at producing wine grapes in the region. Whether it was due to choosing varietals that weren’t ideal for the climate or a lack of demand is hard to say, but for whatever reason, wine didn’t take root in Butte County for many years after those first attempts.
Tony Santos is credited with establishing the first modern vineyard in Butte County in 1968, according to Phil LaRocca of LaRocca Vineyards. In the early 1990s, though, an upswing began. LaRocca himself had started to make a name as a bit of a farm-to-table savant thanks to various roles in agriculture and cuisine, but his wine renown really began when he took over a couple of struggling cabernet sauvignon and merlot vineyards in Forest Ranch in 1984, according to a 2017 Sacramento Bee report. His success in bringing them along was the beginning of an education for the area about which properties about certain wine grape varieties could enable them to flourish in the various valley climates.
Looking at Durham, Oroville, and Bangor—all agricultural hotbeds in the county, compared to the more urban and beer-dominated stylings of Chico—each has an enviable list of wine purveyors and growers. Indeed, the emphasis on agriculture in those surrounding communities could be the first major hint about wine’s popularity in specific parts of Butte County.
For starters, certain elements of the climate on the Sacramento Valley floor indicate that specific grape varieties can flourish here, while others simply won’t thrive.
“Butte County has very fertile, deep topsoil that supplies plenty of nutrients to grow exceptional fruit,” explained Berton Bertagna, the owner of Almendra Winery & Distillery and Bertagna Son Kissed Vineyards. “The high heat in our valley works well with certain varieties, and brings out the sugars and intensifies the flavors and profiles in the wine.”
In the local area, European wine grapes benefit most from the warm (and often quite hot) climate, and also from the winds that county natives know so well.
Bertagna said that some of the better-growing grapes in the region are traditional Italian varieties, like Sangiovese and Barbera, as well as some classic varieties like Zinfandel and Syrah.
“Planting the correct varieties for our region lends itself to excellent wines,” Bertagna said.
The region’s frequent air streams that breeze through the valley also support those excellent wines. While many wineries in different climates have to use chemical fungicides to combat moisture and fungal infections caused by still conditions, Butte County’s breezy valley means that local growers can use sulphur as a natural fungicide or even none at all, which means there is an abundance of organic wines available.
“Organic wines do excellent here,” Bertagna said, “as they will in any area when farmed correctly.”
Some of the more renowned organic wineries in the county include Nascere Vineyards and Dog Creek Cellars, located in Durham, and LaRocca Vineyards, all of which have been featured on the Sierra Oro Farm Trail in recent years.
Overall, this is an exciting time for wines in Butte County, said Jennifer Leonard, the general manager at Almendra, noting a boom in small hobby vineyards and large-production vineyards alike since 2000. Regional wineries have come together to form wine districts—specifically, the Durham Wine District just south of Chico and the Bangor Wine and Spirits Region in south county—to provide visitors with an elevated, multi-stop enological adventure.
Whether exploring a district or single winery, wine enthusiasts in Butte County will find high-quality wines paired with reasonable tasting fees, relaxed and inviting tasting rooms, and easy access to the winemakers—in fact, they’re often the ones pouring the wine tastings! That rare community feel around the region’s wine industry creates a more intimate wine-tasting experience that can be hard to find at other destinations.
“There is an increased desire to discover craft wineries and distilleries,” Leonard said, “and to connect with the winemaker. … I expect that as more and more people discover and explore the wines of Butte County that we will continue to grow and make our stamp on the wine world.”