Foothill Wine Fest – Recognizing the Best of the Sierra Foothills

By Published On: March 10, 2022

The Sierra Foothill Wine Fest Wine Competition, sponsored by the Greater Folsom Partnership, began as a passion project of Mike Owen of Crystal Basin Cellars in El Dorado County, to spotlight the Sierra Foothills as one of California’s up-and-coming wine regions.

“My goal is/was to help to identify quality benchmarks for Sierra Foothill wines, to enhance consumer awareness of the region, and to create foot traffic and new customers for Foothill wineries,” said Owen. “The quality of our wines continues to increase as the industry knowledge and experience of how to coax the best flavors from the Foothill fruit increases.”

Kara Sather, association director of El Dorado Wines, added, “The overall quality of wines in the Sierra Foothills is outstanding. Winemakers in this region are a little more daring and spirited, willing to approach wine in creative ways that allows for full expression of the mountain-grown fruit. As a result, you get incredible quality wines which reflect the varying terroir of this vast region.”

Photo: Madeline Owen

This year’s competition held March 5-6, 2022, at The Palladio in Folsom, California, boasted 355 entries from 69 wineries. Twenty-five judges from all walks of the wine industry – journalists, writers, vintners, restaurateurs, and sommeliers, just to name a few – blind tasted these wines, with 34 rising to the top as Double Gold, receiving unanimous scores of 95 or higher. Five of those received the Best of Show designation as follows.

Best of Show Red – 2018 Casino Mine Ranch Tempranillo, Shenandoah Valley, Amador County
Best of Show White – 2021 Bella Grace Vineyards Vermentino, Amador County
Best of Show Rosé – 2021 Noceto Rosato di Sangiovese, Shenandoah Valley, Amador County
Best of Show Sparkling Wine – 2019 Gwinllan Estate Rosé Sparkling, Fair Play, El Dorado County
Best of Show Dessert Wine – 2021 Lewis Grace “Fashionably Late” Late Harvest Viognier, Fair Play, El Dorado County

In reading the list of award-winning wines, one will notice a number of Italian, Rhône, and Spanish varietal wines, in addition to Bordeaux varieties like Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and Merlot, as well as Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc. A few of the judges shared their insights regarding their tasting experience.

Guy Tucker of judged Sangiovese and other Italian varieties. “I was surprised by the number of quality Sangiovese wines. I had no idea there would be well over a dozen versions I would rate Silver or better. It was very encouraging because I think Sangiovese has outstanding potential in parts of the Foothills.”

Owen judged Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel, Rhône Blends, and dessert wines. “Surprisingly, I enjoyed the white wines and the dessert wines even though my personal tastes run towards red wines.”

Sather, who judged Rhônes like Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah, plus the blends, added, “They showed a depth of character and complexity, but still allowed the fruit to shine through, all characteristics typical of Rhônes in the Sierra Foothills.”

One of the must-try wines of this year’s event is the 2021 Bella Grace Vermentino, Amador County, this year’s Best in Show white wine. The vines date back to the early 1990s, thriving in decomposed granite soils and the Mediterranean climate. After a mid-September harvest, vintners and winemakers – and husband and wife team – Charlie and Michael Havill, picked and gently pressed the whole clusters, fermented the juice at cool temperatures in stainless steel tanks, then aged the wine for three months prior to bottling. “The 2021 Vermentino is bright, clean, and crisp, with distinctive citrus character, refreshing acidity, and surprising richness,” said the Havills.

Photo: Elizabeth Smith

Another to try is the Double Gold 2018 Crystal Basin Cellars Victorie Grand Reserve – the winery’s rendition of Châteauneuf-du-Pape – a blend of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre. “This wine benefited from Grenache from a specific vineyard at the southern corner of El Dorado County that imparted a yellow stone-fruit character to the wine. We have not tasted this specific flavor from any other vineyard anywhere. The blend was inspired by our couple of years of living in Southern France during the 1990s and our wine explorations over there,” said Owen.

Regardless of one’s wine preferences, one can rest assured that the Sierra Foothills have something for everyone. “El Dorado County alone produces over 70 commercially grown varieties. The reason is the terroir of the Sierra Foothills has a vast array of influences including elevation, differing soils, hot days, and cool nights that allow them to produce a plethora of wines outstandingly well,” shared Sather. “Wine drinkers come to the Sierra Foothills to enjoy the diversity of wines produced, whether they be Bordeaux, Rhône, Italian, Portuguese, or Spanish – you can find it in them there hills!”

For tickets to the Foothill Wine Fest consumer tasting on Saturday, April 2, 2022, at the Palladio Lifestyle Center in Folsom, visit


About the Author: Elizabeth Smith

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Dr. Elizabeth Smith is a former college professor and wine club manager turned award-winning wine writer, copywriter, and marketer. Elizabeth is a member of Les Dames d’Escoffier International Sacramento and Sonoma Chapters, the Circle of Wine Writers and the Food, Wine, and Travel Writers Association. Connect with Elizabeth at