There are five or six Tasting Rooms within about a block of each other in downtown Grass Valley (two more in Nevada City), but two of these Grass Valley places are syndicates of three to four wineries. Those function more like Wine Bars than traditional Tasting Rooms. They may have music on some evenings, and/or food. They are designed as places to hang out. That makes for a logical progression. I would drive to Nevada City in the early afternoon to visit Nevada City Winery. They are the largest, most professional winery in the area. They make some excellent wines. Then I’d come to Grass Valley, and check into the Holbrooke Hotel. Leave your car in their back lot. You don’t want to have anything to do with it again until the next morning. Next visit Starr and/or Smith Tasting Rooms. Then, prior to 5:00 pm, go to the old Union newspaper offices to visit the bar which includes Naggiar, Coufos and Montoliva. Finish up around 7:00 pm at Lucchesi or at Grass Valley Wine Co where you need a glass of Solune for sure. Downhill stroll to the restaurant. Perhaps a nightcap back at the Holbrooke.
- NEVADA CITY WINERY
Drive a couple miles to Nevada City. So I would see on the way into or out of town. Really good Cab Franc blend with other Bordeaux varieties.
- STARR WINERY
Conscientious young winemaker. Nice range; strong Zinfandels.
Part of conglomerate in the old Union newspaper building. Has several excellent reds, including proprietary blends.
Friendly tasting room. Will stay open if you are keen. Beautiful vyd.
In Grass Valley Wine Company conglomerate. Quebecois winemaker with a sophisticated touch. Good Barbera; world-class Cabernet Franc.
STAY: Holbrooke Hotel
DINNER: Villa Venezia
Grass Valley is contiguous with Nevada City about fifteen minutes north of I-80 in the mountains between Sacramento and Reno. So, basically it’s on the way to Tahoe, at about the 2,500-ft elevation. Exit I-80 in Auburn to travel up Hwy 49 through extensive strip mall services, or (preferably) exit I-80 higher up the hill in the little railroad town of Colfax to take Hwy 174 to Grass Valley (eschew a veer right on Brunswick Rd halfway through the Hwy 174 segment). Between the two of them, Nevada City is the smaller (some might say ‘more precious’) town with more historic preservation. You will enjoy a visit. Downtown Grass Valley is where the Tasting Room Walking Tour makes more sense. Together, both little burghs represent an island of progressive thought, art and music in the sea of conservative political attitudes which dominate the eastern half of California. Listen to a little KVMR (89.5 FM) on the radio, but don’t expect that attitude to prevail in conversations more than a few miles outside of town.
Both Grass Valley and Nevada City were originally populated by Cornish, hard rock miners who worked in unbelievable conditions underground… way underground. Visit Empire Mine State Park on Hwy 174 to get a feel for that life. Empire is the oldest, biggest, and richest mine in California. It was originally owned by William Bourse, Jr, who also owned the Filoli Estate on the San Francisco peninsula. There are more than 350 miles of tunnels under the entry point for Empire Mine. If stretched out straight, that distance would just about get you to Los Angeles. Donkeys lived their entire lives underground, never came up. Every couple of feet, those tunnels got 12” x 12” beams to hold them up. Cutting all that lumber threatened to denude the local landscape. And water had to be constantly pumped out of the mine. When the mine was finally abandoned (in 1956), and the pumps were shut down, the entire shaft filled with water almost immediately. Imagine the value of all those 12” x 12” timbers today. There were 5.8 million ounces of gold taken from the Empire Mine, and some authorities say that only represented a 20% harvest of the gold actually contained in the mine.
Several blocks of Nevada City’s downtown district are ALL a National Historic Landmark. Those buildings include a brewery, a theater, a firehouse, a library, and several government offices. They’ve even preserved the original gas streetlights. Grass Valley has several similar buildings (including the Holbrooke Hotel). The most famous dance performer of the Gold Rush era was Lola Montez. She lived in Grass Valley. For a while so did Lotta Crabtree, a younger singer and actress who gained considerable notoriety. Today Chuck Yeager lives there and Wallace Stegner used to, while poet Gary Snyder and minimalist composer Terry Riley live in Nevada City.
San Francisco to Nevada City (that’s on the Bay Bridge to on Broad St) is about two-and-a-quarter hours on a Friday afternoon if you leave around noon. That’s perfectly timed. If you leave SF around 2:30, it’s a four-hour drive or worse. Barely worth it. Might as well eat in San Francisco and leave around 8:00 pm, planning on only having a 10:15 nightcap when checking into the Holbrooke.