More and more I find that great getaways really are in my backyard. Once again, this was proven too true on a recent journey in and around the Sutter Buttes. The back road excursion includes three small Sutter County communities and their up-and-coming wineries and tasting rooms. Locals may want this to stay a well-kept secret, but the Wineries of the Sutter Buttes are waiting to welcome you.
Open to the public, these three intimate wine tasting rooms radiate hospitality. You won’t find anyone but the wine-makers or their families and friends behind the pour. These are truly Sutter County’s family of “first” commercial wineries: Cordi Winery the county’s first commercial winery. Munger Family Vineyard the first in the town of Sutter. Sicilia Vineyards the first in Yuba City.
Take a chance on unexpected places and the roads less traveled. A stress-free day trip, create your own wine trail adventure. Depending on your approach, the Wineries of the Sutter Buttes are 45-60 miles north of Sacramento and in proximity to Yuba City, Marysville, Chico, and other foothill communities. You’ll likely need GPS to help find your way. That’s a good thing. However, what I advise is that you wander, get lost, find a longer way around, and breathe in the views!
The Sutter Buttes, unknown to most, emerge like a mythical ship that appears and disappears as you circumnavigate the 40-mile base on North, South, East and West Butte roads. A small circular complex of eroded volcanic lava domes that rise above the flat plains of the Sacramento Valley in Northern California’s Sutter County, the Buttes are situated just outside Yuba City. Recognized as “the world's smallest mountain range,” the Sutter Buttes has as their highest point the summit of South Butte, at 2,122+ feet, which is also the highest point in Sutter County.
“Every season in the Buttes is different,” remarked Sicilia Vineyards co-owner Sandie Adams. “Lush green hillsides and wildflowers in the winter and spring give way to golden hills in the summer and fall.”
Privately owned, the Sutter Buttes are only accessible through Middle Mountain Interpretive Hikes and events. There are a series of county roads that circle the Sutter Buttes; Pass Road goes through them on the south side. The loop is about 45 miles. A driving and wine tasting tour is a tranquil way to enjoy the locality. Fill your wildlife and nature senses and then your wine glasses at nearby wineries. The Sutter Buttes are also a much-loved destination for local cyclists.
In the Sutter Buttes, while making good wine is of utmost importance – family and friends and coming home are paramount. Each tasting room resides on the family property adjacent to the family home. They are comfortable and provide an ideal setting to take in the views and relax. Picnics are welcome at all three tasting rooms. A food truck is generally on hand at Munger’s. Limited access – weekends only and special events – makes visiting the wineries a special treat. Be sure to check online calendars or call ahead to confirm dates and times.
Sutter County is most famously known for its rice, walnuts, almonds, and stone fruits. In 2009 Reece Cordi, a longtime almond farmer, made the leap to wine grapes and wine tasting when a storm destroyed thousands of his almond trees. Reece, it could be said, is “The Godfather” of Sutter County wines.
“Wine was always part of our family meals and gatherings and, in 2009, we decided to plant four acres. Those four did so well we planted another 10 acres in 2010,” Reece said. “Farming is something I always wanted to do. I farmed almonds because that’s what was on the land, but realized there had to be something better.”
Cordi’s initial winemaking endeavors were award-winning bringing home a Gold Medal in 2012. A decade later, the burgeoning wine industry has proven to be a good industry for the county. Cordi laid the foundation for Munger’s and Sicilia to follow. Both wineries give a thankful nod for Reece’s generosity in helping them evolve and providing more options for wine enthusiasts and tourism. The sharing and kindnesses are reciprocal. The winemaker families reach out to each other and provide support during harvests, special events and celebrations. Even to outsiders, collaborative relationships are clear.
“Visitors speak of the warmth of the people and place as much as they speak of the wines,” said food and wine expert David Berkley.
Over the years, Diego Barison, an expert in all things grapes and grapevines who apprenticed in his family's vineyards in Northern Italy, and wine-making expert Ruggero Mastroserio, also originally from Italy, have mentored each of the emerging winemakers. The soils – rich and loamy – are very similar to Italy’s volcanic regions near Mount Vesuvio and Mount Aetna – acidic with nutritious mineral content. While climatic conditions are good, the Central Valley’s extreme heat can be damaging. In the Buttes, evening breezes bestow needed relief on vines and grapes.
From an agricultural and farming perspective, the region is excellent for growing old world vines similar to those grown in Italy and not usually grown in other California wine regions – varieties like Negroamaro, Primativo, and Fiano. It’s a good experience to learn about new wine environs varieties.
However, you’ll also find familiar favorites Zinfandel, Barbera, Cabernet and Merlot and a handful of lighter wines such as Sauvignon Blanc, White country Zinfandel and Rosé.
“We had a beautiful house and this barren piece of land near Yuba City. I immediately thought it would be perfect for a vineyard, however, I could not imagine how we might make it happen,” recollected Dr. David Smith, Sicilia Vineyards co-owner. “In 2005, Sandie and I traveled to Italy. It was life-changing! It inspired us to complete our home and the European garden that adorns our backyard.”
Overlooking the vineyards and garden, Sicilia Vineyard’s tasting room quietly opened in May 2019. Sharing the Sicilia brand, their first release in 2012 was presented at local events including the Taste of Yuba-Sutter. The community was excited that they had a tasting room and could come out to enjoy wines with their friends. Relish a glass of wine by the outdoor brick fireplace under a canopy of wisteria with a view of the vineyards and gardens.
“I went to a public event, enjoyed the wine and signed up for the wine club,” said Jill Corbella who eventually became Sicilia’s tasting room manager. “People want to know you – friends, family and community. Having the three wineries together is a hidden gem and they are in it to succeed. ”
Each winery has its distinctive ambiance and charm. The common thread comes back to family. Munger’s Family Vineyard celebrates four generations in the town of Sutter. What started as a hobby turned into 444 vines at the Munger homestead, expanding with an additional 2,300 vines on properties belonging to Danny’s parents and family friends, Bruce and Kathy Peacock.
Sutter born and raised, Dr. Danny Munger splits his time between his dental practice and honing his winemaking skills. Danny and Stacy Munger and offspring, Trevor and Sydney, are front-of-the-house on tasting days while locals and out-of-town guests gather in the shaded outdoor tasting bar and kitchen to enjoy the wines. The 2015 Sutter Cut Blend took bronze at the California State Fair.
“After dental school,” said Danny. “I just knew my heart wasn’t in San Francisco – pardon the pun. Stacy and I moved to Live Oak and eventually settled in my home town of Sutter.”
Guided by Reece and Teresa Cordi, Danny and Stacy learned wine processing and winemaking tricks and tips and processed their grapes at Cordi Winery before building their facility.
Coming around the northern-most side of the Sutter Buttes I find myself again at Cordi Winery. The diminutive tasting room is full of laughter and wine devotees. Daughters Juleah and Emily, along with Teresa and Reece, staff the bar. Outside, beneath the draping willow tree, guests can enjoy wine and alfresco picnics under the watchful gaze of the resident barn owl. From the lawn and deck, views of the vineyards and the Sutter Buttes give reason to pause and be grateful.
The Wineries of the Sutter Buttes each are people who had a dream. They followed their dream. People come away being warmed by their wines and good spirit.
If my Subaru can't get me there,
that's a good reason not to go!