Winemaker revives history
In the year 2000 Nello Olivo purchased 21 acres on Rancho Road in Cameron Estates with the intention of growing grapes for his home winemaking hobby. He planned to sell the surplus to fellow local winemakers.
With the expert help of neighbor Lance Johnson, who was delighted to use his enology degree from U.C. Davis to become vineyard manager at Rancho Olivo Vineyards, he ripped and cross-ripped about eight acres of the former Ostrich Ranch. Lance insisted on intensive soil testing and designed the layout of the rows with the angle of the sun in mind. Since several types of soil existed on the property, Lance calculated carefully where each varietal would prosper best. Planting seven varietals of mostly Italian grapes, Nello and Lance set high standards for the vineyard and dropped all the fruit until the fourth year, allowing the strength of the vines to drive the roots deep into the rich El Dorado County soil.
When local wineries began winning gold medals with their wine made from Rancho Olivo Vineyards grapes, Nello took notice and decided it was time to “go commercial” with his hobby. In 2005 he hired Lance Campbell of Mount Aukum Winery to make his wine. When the Campbells moved to Santa Cruz in 2007 Nello hired winemaker Marco Cappelli to continue with the wine production. Soon Nello’s wines began winning gold medals of their own. Nello and his wife Danica owned Sequoia, a fine dining restaurant in Placerville, and General Manager and Executive Chef David Bagley began creating wine-pairing menus and organizing wine dinners that brought the new winery to the attention of local wine enthusiasts.
At time that another neighbor brought to Nello’s attention the fact that his award-winning wines were coming from a long-established wine “terroir.”
In the 1850s, the property where Rancho Olivo Vineyards now stands was part of the historic Bennett Winery. Nello soon discovered that the ruins of the old “wine house” were still in evidence in a pasture behind his barn. In the fall the oak trees along Deer Creek, which skirts the southeastern perimeter of the property, would turn orange and red … remnants of the old winery vines that had escaped eradication during Prohibition and climbed into the majestic old trees.
The property now produces more than 2,000 cases a year of award winning wines under the Nello Olivo label. In 2010 Nello entered several local and international wine competitions, winning gold medals for every red wine he produced that year. The 2010 Barbera not only won gold and Best of Class, but garnered the Best of All Reds at the Pacific Rim Wine Competition. The 2010 Petite Sirah won gold and Best of Class at the Critic’s Challenge. While Nello’s signature wine, a proprietary blend of his high profile reds — Toscanello 2010, earned gold at the Consumer Wine Awards, double gold at Finger Lakes International Competition and gold plus Best of El Dorado County at the San Diego County Fair.
In addition to the original seven varietals — Primitivo, Sangiovese, Barbera, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petite Sirah and Viognier — Nello has now grafted two new Italian white varietals — Arneis from the north of Italy and Fiano from the south. He also has approximately 700 vines of Sagrantino, one of the rarest of all Italian reds, with only 280 hectares known to be planted in the entire world. Only a few wineries outside of Italy grow it.
Nello discovered this dark, highly tannic, grape when on a trip to visit relatives near Todi, Umbria, his ancestral home. He attended a wine festival in a nearby village, Montefalco, and fell in love with the local wine. Excited about bringing Sagrantino back to his vineyard right away, Nello soon found that the restrictions of importing agricultural products would mean years of testing in UC Davis laboratories. As luck would have it, the enologists at the university had just completed their DNA investigation of some mystery vines that they had been given a few years back. The result was – Sagrantino! Nello purchased all the cuttings he could get and has grafted and re-grafted, with 2010 being the first year he was able to bottle a 100 percent Sagrantino.
Due to the access to the Cameron Park vineyard being through the gated community of Cameron Estates, Nello opened his tasting room for his wine in the old historic wine cellar of the Sequoia restaurant, at 643 Bee St. In 2012 Nello and Danica Olivo sold the restaurant business to focus on the wine business. Soon the wine club was approaching 900 members and Nello’s wine was on the wine list in restaurants as far away as New York City.
Locally you can find Nello Olivo wines in ZacJack’s Bistro, The Wine Smith on Main Street in Placerville and at Nugget Market in El Dorardo Hills. The wine tasting room is open from 2 to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 11 to 7 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays and is closed on Mondays. Check out the website at nelloolivo.com. For a special treat call for a private tour of the vineyard by appointment only, (530) 677-7905.