Fresno winery scene coming into its own

The Fresno area’s small wineries — also known as farm wineries — are boosting production and expanding facilities thanks to good wine, friendly owners and tourist support.

In addition, the number of small wineries in the Fresno area has grown to 11 with six of the wineries in the west Fresno wine country where signs guide visitors to the various producers.

Wineries west of Fresno include Maravia Wines, Yribarren Family Vineyards, Engelmann Cellars, A Nonini Winery, Lomac Winery and Milla Vineyards.

Most wineries are open weekends, although some provide expanded hours, especially in the summer.

Until recently, the cluster of Fresno wineries west of the city were known as “the best kept secret” in the area better known for its raisin production. But more people are visiting and buying wines.

That has resulted in some positive growing pains.

“We are in the permit process for a new tasting room,” said Bret Engelman, owner and winemaker for Engelmann Cellars on North Rolinda Avenue west of Fresno. It will span about 3,000 square feet.

One reason for the success is that the wineries tend to work together for the betterment of the whole. Each one has its own wine specialty.

And each provides a different kind of special event over the course of the year. For instance some wineries provide music and entertainment while others conduct fundraisers for the needy.

And some specialize in parties and weddings.

Milla Vineyards presents a spaghetti making contest in April called “Get Sauced at Milla Vineyards.” Contestants bring their own sauce and Milla Vineyards supplies the pasta. The event is a fundraiser for Community Food Bank.

Nonini Winery, on North Dickerson Avenue, has the distinction of being haunted and has been the subject of paranormal investigations. It is also an older winery that has maintained most of its original equipment.

Its niche is producing wine in the old-style non-filtered and with natural yeast. Nonini is also unique in that is it open every day but Sunday. Its wines sell for about $13 to  $21.

General manager James Jordan has been in the wine business for about 30 years. He said his has potential to grow, but he is no longer interested in fighting for shelf space in stores.

Nonini wines are sold at the winery and to customers in bulk form. The wines are aged in oak and redwood barrels.

Jordan’s top selling varieties include Alicante Bouschet, burgundy, a sweet zinfandel and zinfandel reserve. Capacity of wine production is 135,000 gallons and he sells 8,000 to 12,000 gallons a year.

Along with all the attractions and events, wine lovers just enjoy spending a day visiting vineyards and wineries. It’s a chance to talk and be educated on wine.

“You can talk to the winemaker and you’re treated like family,” said Debbie Milla, co-owner of Milla Vineyards on West McKinley Avenue.

Milla said her winery works with tour companies to bring wine lovers to the rural vineyard and wine stops. That has paid off for the small, but growing winery.

Wine sales are good for both red and white wines.

Engelman said one of his best selling wines is Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine is available at the winery and also in Costco stores.

Engelmann Cellars will produce about 3,400 cases of wine this year. The winery expects to reach 5,000 cases in about two years and 7,500 cases in six to seven years.

Also Engelman plans to hit the restaurant market with a wine label called Engelmann Haus.

Most of the local wines are priced competitively, Engelman said. Engelmann wines are priced from under $20 to more than $30 a bottle.

“We keep wines inexpensive,” Milla said, adding that most of her wines are naturally made without the use of yeast.

Milla Vineyards’ top wines include ruby cabernet, Syrah and zinfandel. Milla also makes a desert wine called Sunset.

In total, Milla Vinyards produces about 1,200 cases of wine annually. The winery expects to see growth both in purchases at the winery and in restaurant sales.

Engelman said that one of the nice things about smaller, local wineries is a big emphasis on vintages. He said wines vary by year and 2013 should be a very good year for wine taste and quality.

By contrast, some of the larger wineries are focusing more on consistency of wines, Engelman said.