A top winery producing marvelous wines and achieving impressive scores in Amador County
It is indeed fortunate that Nancy Helwig is originally from around Sacramento, California. Were she not, it is debatable that there would be a Helwig Winery to occupy this month’s Gold Selection of the Gold Medal Wine Club.
“In 1998, we were living in Thousand Oaks just outside Los Angeles,” recalled Dave Helwig, Nancy’s husband and co-owner of Helwig Winery. “We would go up north to visit Nancy’s folks and Sacramento is just a short distance from the great wine regions of California. The more we visited the more we became impressed with wine and grape growing.”
When the couple’s interest in grapes and wine piqued, Helwig then took the remarkable action of, planting some 50 vines on his southern California property. He worked as an insurance actuary but looked optimistically at the time when he could devote more time to his plants and amateur winemaking.
“A few years after the millennium, we started looking for real,” Helwig added. “The process was harder than we expected, the prices on real estate and vineyard land were astronomical. We actually spent between 7 and 8 years looking for the right spot. We were always impressed with what the Sierra Foothills offered and we eventually found our perfect spot just outside the town of Plymouth. I was nearing my retirement age so we went ahead with our plans and started buying some land. It was the best decision we ever made.”
After planting, the 2009 crush produced the first useable fruit for the newly-formed Helwig Cellars.
The initial release of between 1,500 and 2,000 cases occurred two years later. The winery has grown steadily and will process around 12,000 cases this year.
Helwig Winery has also become a destination spot since its first wines hit the shelves more than seven years ago. In addition to the incredible vistas of the surrounding Sierra and Coastal mountains, Helwig offers meeting and conference rooms, a terraced concert amphitheater as well as a picnic Pavilion.
The Helwig Winery label is a thing of beauty. The name Helwig is fashioned after grape leaves in tribute to the wonderful fruit that is featured. There is also a rendering of the company’s cave space that is used for aging its barrels under pristine conditions and temperature.
Since its inception, Helwig Winery has excelled in wine competitions at the highest levels.
“It has been quite gratifying,” explained Dave Helwig. “It seems the judges and the buying public is quite happy with our style and our presentation. It is good for us and great for Amador County where many of our wines originate. We won’t be changing anything anytime soon. I’m sure you can see why.”
Scott Helwig - Winemaker
Thirty-seven-year-old Scott Helwig has been the winemaker for Helwig Winery since its inception. Scott is mostly self-taught and has worked in a number of wineries prior to taking over the chores at his family’s winery. He began as a cellar rat and worked his way up to assistant winemaker. He also completed a number of courses given by the iconic University of California Davis, the country’s premier viticultural teaching institution.
Scott Helwig has also benefited from the help given by consulting winemaker Joe Schebl, a veteran of the California winemaking fraternity. Schebl has been associated with Renwood Winery, Fiddletown Cellars and Borjon Winery after graduating from Sacramento State University more than ten years ago.
According to co-owner Dave Helwig, his son is a detail-oriented winemaker that pays particular attention to the locations of the fruit he uses. “He has learned from the best and has made the most of his chances. His scores and awards attest to the fact that he really knows the finite art of winemaking.”
Sierra Foothills - Amador County
The region correctly referred to as the Sierra Foothills growing area is a gigantic stretch of land (expanding close to 2,600,000 acres in total) that includes its own AVA (American Viticultural Area) as well as five sub regions. It possesses almost every terroir imaginable from the rocky, rugged mountainous soils of El Dorado AVA to the more accommodating Shenandoah Valley AVA and its wonderfully pristine valley floor soils. Such length allows for the growing of practically every known varietal for the more than 100 wineries located within the foothills’ boundaries. As you would guess, elevations vary greatly throughout the entire region, some at elevations of 3,000 feet.
The most accomplished (in terms of reputation) growing area lies within Amador County. These vineyards have been known for their great wines since the early days of the fabulous California Gold Rush. Many vineyards were planted at the time, much to the delight of the miners who flooded the area from across the country and world. At the time, the area was comprised of more vineyards than both Napa Valley and Sonoma County to its west.
This is one of the base homes of the revered Zinfandel grape and in particular, the ageless, craggy vines that constitute Old Vine Zinfandel. Many of these plants are over a hundred years young and still produce small amounts of excellent, useful fruit. The warm, sunny climate found here is the benefactor to the grapes that yield wines of considerable depth and complexity.
Helwig Winery owns some 90 acres of vineyards that are located in Amador, El Dorado and Solano Counties. The winery also purchases grapes from a number of upscale growers to fulfill the needs of its own extensive portfolio of excellent, award-winning wines.
Dave Helwig - Proprietor
The first thing you glean after talking to Dave Helwig for a few minutes is that he is one happy person.
“The wine business features great people who love and appreciate a good wine,” he remarked recently. “It’s all great fun…”
Originally from Illinois, from a family with German/Swedish roots, Helwig credits his father with his interest in wine. “My Dad was a great guy who worked hard all his life. He taught me the value of hard work and the rewards it would bring. When I started learning about wine, he was very supportive.”
The fact that Dave and his wife Nancy spent more than seven years before finally selecting the site near Plymouth is proof of the dedication and spirit that motivated the couple. “We found the area to be very laid back, and filled with people who were good workers. The price was within our budget so we went ahead and bought our first property. It is also important that our winery permit has unlimited production availability. Other growing area permits place a cap on what you can produce.”
Dave Helwig also pointed out that his business is more than a family affair. His wife Nancy handles the company’s marketing and the important website segment of Helwig Winery. His son Scott is the winemaker and he has amassed a huge number of awards and scores in competitions.
“I come up with most of the basic ideas,” he confessed. “But our family must agree before we proceed ahead. We are delighted that everything has turned out so well. It is absolutely wonderful to have vineyards, make wine and have fun at the same time.”
Many winery owners would love to share Helwig’s positive outlook. In a highly competitive business such as the wine industry, such viewpoints are not commonly found.
“My former business was as a health insurance actuary. I was the CEO of Blue Cross/Blue Shield for California, Nevada and Colorado. It was a great job but the winery is even better. The interaction with our customers has made them our friends, not just our customers. We share many things but are brought together by our common love of wine.”
Dave Helwig’s personal favorite wine is a Barbera, an Italian varietal he firmly believes compliments food better than any other. “I enjoy the softness and the degree of fruit it displays,” he went on. “And I feel that wine is intended to be consumed with food. It makes everything we eat actually taste better.”
After all, who’s to question after his company’s wonderful success?