Big Foot Likes Grapes
A Visit To Sentinel Winery
By Tyler Whiteside
Photos by Sheala Dunlap
As you wind your way up highway 299 from the coast your senses are put through as many changes as there are curves and hills. Many of us coastal dwellers know the drive well, expertly navigating the incessant corners to a warmer inland climate. It’s good to dry out and warm up every once in a while. When we think of our neighbors to the east several things immediately spring to mind and the Trinity River flowing with all its power and majesty probably comes to the forefront. It’s never ending flow carving out steep valleys of green. Deep pools of crystal blue water invites us to cool our bones. The Mighty Trinity starts out from the equally beautiful Trinity Lake and flows ocean ward carrying with it rich sediments that for tens of thousands of years have deposited themselves neatly into the creases and valley floors providing an agriculturally ideal location to grow just about anything….hmmgh hmmgh hmmmgh…as we know.
None of this was lost on Bruce and Janet Nelson when they decided to start up the Sentinel Winery, a tiny mom and pop operation located on Patterson Road in Willow Creek about 2 miles from highway 299. Despite being one of the smallest designated AVA’s (American Viticulture Area) in the United States, Willow Creek has a wonderful climate for grapes. The couple purchased the beautiful four acre parcel that would ultimately become the winery in 1996 and, in 1998, began the painstaking process of planting vines. As the vines matured in the hot Willow Creek summer sun, so did Bruce’s understanding of winemaking. Where once he had picked the grapes too early and the sugar content (or brix in technical terms) was wrong, he now knew exactly when to harvest. Through trial and error he had finally figured out the alchemy of turning his grapes into a wonderfully drinkable product and in 2002 at the urging of those lucky enough to have sampled his wine, he applied to become bonded. Until then he and Janet could only give bottles away as gifts or drink it themselves.
Now, there is nothing wrong with donating a bottle or two of wine to your friends and family, but it’s also nice to be financially compensated for years of back breaking work. In 2005 it all began to pay off when he received his bond and could start legally selling the fruits of his labor. They have limited their varietals to 3; Pinot Noir, Merlot and Syrah. A blend of all three (60% Pinot, 30% Merlot, 10% Syrah) Bigfoot Red, has become their biggest seller by far, often purchased by souvenir seeking tourists attracted to the handsome label depicting a large hairy creature, although I’d be willing to wager that most of the bottles never make it home unopened.
The Nelsons decided on the name “Sentinel” and their attractive logo after observing male quail stand on top of the fence keeping a close eye on their brood. At the first signs of danger the sentinel male would sound his warning and his little ones would scurry to safety in the abundant blackberry bushes nearby and a name was born. Much like their amazing locale, Bruce and Janet are warmly inviting. They are full of great stories about the road that led them to their small piece of paradise and after a full afternoon of visiting and sampling their tasty wine I was sorry to leave, but the sun was getting lower in the sky and I did so knowing I would return one day soon. The next time you wind your way through the mountains to Willow creek, keep your eyes open wide for a large hairy creature elusively hiding in the trees, but if you can’t seem to find him, go buy a bottle of Bigfoot Red. It’s the next best thing.
2263 PATTERSON RD.