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Crystal Basin Cellars began the old fashioned way with a group of friends making wine at home, in this case under the Owen family house.  Many of the founders from the old days are still with the winery today.

Mike Owen is the face most often associated with Crystal Basin Cellars.  However, Crystal Basin Cellars is a group effort that began as an amateur winemaking operation decades ago.  Essentially, Crystal Basin Cellars began the old fashioned way with a group of friends making wine at home, in this case under the Owen family house.  Many of the founders from the old days are still with the winery today. 

Mike’s interest in wine began in the 1970’s when his father was making wine under his house in the same location.  Mike helped John McCready who was planting the vineyards that would eventually become Sierra Vista Winery in the Pleasant Valley area.  Mike remembers cutting down manzanita with a chainsaw and helping John clear the land by pulling manzanita stumps.

Scott Harvey was also an early player who worked at Sutter Home and later became the winemaker at Santino, Renwood and Montevina and today runs Scott Harvey Wines.  His tasting room is now located in Sutter Creek.  Mike Owen’s father was the CPA for Scott Harvey’s business. 

Scott Harvey owned an Amador County vineyard that is planted in Zinfandel.   This is a very old vineyard named Grand Pere, and is rumored to have been planted right after the Civil War.  It is now contracted exclusively for Renwood and is still one of the oldest vineyard lands still worked in the Amador or El Dorado wine regions.

In 1980 The Bad News Buddies made their first wines using grapes from Scott Harvey that were pressed with John McCready’s wine press.  It was Zinfandel from Grand Pere and some Barbera from Amador that became a dessert wine.  The winemakers continued with this amateur operation until Mike’s father quit in 1988.  They entered their wines in the State Fair home winemaking competitions and came away with gold medals.  Some went on to be elected as judges.

At that point, Mike Owen took over the home winemaking operation and enlisted some of his friends to join him.  They did not know much about making wine at that point.  They had simply helped Mike’s father a little and Mike had much to learn as well.  Mike recalls asking his father when the red wine that was fermenting was ready to press.  The answer was, “When the fruit flies start to die, it is time because you know there’s no sugar left.” 

The group started off with three barrels in 1988 and continued to buy the ancient Zinfandel from Scott Harvey.  They tried to make a White Zinfandel.  This was probably influenced by Sutter Home who invented it, and they failed.  They also tried making a Riesling with grapes from Madrona and that was another failure.  They actually made several attempts at White Zinfandel before realizing their future was in red wine.   

1992 brought change when they lost their valued connection to Amador.  A man named Robert Smerling came into the picture and purchased the Santino operation and partnered with Scott Harvey.  In 1993 the group began purchasing grapes from John McCready at Sierra Vista and Paul Bush at Madrona.  Crystal Basin has continued to purchase grapes from the Pleasant Valley vineyards of Madrona for many years.

1995 brought a big change for Mike as he moved to France to make semi-conductors for VLSI.  While there, he developed a fondness for Rhone wines that continues to this day.  The group back home continued making wine under the house and Mike would return on a quarterly basis to help keep things going.    

Following Mike’s return from France in 1997, he met his wonderful partner and wife, Melissa The Wine Diva.  Melissa applies her skill to the hospitality end of Crystal Basin Cellars and the tasting room is a clear reflection of her personality and care.  It is simply a friendly and fun place to visit at any time.  She also provides an anchor as Mike is a bit of a tornado.  Melissa is also the driving force behind the excellent neighboring restaurant she started called Crystal Basin Bistro. 

By 1998 the winery had expanded to twenty-five barrels and had outgrown the wine operation under the Owen home.  They moved the operation to Gold Hill Winery, courtesy of Hank Battjes, the founder.  Hank has since passed on, but was known throughout the region as a very helpful and giving person while being a real character at the same time.  Mike recalls that Hank would arrive early in the day and grab a red Solo cup, into which he would pour about a half bottle of sparkling wine.  Hank would then walk around taking care of business carrying the cup with his finger in it.  Mike figures he did this to keep others from drinking from it.  To this day, at Crystal Basin Cellars, they drink a mixture of bubbly and guava juice that they have named The Hank in honor of Hank Battjes.  He was that kind of guy.

Crystal Basin Cellars went commercial in 2000, continuing to operate out of Gold Hill until 2006.  At that time they came upon the current location that had been occupied by El Dorado Vineyards and the building was leased by Ed Colson, another El Dorado wine figure.   Crystal Basin Cellars moved into their current location in 2006 and started out with, as Mike says, the change from their car ash trays.  They now produce about 7500 cases of award winning wines each year. 

Mike continues to be a big fan and promoter of the El Dorado Region, pointing out that the region grows many different varieties and it is going to take a few more decades to get it all perfected.  The region has benefitted greatly from the efforts of wineries like Madrona who planted about twenty grape varieties and sold grapes to other winemakers in the region to see what could be made from them. 

The future is unfolding in this wonderful region every day thanks to people like Mike Owen, Melissa and Mike’s friends, in addition to the legacy of Mike’s father. 

...Crytal Basin reviews on Yelp

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