Jan./Feb. 2016 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Jennifer Harrison
Photos by Matt Salvo
Racecar superstar sets records on the track and from the vine
Scott Pruett is glowing after a recent victory. But this time the champion racecar driver—who has won 59 major races and set the record for the most Grand-Am wins in a single season—is not being recognized for his speed on the racetrack. Instead, it's about his way with wine.
"For us to have the No. 1-rated syrah in California, 96 points, it's crazy," Pruett said.
He and his wife, Judy, own and operate Pruett Vineyard, a winery in the Sierra Nevada foothills in Auburn that specializes in handcrafted, premium wines.
As for those 96 points, Wine Spectator, a noted authority on wine, awarded that rating last year to the couple's 2012 Championship Cuvee. Wine Spectator also billed the wine as the star of the California syrah world. Truth is, many of the Pruetts' wines have garnered high praise.
This is much more than a famous athlete placing his name on a wine label. Pruett is the real deal: He did all the clearing, trenching and irrigation for the hillside vineyard. In addition, with help from his Napa-based mentor, Brian Mox, Pruett is the vintner, with hands-on involvement from tending the grapes to crafting the wine.
"If I was going to make wine, I was going in at 100 percent, from berry to bottle," Pruett explained.
"He loves creating from the earth," added Judy Pruett, who manages the company's marketing and wine club. Scott agreed, saying, "I love being outside; I love working with my hands; I love all those elements."
Husband and wife Scott and Judy Pruett are hands-on in their ownership and operation of Pruett Vineyard in Placer County. Their winery produces many award-winning vintages.
Farm life and the need for speed
Pruett's love of the land goes way back.
"We grew up on a farm. We had wheat and oats and my grandfather was also involved with rice," he said.
Today, there are five generations of Pruetts living within a few miles of Roseville, Pruett's hometown located between Sacramento and Auburn, where he got his start racing.
"I recall being a 6- or 7-year-old, driving a go-kart around my parents' house," he said. "It was yellow and the chain fell off all the time."
By age 8, Pruett had entered his first go-kart race in Lodi. He eventually moved on to Indy cars, NASCAR and then sports cars. Pruett has raced every year since 1968—and at age 55, he's still racing.
"Just like any athlete, you are as good as your last race. You are as good as your last season," Pruett said. "Fortunately, I'm still putting up the numbers."
During the years, he's won many championships, traveled the world and called different cities home. In 2004, he and Judy, who is from Oregon, decided to return to Pruett's California roots and moved to Auburn.
"We are very fortunate to live in just an incredible area," he said. "I've moved 12 times, and we've moved back here now because this is where we choose to live."
It was the 50-acre property's panoramic views that captured their attention. Little did they know it was the perfect place to grow grapes. The Pruetts hadn't considered getting into the business until they realized they had the ideal blend of winemaking ingredients: good climate, good soil and a love of wine.
Grapes—specifically the varietals used to make syrah—thrive in climates such as Auburn's, with moderate night temperatures and warmer days. And the Pruetts' land itself was a perfect configuration: steep property with fractured red rock and clay soil. As Pruett joked, "People in the industry die for this."
Syrah grapes are originally from the Rhone Valley in France, where they thrive in steep, claylike soil, especially in the northern reaches of that area. The Pruetts first planted grapes in 2005 and now have 2.5 acres of syrah, as well as a half-acre of cabernet sauvignon.
Some of the vineyard's wines are named as a nod to Pruett's racing success, including the 2012 Championship Cuvee and the Indy 500 Cabernet. Others reflect the significant people in Pruett's life: Judy Marie Estate Cabernet, named for his wife; and Lucky Lauren Red, Taylor's Reserve and CSP Estate Syrah for his three children, Lauren, 27; Taylor, 17; and Cameron Scott, 15.
Beyond the names on the labels, the operation has always been a family affair, Judy Pruett said.
"The kids have been involved since we started, doing whatever they could depending on their age and abilities. All have helped and continue to help with harvest, bottling and events here at the winery," she explained.
The Pruetts make about 500 to 600 cases a year—and quality reigns over quantity, the couple says. They sell their wines through their website, wine club and select stores throughout the state.
"Between racing, wine and my family, those are my three passions," Pruett said. "To have that all wrapped together has been exciting."
Exciting—and different. Pruett is quick to point out that his two career choices couldn't be more diverse.
"I've lived my life in fractions of a second and now with the wine, it's years," he said. "I joke that wine is the polar opposite to racing."
Harvest, which takes place at night, is an annual event for Pruett as well as family, friends and employees of Pruett Vineyard. (Photo by Marie Clark)
Track and field
But Pruett's success at winemaking may actually stem from his success on the track. Both endeavors require focus, determination and dedication.
While racing is still Pruett's main focus, harvest in late summer is a special time for him to see his efforts come to fruition. He leads a large group of employees, family and friends who help during this annual event. It starts in the dark when the grapes are cool, which is the optimum time to pick.
"Because of the sun, because of the temperatures, we harvest at night, which is pretty standard in the industry, so we'll start at midnight and run all night long," Pruett said.
Coincidentally, this can be somewhat similar to racing.
"Our longest race is a 24-hour race and there will be three drivers doing 24 hours," Pruett said. "I'll do 10 to 11 hours of that race myself."
While he revels in the speed and rush of racing, Pruett knows he can't do it forever. Winemaking, however, is something he sees himself pursuing far into the future.
"Unfortunately, I've broken a lot of things: ankles, knees, heels, ribs," he said. "The nice thing about the winemaking is, it's a lot safer!"
And it's something he hopes can continue on that spot of land for generations to come.
"This vineyard can go on far past me and my wife," Pruett said. "There is something special about that legacy."
Making sense of syrah
Pruett Vineyard in Placer County has had great success, especially with its syrah wines. But just what is syrah? Let's take a look:
- Syrah grapes come from the Rhone Valley in France. They are the most widely planted Rhone varietal in California.
- Syrah is a red wine.
- Syrah grapes are thick-skinned and so dark, they are nearly black. They are smaller in size with concentrated flavors. Pruett Vineyard syrahs are described as having tones of blackberry, boysenberry, cherry, cocoa, mocha, vanilla and sweet oak.
- Scott Pruett's syrah wisdom: "If syrahs are done right, they are some of the most incredible wines."