On a wine route through Northern California’s El Dorado County, I met the descendants of generations of pioneer winemakers still plying the trade, as well as some visionary and dead-serious newer arrivals. This wine region in the Sierra Foothills northeast of Sacramento is California’s wine-trail-less-traveled, offering an unstaged realism, a relatively sparse smattering of tourists (a mere one-tenth of Napa County’s annual visitors) and a scenic countryside just waiting to be explored.
I spent one perfect day at the beginning of crush exploring this historically rich county. In conversations, Zinfandel emerged synonymous with El Dorado, but in visiting several wineries, I discovered that the region’s winemakers are playing with other varietals too, and with an impressive degree of success. My mission was to meet the winemakers, learn their stories, taste the fruit of their vines, discover the region’s burgeoning culinary scene and soak up the raw beauty of Gold Country.
A visit to Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park in Coloma kicked off the trail. Here, on the banks of American River, interpretive guides reminded me of what I’d forgotten from elementary school: that the discovery of gold on this spot brought a hopeful flood west and forever changed the continent. In touring this region over the next few days, I came to realize that this spirit of discovery and entrepreneurship has survived after more than 160 years, no longer in the quest for gold, but in the cultivation of what the land can yield.
A drive overland on serpentine roads hugging the rolling landscape brought me to Hooverville Orchards, a 72-acre family operation that supplies farmers markets with premium fruit all the way down to San Francisco. According to farmer Chris Hoover, “Here Mother Nature is my boss. I’m always learning. I’ve found a way to fill every day of every season with something to harvest.” Hoover produces 100 varieties of fruit, including 20 varieties of peaches (possibly the largest and most perfect specimens I’d ever seen) and 10 varieties of delectable Asian pears that kiss the palate with a honeyed sweetness.
After seeing (and sampling) what El Dorado’s farmers are capable of, I couldn’t wait to hit a few of El Dorado County’s 70-plus wineries. First stop? Boeger Winery, set on a sunny hillside flanked by orchards and forests. The original structure from 1857 still stands – home on top, wine cellar underneath. The property is ripe with a sense of history and the people who lived here in decades and centuries past. A century-old pear orchard still occupies the grounds. A modern high-tech winery sits across the gardens—tasting room, offices, cellars and enology labs.
Owner Greg Boeger, a third generation California winemaker, ushered me on a tour of the operation. “We’re the first winery here to reestablish after prohibition. We kick-started wine production in this county.” With Davis degrees in Viticulture and Ag Economics, the wine business runs deep in Greg’s veins. “My nature is to be experimental,” he says. “I’m curious about what grape varieties will do here. We have a microclimate for just about every variety.”
After showing off his classic car restoration-in-progress, he handed me off to his son Justin for a private tasting. Justin, fourth generation winemaker resisted an education in viticulture and enology when he entered college, but succumbed to the inevitable. He is the present winemaker with a Davis education and no regrets. The pride shines in his eyes as he pours out samples. “We do a lot of blending,” he says, “but Barbera from our 44-year-old vines is our number one seller.” Boeger cultivates about 30 varieties and produces 15 labels. He primarily grows Zinfandel, Bordeaux varietals, Barbera and Sangiovese. A source of pride for the Boegers is that their wines have filled glasses at White House dinners more than once.
Next stop: Apple Hill, home of Grace Patriot Wines. The Tuscan-like tasting room and cellars lend an unmistakable Italian ambiance, but there’s nothing pretentious about this Northern California winemaking family who began the winery in 2004. Son and winemaker Tyler Grace already has an education in winemaking and a Napa career behind him. Grace Patriot (named for ancestors who fought in the Revolutionary War) produce Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris. “Big reds do particularly well in the Sierra Foothills,” says Tyler. “It has a similar profile to Walla Walla. The wines have big structure and big fruit.”
Frank Hildebrand of Narrow Gate Vineyards moved to El Dorado County in 2000 with the dream of starting a biodynamic winery. He left a position in the fashion industry with the desire “to get closer to the earth and farther away from the freeway,” as he puts it. He and his wife bought 85 acres and began a quest to get to know everything about their land, and it helps that he was educated at UC Davis. “Biodynamic farming is not just science,” says Hildebrand. “Faith is an important component.” Practices come in to play, such as no pesticides or herbicides, but so does creating a naturally biodiversified environment conducive to the plants you are cultivating. “It’s a very old practice going back to early Europe,” he says. “I think of my farm as a single, giant organism.”
Realizing that biodynamic farming takes more than a single tasting visit to grasp, we moved on to Auriga Wine Cellars. Owner and winemaker Richard Standing gave me a deeper perspective on the region’s history. “In Gold Rush times, El Dorado County had twice the number of vineyards as today.” Prohibition took a huge toll, and it’s taken this long for production to begin to return, thanks to some tenacious multigenerational and fledgling winemakers. The Auriga tasting room is in one of the oldest structures in the area, a house built in 1896. Standing’s flagship wine? Zin, from an exclusive block at his source vineyard.
Another Napa veteran, winemaker Marco Capelli at the lovely Miraflores Winery, has diversified the varietals on the estate’s vineyards since their first plantings in 2001. Most of his wines are estate bottlings with the usual line-up of El Dorado varietals: Zinfandel, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Barbera, Viognier, Grenache and Muscat. “I like to make a style statement with my wines,” he says. Besides terroir factors, practices such as timing of the harvest and the duration of maceration make a great deal of difference to Capelli in the outcomes that define style.
One of the first vineyards in El Dorado was Skinner Vineyards, where today Chris Pettinger steers the winemaking helm. Historical records show some old-time varietals on the property: Mission, Grenache and Carignan. Skinner is known for its Grenache. “I feel strongly about estate wines or at least sourcing fruit from within El Dorado County,” Chris says. The new tasting room is floor to ceiling beams and wood salvaged from an old train trestle. The building’s solar panels produce far more energy than the winery consumes. Their goal is to be 100% off-the-grid sustainable. Out on the tasting room’s sunny terrace, the view of Fair Play’s woods and vineyards jumbled seem to roll on forever.
Backtracking from Fair Play to Placerville, the day comes to a dreamlike five-course close at Madroña Vineyards’ 25-mile alfresco dinner. Living close to the source is what this meal is all about. At a long table set between rows of vines with the long California sunset easing its way west, I took our seats with second-generation winemaker Paul Madroña and a few dozen other guests. Madroña introduced each course with one of his wines. According to Madroña, El Dorado County is the agritourism hub of California. “We can balance what we eat with what’s in season. The focus is local. Every year, we get more than 500,000 tourists interested in our wine and food. With dinners like this one, I want us to show the world what El Dorado County can do.” (During the 25-mile dinner, Madroña confessed that he did cheat: the chef used black pepper, a plant not grown within 25-miles. She is forgiven.)
Madroña makes more than 20 varieties of wine and is in tune to what the county’s farmers are cultivating. According to Madroña, the lesson is to “fully embrace what you have in your own region.” In bountiful El Dorado County, that’s not exactly a daunting challenge.
Hitting the El Dorado Wine Trail:
Lucinda’s Country Inn, a B&B in the Fair Play Wine Region, www.lucindascountryinn.com
Cary House Historic Hotel, downtown Placerville, http://caryhouse.com
Boeger Winery, www.boegerwinery.com; 1709 Carson Road, Placerville
Grace Patriot Wines, www.gracepatriotwines.com; 2701 Carson Road, Placerville
Narrow Gate Vineyards, www.narrowgatevineyards.com; 4282 Pleasant Valley Road, Placerville
Auriga Wine Cellars, www.aurigawines.com; 4520 Pleasant Valley Road, Placerville
Miraflores Winery, www.mirafloreswinery.com; 2120 Four Springs Trail, Placerville
Skinner Vineyards, www.skinnervineyards.com; 8054 Fairplay Rd., Fair Play
Madroña Vineyards, www.madronavineyards.com; 2560 High Hill Road, Camino