El Dorado: Golden wine country in the Sierra Foothills

by Deborah Grossman

El Dorado wine country is a gem. Set in Calif.’s historic Gold Rush country, the area is poised to become the next jackpot for those seeking fun wine tasting experiences and affordable, well-crafted wines.

Skinner Vineyards

Skinner Vineyards

The El Dorado wine region borders the birthplace of the Gold Rush at Sutter’s Mill in the Marshall Gold Discovery Park located in Coloma. Nearby are El Dorado’s 70 wineries that please both wine geeks and newcomers in a range of architecturally diverse tasting rooms. The warm hospitality of the region also covers dining and accommodation options.

Located in the Sierra Foothills, El Dorado County is an hour from Sacramento and about 1.5 hours from Lake Tahoe—a paradise for skiers, gamblers and boaters. The American River winds through the area with opportunities for rafting and boating.

Greater El Dorado and Apple Hill wine country

The plethora of river and water sport activities lured an up-and-coming winemaker to the area. Mari Wells Coyle studied enology at UC Davis and worked at wineries around

the globe before settling as an award winning winemaker of syrah and Rhone blends at David Girard Vineyards on the western side of Greater El Dorado. The golden colors of the winery buildings sets the Mediterranean tone for the wide range of David Girard wines.

Now a consulting winemaker, Coyle started a new business which takes advantage of the agricultural bounty of the area. With the Winemaker’s Table, she hosts a new culinary program which creates food and wine pairings by identifying the complementary flavors of wines and herbs.

Apple Hill, the north central area of the El Dorado appellation (AVA), is well known tourist draw for its autumn apple farm trail, along which ranch farm stands and bake shops sell apples and other fruits in many preparations from cider to pies.

But when it comes to wine, Illuminaire Winery owner Aaron Hill said, “People still don’t know we’re here. When they arrive, they discover we are still affordable, too.” Located at the juncture of highways leading to Lake Tahoe or other parts of the Sierra Foothills, Illuminaire is gaining traction for its petite verdot and mourvedre.

Greg Boeger of Boeger Winery  is one of the wine pioneers in El Dorado. UC Davis professors encourage him to plant grapes in the high elevations of the county. His purchase of the Apple Hill property in 1972 awoke interest for other vintners to settle in the area. The spacious Boeger tasting room has a patio which overlooks the original wine cellar dating from 1872. Built by early Swiss and Italian settlers, the old wine cellar is used for special events. Anther pioneering winery, Madroña Vineyard, was started in 1973 by the Bush family and continues to produce highly regarded Rhone and Bordeaux varietals.

Placerville’s place in history

In the 1880s, El Dorado was a top wine grape producing area in Calif. after Sonoma and the  Los Angeles area. The area drew attention during the Gold Rush era as the quartz seams in the granite held gold. The decomposed granite held special allure for vintners, too. “This soil, especially in the upper elevations, yield exceptional fruit,” said Coyle.

But Prohibition limited production and vineyards were replanted to pears and then apples. The acreage is now half that of Pre-Prohibition days.

A Placerville town center

Placerville moments

The ambiance of Placerville evokes the rough and tumble life of the Gold Rush and Pre-Prohibition era. The name comes from the Spanish word for gravel from the ubiquitous, gravely decomposed granite that the miners looked for—the placer deposits discovered only 10 miles away in Coloma. But is previous name of Hangtown mirrors the intrigue and their predilections of the early settlers for the gun-slinging life. In the town you can still bring your gold for weighing at Placerville Hardware with tools in its wood drawers which Gold Rush miners used. The historic building became a hardware store in 1907 and is now run by third generation family members. The store features a wide variety of practical items and unique gift items.

There are also many specialty stores and for the gourmet minded, Dedrick’s Cheese where the dairy items, breads, and charcuterie are ideal for winery picnics.

A few wineries are located near the downtown area including Nello Olivo in the a 19th century wine cellar in the historic Bee-Bennett house. Olivo’s family is from Umbria, and he remembers his grandfather making wine in Los Angeles. The cozy tasting room is open on weekends for sampling Sagrantino, an Umbrian varietal rarely found the U.S. Olivo calls Sagratino, “Italy’s answer to big, bad Napa Cabernets.” Among his many wines, Olivo produces Bianconello, a mix of two of Campania’s most well-known grapes, Fiano and Arneis.

Pleasant Valley, artisan wines

Southeast of Placerville, Pleasant Valley is home to several wineries in rural settings. Ten years ago Frank and Teena Hildebrand thought they would establish a winery in Paso Robles. “We found a welcome mat in El Dorado that was missing in other areas. Vintners such as the Boegers represent the supportive wine community here, said Teena  Hildebrand. They establishedNarrow Gate Vineyards using biodynamic methods on the vineyards and cellar. This process ensures only natural products touch the grapes during appropriate times of the day and seasons. Their wines include a syrah-viognier blend and a deeply flavored primitivo.

Another Pleasant Valley winery of note is Miraflores Winery with its diversity of wine. Over 20 varieties are grown on the 50-acre estate from Semillon to the lesser known black muscat. Inspired by 16th century Provençal architecture, the tasting room is set amid tall pines and gardens. The winery produces white and red wines, but their sweet wines are unique. Angelica is a rare, sweet wine from Mission grapes which harks back to Calif.’s early Mission days. Distilled spirit is added to stop fermentation of the wine which retains residual sugar. The wine is then barrel aged until richly sweet and amber-colored.

History and wine in Fair Play

The newest sub-appellation in Fair Play has some of the earliest vineyards in the area. In 1861 Scotsman James Skinner established an early winery in Calif, growing Rhone varietals in Fair Play. Seven generations later, Mike Skinner and his wife discovered his family’s roots and established the Rhone-based, Skinner Vinyeards and Winery in high-elevation Fair Play. They built a winery overlooking the Sierra Foothills with an old wagon and wine press outside and heritage maps and photos adorning the tasting room.

Skinner winery

Skinner winery

Winemaker Chris Pittenger crafts single varietal and interesting blends, taking advantage of the unique soils and elevation. Pittenger checks the analytical numbers, but in the end, he says, “I rely on my palate.” His well-crafted Grenache is a classic expression of the fruity varietal. “Seven Generations” is a blend of five Rhone white varietals. The “Six Horse” zinfandel harks back to the historic wagon in the family photo in front of the “J. Skinner, Native Wines and Brandy” building.

Cedarville Winery at 2,500 feet is one of the highest elevations in the county. Jonathan Lachs and Susan Marks, owners, winemakers and vineyard managers, purchased the grazing and row crop land in 1995 and established an organic vineyard. The steep, hilly land on decomposed granite is a challenging environment for the vines and yields   outstanding grapes. Frost is a problem at the high elevation, and a finely-tuned sprinkler system sprays only as much water as needed to ward off freezing. The Marks manually tend to the vines and in the cellar, make minimal impact on the natural winemaking process. By appointment only, guests taste viognier, syrah and zinfandel while overlooking the Sierra Foothills near Lake Tahoe.

Dining and lodging in wine country

History is also honored in the hospitality side of El Dorado. The Smith Flat House in Placerville offers farm to fork dining in a historic

Smith Flat House pasta

Smith Flat House pasta

building. Local farm ingredients, food artisans and wineries are featured. Known for pasta, brick oven pizza, meats and seafood, Chef de Cuisine Jesse Shadle may menu pork belly with local apples paired with David Girard Grenache or lamb Bolognese matched with Cedarville zinfandel.

The Eden Vale Inn blends modern convenience with boutique, classic touches. The grounds overlook an idyllic, rustic canyon. Thus the name reflecting the garden of Eden and a peaceful vale. Each of the seven rooms has a hot tub on a private deck or patio. The garden abounds in seating options. A hammock invokes napping while a gazebo sets the mood for reflection. Breakfast meals are exceptional with local artisanal ingredients and the gifted baking and culinary talents of co-owner Gayle Hamlin.

Any time of year warrants a visit to El Dorado wine country. Harvest celebrations abound in the fall. Passport weekends in April offer beautiful weather, green mountains and leafing vines. For a full culinary adventure, consider El Dorado Epicurean in January or see “What To Do” in El Dorado County.

Eden Vale Inn garden

Eden Vale Inn garden

Richmond: Rising Star of New South

by Terry Conway They ain’t whistling Dixie so much anymore. Long revered as the heart of the Old Confederacy, Richmond stubbornly has earned its reputation as being mired in the past. No more. Today, it’s a robust destination, one of the cultural pillars of the “New South.”  Century-old tobacco warehouses have been transformed into lofts [...]