Veni, vidi, vino
Nestled in the Sierra Foothills, just 60 miles west of Lake Tahoe’s South Shore, El Dorado County is home to over 50 wineries with more than 2,000 acres of vineyards.
Stretches of grape vines grow harmoniously among rolling hills, tall pines and the American and Cosumnes rivers in a region with a rich history of winemaking.
In fact, the county’s grape-growing roots date back to the California Gold Rush. As hopefuls flocked to the area eager to make it big, they brought the grapes with them. By 1870, El Dorado County was one of the largest wine producers in the state, just behind Los Angeles and Sonoma counties.
But declining populations, poor economic conditions and, lastly, Prohibition put an end to the county’s wine production for nearly 50 years.
In 1972, after years of pear crops dominating the agriculture scene, Greg Boeger opened Boeger Winery in El Dorado County and ushered in a winemaking Renaissance for the region — one that is continuing to gain momentum today.
“Things have come full circle, which is really promising,” said Boeger. “They just had the San Francisco Chronicle tasting, and there were 20 wines that got ‘Best of Class,’ and five of them were out of the Sierra Foothills, three of which were from El Dorado County.”
Boeger’s 2014 Barbera, by the way, was among the winners.
‘Hot days and cool nights’
Ask any winemaker in El Dorado County what sets the region apart, and the answer is unanimous: diversity.
With elevations ranging from 1,200 to 3,500 feet, the county has hundreds of microclimates that offer a range of temperatures, exposures and soils. This allows for over 50 different types of grapes to be grown in the region, from the cold-loving Gewürztraminer to the warm-ripening Barbera and Zinfandel.
“Grapes like hot days and cool nights. We get our coolness from elevation, not marine air like Napa or Sonoma,” explained Boeger.
And that’s not the only thing that sets the county apart from other California winemaking regions.
“These are not vineyards that are owned by four investment bankers — these are family run. We are people who are passionate about winemaking,” said Elisheva Gur-Arieh, who owns C.G. Di Arie Vineyard and Winery with her winemaker husband Chaim.
Chaim, a food scientist who created classics like Cap’n Crunch, and Elisheva, an artist and former ballerina in the Oakland Ballet, bought their vineyard in 2001 and are now cultivating 12 varietals on their 209-acre property.
“As a wine maker you have a wider language. Your vocabulary is larger — not just in the varietals, but in the soils. And not just in the soils, but in all of this terrain,” said Elisheva.
The duo lived on the uncleared land in a trailer for almost a year, watching the flow of the seasons, before deciding to allow the native plants and trees to intermingle with their crop — a theme of harmoniousness that Chaim carries over into his winemaking.
“I like to make wines that are elegant and have good balance,” said Chaim. “My style of wine has forward fruit that carries to the mid-palate and a long sustained finish. I like to use the oak to enhance the varietal identity of the wine and not mask it. Wines that are jammy and alcoholic are not my style.”
C.G. Di Arie’s 2014 Sauvignon Blanc and Interlude Red Blend both earned silver medals at this year’s San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.
‘Eat local and drink local’
“The real strength of this region is its diversity,” echoes Madroña Vineyards winemaker Paul Bush. “We grow 29 different varieties on a small 85-acre total vineyard. That’s crazy. We should probably have four.
“But what we’ve found in El Dorado County is just because there is so many different microclimates, so many different soil types, so many elevation changes and exposures, that you can grow incredible grapes of multiple varieties just by looking at what’s growing in the area — what trees are there — and start planting it.”
With no farming experience, Bush’s parents bought the property that would become their vineyard back in 1973.
“My mom and my dad had the flora and fauna maps of California, and they started seeing that the indicator plant at the time was poison oak. If you had poison oak in an area, then you could grow grapes,” said Bush. “But the more they looked, they saw there was a more specific indicator, one you could find in Mendocino, Sonoma and parts of Napa — the madrone tree.”
A large madrone sits among the Bush family’s vines to this day.
Madroña Vineyards recently brought back a label from the mid-‘80s depicting all four seasons in Lake Tahoe for their estate-grown Zinfandel and Chardonnay. They can be found at over 20 restaurants around the lake.
“If you’re going to explore an area like Lake Tahoe, eat local and drink local. That’s the best thing about it,” said Bush.
Five percent of the proceeds from these wines go back to environmental and agricultural efforts in the county, which includes Lake Tahoe projects like rebuilding the Angora Creek Bridge and designing the 72-mile Lake Tahoe Water Trail.
Just down the mountain from Lake Tahoe, multi-generation families are tending the acres of grapes and producing the cases of wine that define the Sierra Nevada. Just as these mountains provide a myriad of activates for locals and visitors alike, so too do they supply the terrain to craft award-winning wines that give Napa a run for its money.