September 8, 2014 | Tama Takahashi
The Next Best Thing--El Dorado County
If you love wine country travel as we do, making a checklist for an extraordinary experience is easy: a diverse selection of interesting wines that reflect terroir, plus nicely paired gourmet food—preferably both at reasonable prices, pleasing accommodations, gorgeous scenery, and plenty of other activities. One could optimistically add: no tasting room fees, access to winemakers and proprietors, and genuinely friendly people. On our recent trip, we found all these benefits in El Dorado County.
Between Sacramento and South Lake Tahoe, El Dorado is in the rolling terrain of the Sierra Foothills. Golden, grassy hills lead to oak groves then pines at the higher elevations, punctuated with vineyards and fruit orchards. Shady country roads pass pastoral landscapes and fascinating landmarks from the Gold Rush of the 1800s. Winemaker Justin Boeger of Boeger Winery describes the topography, “The Sierra Foothills are made up of ridges and valleys, slopes of all degrees and exposure, and elevations from 1,200 to 3,500 feet, which provide infinite locations for almost any variety to grow. The terrain here means that over a 100-acre parcel of land, you might find 20 different microclimates or more.” The result is a tremendous range of wine varietals to sample.
For a panoramic understanding of the region, start your visit at Mount Aukum Winery at an elevation of 2,615 with an expansive view of El Dorado County. Many of their small-lot Rhône and Italian varietal wines are only available through their wine club or at their tasting room, so a visit is essential. Proprietors and winemaker Michel and Terry Prod'hon took us back to their barrel room to sample two vintages of their excellent Sangiovese. The Prod'hons will be sailing with Touring & Tasting on a luxury river cruise through Burgundy and Provence in November. They also will be hosting a seafood feast paired with their wines on September 14, 2014, at their winery. Just $45-$55 for lobster, scallop, shrimp and more. Visit their website for information.
Visit Skinner Vineyards on the way down Fairplay Road towards Placerville to try their elegant Rhône-inspired wines which are produced sustainably and with minimal intervention. Turn left when you get to Pleasant Valley Road for Narrow Gate Vineyards’ carefully-crafted, biodynamic wines. During fermentation all punchdowns are done by hand, 2-3 times a day.
I was eagerly looking forward to our Miraflores Winery visit as I was familiar with their wines from the Touring & Tasting wine club and have often chosen their wines for dinner parties. It was a pleasure to sit on their sunny piazza with Events Manager Matricia Haigood, Touring & Tasting VP Paul Arganbright, and a bottle of the 100% Barbera Miraflores Rosé. Matricia described their monthly wine pairing dinners with eminent Northern California chefs, like Chef Christopher Caul of Christopher’s on Lincoln in Carmel. The 4-course plated pairings are complemented by Miraflores wines and are just $32.50-$40. I’m packing my bags and returning to Miraflores for one of these dinners as soon as possible.
Their wines will be “starring” in the film Last Weekend. Matricia explained this was not a product placement. The wines were provided in the cast’s “green room” and the actors liked them so much that they brought them on set to be filmed. Miraflores wines have received numerous 90+ point scores and accolades including a compliment from Wine Spectator’s Tim Fish: “Foothills wineries often have trouble getting the attention they deserve in the California wine industry, and none are more deserving of a higher profile than Miraflores.”
The Historic Cary House Hotel is in the perfect location for exploring the area. On the main street of Placerville, it has housed legendary guests like Mark Twain, Ulysses S. Grant and Bette Davis. We enjoyed two peaceful nights’ sleep on the extra-comfortable beds. The Cary House provides modern conveniences like free internet access and flat-screen TVs while preserving the past with beautiful antiques, silent movie nights, and talks on the hotel’s 157-year history. You can walk to several great restaurants like Bricks and Heyday Café as well as antique stores and the Nello Olivo tasting room.
We had such a fun time in the Nello Olivo tasting room chatting with Nello and his son Ivan that we ended up being there for two hours. They make wonderful wine and have a million stories to tell. The family had a restaurant for years and Nello made wine to go with their food. His winemaking hobby became his full time pursuit when he and his wife Danica bought a storied piece of property that once was home to a pre-Prohibition vineyard. Their first grape harvest was in 2005. The wines won many gold and double-gold medals, so Nello knew he was on to something great. In 2010, his Sangiovese was judged the best in California. Nello and Ivan poured us their Sagrantino, a varietal from Montefalco in Umbria, Italy. They may be the only producer in the USA making this cellar-worthy wine.
A scenic driving loop from Placerville takes you wine tasting on Apple Hill, named for the 60 apple growers. In autumn, a million visitors come for hayrides, pumpkin pickings, heirloom apples and fruit products of every description. On this loop, Boeger Winery was one of the state’s first producers of varietal Merlot and produces innovative blends from over 29 types of wine grapes including many Italian varietals like Moscato, Refosco and Aglianico. Further down the road, we visited briefly with Lava Cap Vineyard Manager Charlie Jones who sees the 2014 harvest shaping up to be a great one, with moderate temperatures allowing the grapes more hang time on the vine to develop further flavors.
The energetic Madroña Vineyards winemaker Paul Bush just finished a press of Gewürztraminer and was on his way out to an event. But, in keeping with the exceptional friendliness and generosity of the El Dorado wine community, he took the time to not only pour some of his wines, but take us into the winery to barrel sample Chardonnay and to give us a complete explanation of why pH is as important as brix in determining when to harvest grapes. Passionate and knowledgeable, Paul strives to create pure wines with superlative tipicity. He doesn’t enter his wines into competitions because the expression of a varietal should be influenced by terroir. Paul opined, “How can you compare Chardonnay from El Dorado with that of Amador County? Each should be different.”
Chances are rather slim, in the most famous wine regions, that one would have the winemaker or proprietor pouring wines in the tasting rooms. It seems fairly common in El Dorado County. Winemaker Paul Wofford has an impressive resume that includes making wine for Martin Ray and Bargetto Winery and consulting for numerous others. He poured us samples of his small-lot wine as well as a lovely hard apple cider. Crystal Basin Cellars is just off highway 50 on the loop back to Placerville. Proprietor Mike Owen poured us his fruit-forward Zinfandel, Bordeaux and Rhone blends. The winery boasts massive hand-hewn beams, an outdoor space for live music, an organic herb and vegetable garden and the adjoining Crystal Basin Bistro.
For the second half of our visit, we moved to Eden—Eden Vale Inn, that is, though you could drop the last two words and still be correct. On the way, one can find David Girard Vineyards where grapes for traditional Rhône style wines are grown on 80 acres of cultural significance. The land was part of a claim established in 1849, that later encompassed the first hotel and stagecoach stop and the site of the first Japanese colony in the US where tea and silk was produced. Many of the original structures are intact and the Japanese colony is on the National Register of Historic Places. David Girard named their their Côte-Rôtie-style premium Syrah for the first Japanese to be buried on American soil and the winery donates a portion of the proceeds of this wine to the conservancy group.
“It’s the attention to detail”, said Eden Vale Inn owners Mark and Gayle of their high occupancy rate and faithful repeat visitors. Make me one of those repeat visitors. This well-appointed B&B, set amidst a veritable Eden of verdant grounds canopied over with leafy trees and flowering vines, is a balm for the soul. With comfortable seating hidden among dappled pathways, a postcard-ready pond with a rowboat, a convivial fire pit for making s’mores under the stars, and much more, the Inn has everything one would need for a relaxing vacation. It was nearly impossible to imagine that the original structure was a plain barnyard in a grassy field when the owners first laid eyes on it. Between Gayle’s green thumb and Mark’s carpentry skills, they have created a luxury destination with every detail imagined, from the romantic inset lighting to the bubble bath and rubber ducky for the deep soaking tubs.
We had plans to drive to South Lake Tahoe, around 2 hours roundtrip, but being at Eden Vale, we asked ourselves why we would go anywhere else when it was so beautiful there. I spent a blissful afternoon resting in a hammock with a good book. Heaven. Then, after the impossibly long hours of hoteliers—who are up at dawn and checking in guests late into the evening—the innkeepers invited us to dinner. Gayle made a delightful meal with fresh produce and fruit from her extensive orchard and vegetable garden, which we topped of with a thick slice of olallieberry pie.
The outstanding wines, delectable food, affordability and scenic beauty were enough to draw us back to El Dorado County, but the warmth and hospitality of the people is what makes this region a top destination for wine and food aficionados. El Dorado may not be a household word—yet—but once people start learning of the treasures to be found there, the
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