Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Touring El Dorado County Wine Country

If you pressed me to identify a couple of American wine regions that warrant riveting attention, I'd probably point to Oregon's Umpqua Valley and California's El Dorado County.

What's so hard to explain to a reasonably knowledgeable wine drinker is that they're both dauntingly complicated, produce a reckless array of wines and both are capable of delivering some extraordinary values across a vast range of styles. They're both big regions with varied soils, exposures and altitudes, which makes them daunting to describe. And there are hits and misses from both areas, but there also seem to be an unusual number of home runs at very modest prices.

Some day El Dorado County and Oregon's Umpqua Valley will probably be parsed more finely, but in the meantime they both seem to be on a mission to make some great wines that turn some heads, and they're both succeeding.

For most California residents, El Dorado County was an area you drove through on your way from San Francisco or Sacramento to South Lake Tahoe for summer or winter recreation, but that is starting to change as visitors are drawn to an increasing array of quality wineries.

For gold diggers, the area is still a bust, but talented winemakers like Jonathan and Susan Lachs (Cedarville Vineyards) or Marco Cappelli (Miraflores) saw the relatively affordable land prices ten years ago as a golden opportunity. Today their investment is paying off. They have savvy visitors who like what they taste and are filling their trunks with cases of affordable wine.

Revisiting Gold Country - Nine Years Later

I covered the trending Rhone variety scene in the Sierra Foothills ten years ago for the San Francisco Chronicle. There were good wines and let-downs, but the diversity of the region was very apparent. The variety was tough to characterize, but there were a handful of gems.

I recently spent a couple of days revisiting El Dorado County in the Sierra Nevada Foothills of California gold country near Placerville, California, which during the gold rush in the latter 1800's was at one point California's third largest city.

Today the area boasts about 70 wineries, a number that has increased dramatically over the last two decades. Greg Boeger, one of the first to revive winegrowing interest in El Dorado County, points out that, "We now have about 2,300 acres of vines, just like in 1890. Things have come full-circle."

"If you find the right slope and soils, you can grow almost anything," Boeger said. "It's a blessing, but a curse when you're trying to market."

Yes, it's not easy to convince media that you're doing everything perfectly, precisely because that there are screw-ups all over the place and also because the messaging is a hot mess. But as a critic, it is hard to deny the fact that interesting, really good wines that are being produced throughout El Dorado County.

Revisiting the area nearly ten years later, it was interesting to see how much progress had been made. Quality is up to be sure, but traffic is WAY up. The diversity is still there, quality is up overall, and a number of wineries, including Cedarville Vineyard and Miraflores have improved leaps and bounds.

El Dorado County is arguably making some of California's most undervalued wines. Wines from El Dorado County tend to cost between $20 and $30, but some are spectacularly good, most notably some from the Fair Play District with its distinctive, minerally, granite soils.

When I interviewed Marco Cappelli for the San Francisco Chronicle piece in 2006, he said this:
Marco Cappelli

"I was approaching my 40th birthday, and I figured I better get moving," says Cappelli. "I couldn't afford to do something in Napa. The Foothills have a lot going for them for someone who wants to get into the business. The quality of the grapes is high and (the price of land) is affordable -- but going up."He says an influx of visitors from Sacramento brings high-margin tasting room and wine club sales."I think the potential is spectacular, particularly for Syrah and the white Rhone varieties. Syrah is dense, complex and the expression of terroir is meaty, but not gamy, with white pepper and minerally graphite character. The whites are very focused aromatically."

Cappelli Emerges as a Talent

Time has proven him right. Cappelli is consulting for a few wineries and abolutely making some of the region's most exceptional and progressive wines with a thread of grace and freshness running through almost all of them. At a visit to Miraflores he showed a spectacular Barbera - one that could go toe-to-toe with the classic Vietti Tre Vigne, a wine that I would rank as one of the best that I tried that week and that I would rate at 93 points. He uses very little new oak to mature his wines and has absolutely emerged as a standout winemaker in a region that is itself being recognized as an emergent star. And that traffic of wine tasters from Sacramento and elsewhere has exceeded anyone's expectations.

"I just got tired of Napa and the prices. I wanted to find a place that was affordable and was capable of making wines that had a sense of place and were balanced." said Cappelli. "These wines are focused and reminded me of the wines I tasted in Europe."

"I really don't miss my old life," Cappelli told me. "I used to make wine for 3 or 4 palates. Now I make them for consumers, and we're swinging for the fences." His Zinfandel and Syrah also demonstrate a deft touch. They're refreshingly uncomplicated but uncommonly refined and balanced.

Cedarville: Another Star is Born

One winery that has exceeded my expectations is Cedarville. Ten years ago, Cedarville Vineyards
Susan and Jonathan Lachs / Cedarville Vineyard
was just releasing some of its first vintages. The duo of UC Davis-trained winemakers had recently left tech jobs to bootstrap themselves into a property and bare-bones winery in the Fair Play District. Their wines showed real promise and good taste, but they still had room for improvement.

Today Cedarville is absolutely killing it, and the winery has become a beacon for other producers in the area seeking a path to success. Everything Cedarville makes is precise, balanced, easy to appreciate and deserving of attention. They make some of California's best Grenache (consistently 90-93 points), a sexy Syrah (88-91), a refined Zinfandel (89-92), restrained Viognier (88-90) and even a remarkable Cabernet Sauvignon (89-91), all from their Fair Play estate vineyard, and all priced between $25 and $35 a bottle. Their quality control and consistency is on par with much bigger operations, plus the wines are understated and unpretentious. They offer a very different definition of quality, one that is more refreshingly 'from the heart' and less about mainstream expectations of what 'fancy' things are all about.

Like many El Dorado County wineries, Cedarville sells most of its wine direct to consumers. As Cappelli predicted, El Dorado County's proximity to Sacramento and through traffic has only increased dramatically as consumers sensed improving wines and better tasting room facililties.

A New Plan

It seems that these days El Dorado County has a new economic plan, and there are signs that it is working, at least for some. As the second or even in some cases third generation wine growers are taking the reins, the county has enacted some rules intended to preserve the agricultural nature of the county, which encompasses fruits like apples and pears as well as grapes. Some of the pioneers of the region helped to establish zoning rules that are keeping family wineries viable, including mandates of 20-acre plots and buffer zones between agriculture and other uses. As Paul Bush of Madrona Vineyards puts it, "The regulations here are really meant to promote agriculture that you can make a living with, Other counties are using it as a template."

As Ann Wofford, another local wine producer put it at our last meeting of the two day tour, "We don't export products, we import tourists."

As of recently, producer participation in the El Dorado Winery Association is still a bit weak with only about half of the local wineries belonging as dues-paying members. That said, it seems like the wineries that are members are communicating well and seem to share a common vision of increasing tourism to the area and continuing to increase sales direct to consumers.

Best of the Rest

If you taste a lot of wine in El Dorado County, you'll find plenty of surprises. The region is best known for red wines, but there are wonderful whites that surface from time to time, and the rage of varieties runs the gamut. Here are some of my other picks from two days of tasting:

Saluti Cellars Viognier Just a complete dark horse of a wine. Brilliantly fresh with aromas of mint and kaffir lime leaf, bright peach and pineapple gum flavors. This wine somehow circumvents all of the potential pitfalls of Viognier and does a pirouette to cap it off. Fucking remarkable. (92)

Findleton Pinot Noir I'm tasting it and am gobsmacked at how freakishly Burgundian in style the wine seems. Then they tell me their daughter, the winemaker, worked in Beaune, and it all starts to make sense. Slightly cloudy and unfiltered with tomato leaf, violet, black cherry, plum and blackberry notes. Slightly rustic, flavorful and classic, with essential Pinot Noir character. (90)

Findleton Cabernet Franc Wow. This really hits the spot. Great varietal character with a nose of blueberry and black currant, a center of black cherry and red currant fruit and a hint of licorice on the finish. A lovely, very successful, focused Cabernet Franc. (90)

Madrona Dry Riesling I'll be damned if this wine hasn't made great progress over the last decade. Winemaker Paul Bush seems to have devoted himself to tasting other great wines of the world and the perspective he has gained is paying off in his own wines. Here's a great dry Riesling with fresh lime blossom, green apple, lemon-lime fruit and laser-like acidity and minerality with just a hint of oily petrol character. The finish is just a touch bitter, perhaps from a hint of sunburn, but a nice effort and way better than most California Riesling. So close to being brilliant. (89)

Lava Cap Chardonnay First rule of Chardonnay Club is be interesting, because otherwise you will not be noted in a review. This is an interesting, even intriguing Chardonnay. There's a bit of buttery character and a bit of minerality in the nose that stand off against each other immediately, as they sometimes do in the case of fine Burgundy. It has flavors of lime curd, a bright citrusy streak, and white peach fruit with a slightly bitter, phenolic finish (mild sunburn?) (89)

Boeger Sauvignon Blanc A freakishly interesting blend of SB, Semillon and Flora (a hybrid of Semillon and Gewurztraminer). There's a hint of sweetness in the melon and white flower aromas and ripe peach flavors. I suspect this would be a crowd-pleaser, and a stylish, unique one at that. (89)

David Girard Coda Rouge Red Blend ($30) A blend of Mourvedre, Syrah, Grenache and Counoise with a pretty nose, a medium-weight Rhone blend with blueberry, violet, strawberry, cedar, and pepper aromas with mostly red fruit flavors. (90)

Bumgarner Tempranillo Planted to north-facing vineyards at altitudes from 2100 to 2300 feet, these vineyards have netted a pretty cool red wine with dense black cherry flavors, cedar and leather notes and a nice little bit of minerality as well as impressive tannic structure. (89)

Grace Patriot "Tempriano" This one's a blend of Tempranillo and the generally more acidic and deeply-colored Graciano variety that often plays a back seat to Tempranillo in Rioja. It comes together well, with ripe blackberry, raspberry, plum, leather, black pepper, mocha, vanilla and angel food cake flavors with a nice streak of acidity that keeps it sharp. (88)

If You Go
The El Dorado Winery Association web site has a map and other great information about the area. Passport El Dorado, an annual open house-style winetasting event takes place in April each spring. This year it takes place the weekends of April 11-12 and April 18-19 of 2015.

When you're hungry for high quality food and local wines, check out the Heyday Cafe in Placerville for lunch or dinner, The Farm Table, Smith Flat House and The Independent Restaurant and Bar, all in Placerville. If you're looking for a stiffer drink, the Liar's Bench across the street from the Cary House is a quality dive bar.

Limousine service in the area is available through About Time Limos, and if you're out tasting wine all day, you might well consider hiring a car service to handle the winding mountain roads. They're friendly and they know their way around.

Where to Stay
There are a number of bed and breakfasts in the area as well as the legendary Cary House Inn on Placerville's Main Street. Quite a few famous people have slept there over the years, even Mark Twain. Saluti Cellars and a couple of other places seem to be developing farmhouse B and B programs akin to Italian Azienda Agricola programs, and my understanding is that they're still working on adjusting zoning regulations to make it easier for wineries to offer overnight accommodations to guests. If you're looking at spending a night in the area you might well spend time Googling options. You'll probably find a winery with a spare bedroom or two in the near future.

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