El Dorado County: An unexpected wine region

View of Echo Lake from Desolation Wilderness. (Ari Burack/Special to S.F. Examiner)

It may be gold (and God and gun) country, but visitors are beginning to satisfy other tastes in the Hangtown hills, from apple orchards, farm-side vacation respites and outdoor excursions to wines without an extra layer of price or pretense.

The explosion of California’s commercial wine industry goes back to shortly after the first nugget was plucked from Coloma in the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada in 1848, invoking the rush that transformed the state. Having decades ago replaced Prohibition-friendly pear groves with vineyards like the ones that were used to fortify miners, farmers in El Dorado County are once again taking advantage of the area’s rugged landscape, volcanic and granitic soils, and dry, night-cool climate to make increasingly well-regarded wines using Italian, French and Spanish grape varietals and more. Amid an influx of wealthy residents building lavish getaway homes, chefs and entrepreneurs are bringing fine dining to the area. And the county welcomed its first craft distillery — with a replica historic Gold Rush bar for a tasting room — in April.

Local business owners are aching for some of the millions of U.S. Highway 50 travelers driving through Placerville and the surrounding towns to begin to see the area as more than just a way to Tahoe.

“El Dorado is diversity. El Dorado is experimentation. And we’re a good value, on top of it all,” says winemaker Greg Boeger. At a spry 72 years of age, Boeger has been running Boeger Winery since 1972 with his wife, and now son and daughter, on a 40-acre Placerville vineyard that dates back to the Gold Rush. The original 1872 homestead, a stopover for immigrant miners, still stands on the property, which also boasts a working blacksmith shop. Antique cars, Boeger’s other passion, are being restored in the garage.

Boeger grows nearly 30 different grapes — including barbera, primitivo, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, petite sirah and pinot noir, along with rarer varietals like refosco and aglianico. He says the county’s plunging hillsides, sloping ridges and varied microclimates are a blessing and a curse for winemakers. They make it possible to grow almost anything, but make marketing the wine region more difficult. These are not behemoth winemakers in El Dorado. They are family operations. Boeger Winery — the largest of about 70 countywide — makes 24,000 cases of wine a year.

A few miles east in the town of Camino, in a shady, verdant pocket just off Highway 50, Vaughn Jodar lounges in a rocking chair on the porch outside his tasting room, swirling a red wine named Apollo’s Lyre in a glass.

“Nature makes the flavors,” Jodar says with a folksy twang and a smile. “Our job is to keep the wine healthy, and kinda to let the wine be what it wants to be.”

Jodar moved from the Bay Area in 1984 to start his winery. His small, friendly establishment has developed a following for its Bordeaux-style blends and port, a sweet wine, but customers have also started to show interest in sangiovese and barbera.

Paul Bush of Madroña Vineyards up the street brings a cerebral flair to his winemaking, and is as much at ease weighing in on the finer points of barrels, aging, food pairings and soil acidity as he is on the importance of community and environmental stewardship of the land.

“The one great decision you have as a winemaker is: when do you pick?” says Bush as he strolled through the vineyard his parents started in 1973. After myriad smaller decisions, the end result is a variety of lush and complex wines like malbec, zinfandel, reisling and cabernet franc that, says Bush, also deliver “the essence of El Dorado,” a backbone of earthy minerality.

Perhaps the essence, too, of winemaking itself in rural, elevated El Dorado County might center around family, community, diversity, and a willingness to experiment and innovate.

Even before it was named Hangtown (to put the fear of swift justice into would-be criminals), Placerville was Dry Diggings, the term used to describe the first, simplest style of mining in the area. The Dry Diggings Distillery, located (for now) 20 miles west in an unassuming office park in upscale El Dorado Hills, draws on that history as the theme for its local take on the trendy art and science of craft distilling. Heavy metal entryways evoke the sturdy blast doors that old homes had during early mining days. A vintage wooden bar — where visitors can taste white whiskey, rye, vodka, brandy and bourbon — is topped by a weathered tin roof procured from a local gold miner. Owners Chris Steller and Gordon Helm have tried to re-create the feeling of a saloon that might have existed in the original gold fields.

“We wanted people to get the idea that El Dorado County has this legacy,” Steller says.

Steller is also hoping to leave a legacy for craft distillers statewide, working in his role as executive director of the California Artisinal Distillers Guild to pass legislation that would roll back Prohibition-era rules to allow distilleries the same ability as wineries and breweries to sell their products directly out of their tasting rooms. Though his spirits are available in bars and liquor stores, Steller says visitors have trouble understanding why they can’t buy a bottle on the spot once they’ve tried it.

“We hope to have some significant regulatory changes by the end of the year,” he says.

Far to the east of the county, the point at which Highway 50 snakes into the mountains, there is pristine hiking wilderness. Echo Lake, at over 7,400 feet in elevation, is one of several spectacular entry points into the Desolation Wilderness, that remote swath of federally protected land that fully lives up to its name. Storms rise up quickly and sometimes unexpectedly. Trails leading to a succession of alpine lakes can become obscured by boulders and giant rain puddles. Lone trees are gnarled and barren, twisted by high winds or shattered by lightning.

It is a place to get away. Maybe after seeing some of what the rest of El Dorado has to offer.

Ari Burack is a freelance writer who also blogs at http://openskylight.blogspot.com

If you go

El Dorado County

The history of winemaking in the area stretches back to the Gold Rush. There are now about 70 wineries throughout the county. For more information on locations and visiting hours, visit www.eldoradowines.org.

Eden Vale Inn: This romantic seven-room bed and breakfast (planning to expand to 13 rooms next year), built on the site of an old dairy farm, is set amid several acres of farmland, gardens, a small pond and roving bands of gregarious chickens. Inside, a warming fireplace and a hearty, homemade breakfast awaits. Elegant and comfortable suites include individual fireplaces and outdoor hot tubs. Rooms $178 to $468. 1780 Springvale Road, Placerville. www.edenvaleinn.com

Crystal Basin Bistro: This unassuming eatery hits all the right notes with its delicious sandwiches, from the bread to the spice. Enjoy them at a picnic table outside in the sun. 3590 Carson Road, Camino. www.crystalbasinbistro.com

Smith Flat House: Pub fare kicked up a notch into the ever-popular “farm to table” territory. You can dine in the restaurant’s basement cellar, a former gunpowder storage room, just down the stairs past the old mine shaft that fills with water after a rain storm. 2021 Smith Flat Road, Placerville. www.smithflathouse.com

Aji Bistro: Upscale, inventive and delicious Japanese cuisine in a friendly, low-key atmosphere, with knowledgeable and attentive staff. From fresh sashimi to sushi, ramen and street food, a jewel of a find. 4361 Town Center Blvd., El Dorado Hills. www.aji-bistro.com

Dry Diggings Distillery: Just getting off its feet, this craft distillery has already released a grape-distilled vodka and an unaged single-malt white whiskey, along with rye, bourbon and brandy. Tours and tastings Fridays through Sundays and by appointment. 5050 Robert J. Mathews Parkway, Suite 850, El Dorado Hills. www.drydiggingsdistillery.com

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