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El Dorado Wine Country: Discovering the liquid gold of the Sierra Foothills

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El Dorado Wine Country is situated in the Sierra Foothills. For many this may seem like a newer appellation but in actuality the area has been around for a very long time, perhaps before California officially became a state. Its history is very colorful, like that of the changing of seasons that so impressively displays itself in these foothills just north of Sacramento.

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California’s entrance into the wine industry begins in the 1800s. It was the Gold Rush that brought the wine industry to the Sierra Foothills. Gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in 1848. Miners who found their way to the Sierras to pan for gold, after a long day of work would imbibe the spirits nightly. Thus some of the first wineries, distilleries and breweries were established as part of the industrious hunt for gold. You might call it the liquid gold of that era. The winemakers found the terrain very similar to that of France. Hence you will find many of the French varietals grown in the area as well as the creation of French blends.

The first vineyard was planted in 1849 with what is known as the Mission grape by a Mr. Stevens. The location was close to what is now the town of Rescue. The Franciscan Friars brought the Mission grape to California. The grape is known as the “native” or “Los Angeles” variety. The grape did not produce the best wine as it lacked character and structure. What the Mission grapes did produce was a dessert wine that is known today as Angelica. Angelica is made by adding brandy to the fermenting wine allowing the two to age together to create a beautiful amber colored wine that displays a sweet nutty quality. This wine was very popular with the miners of the Gold Rush.

In the late 1800s there were 2000 acres planted with grapes. The area was the 3rd largest grape growing area in the state. With the onset of Prohibition, the wine industry came to a standstill unless one made sacramental wine. Unlike some areas in the United States, where the federal government came in and confiscated equipment and pulled out the vines, the Sierra Foothills was spared. By the 1950s the wine business was pretty dead in El Dorado County. Farmers came in and pulled out the vines and planted pear orchards. By the 1960s a disease called pear decline was slowly ruining the agriculture in the area. The demise of the pears was the rebirth of the wine industry. Many of the farmers began planting apple trees and wine grapes as a substitute for the pears.

Most wine enthusiasts know the story of how Chateau Montelena put the California wine industry on the map with their illustrious win for their 1973 Chardonnay at the famous Paris tasting in 1976. It was prior to this that the foundation of the new El Dorado Wine Country had reestablished the wine industry in the Sierra Foothills. Boeger was the entrepreneur who helped restore El Dorado County as an important wine region. In addition to Boeger, Madroña, Sierra Vista, and Granite Springs played an important roll in reviving El Dorado Wine Country. Today there are more than 60 wineries in the four regions that encompass two AVAs, Greater El Dorado, Pleasant Valley, Apple Hill®/Camino and Fair Play. The El Dorado Appellation was designated in 1983, while Fair Play became an AVA in 2001.

Due to the elevation, the wineries in the area produce high altitude wines and a good portion of the wines are very intense both in color and in quality because of this fact. There are three features that make the wines of El Dorado County distinct. They are the high elevation, complex topography and the lack of coastal fog. Most of the vineyards are planted in young volcanic, granitic and slate soils. The region is one of the most diverse in terms of the types grapes that are grown. There are at least 37 varieties. This includes Bordeaux, Rhone, Burgundian, Italian and Spanish varietals. Zinfandel is one of the more popular grapes but Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petit Syrah and Primitivo also are well acclimated to the area.

The El Dorado Wine Country is very different than some of the more famous regions in California. It is more rural and countrified. Some of the cities like Placerville are a throwback to a bygone era. There is a quaint charm that draws one to learn about the history and discover the wineries of the area.

On my visit to the area I discovered the most charming B & B, Eden Vale Inn. Originally an old hay barn from 1919 that was converted into a home in the 1980s and in 2007 the property was renovated with guest suites to become the B & B it is today. When visiting the Inn you can feel the love that proprietors, Mark and Gayle Hamlin have put into making Eden Vale very special as well as making your visit a memorable one. The landscaping enhances the charm of the Inn. It is obvious that Gayle took a lot of pride in making the grounds seem like a Garden of Eden. There is a peaceful Zen feeling as you stroll through. While wandering in this idyllic garden you will find all sorts of fruit trees, lovely fountains, wonderful sitting areas and a pond. It is very romantic and the perfect setting to enjoy a glass of El Dorado County wine. As my visit was in the autumn, I can only image the beauty of the gardens in the spring when the trees and flowers are in bloom

The rooms are charmingly rustic yet very modern. The guest suites include a fireplace, state of the art lighting, Wi-Fi, private decks and patios with deep soaking tubs.

Upon arrival at Eden Vale Inn you will be greeted by the resident welcoming committee, Sydney, a black Labrador mix and Bushwack the cat. Both make you feel right at home.

Breakfast at Eden Vale is something you cannot miss. Gayle goes out of her way to make sure you have an extraordinarily morning feast. I almost felt I would roll into my first winery after Eden Vale divine breakfast. I left Eden Vale dreaming of my gluten free Almond Scones. Whether your breakfast is French Toast, Quiche or eggs with sausage you will be totally satisfied with any of these yummy morning cuisines. If you have dietary restrictions Gayle is pleased to accommodate.

During my visit I enjoyed dining at the Smith Flat House. In keeping with its long history, the restaurant supports local farmers and winemakers by utilizing all local products. We sat in the private cellar area which was very rustic with its stone walls. I especially enjoyed the Pork Belly appetizer and the Grilled Steelhead.

Besides visiting wineries, the area is rich in history, that it is worth spending the time visiting Sutter’s Mill or taking a stroll through Placerville. There are also many outdoor activities and sports enjoy including white water river rafting, camping, hiking and skiing to name a few. Of course if you are so inspired by the areas history trying your luck gold panning or gold mining is a must.

The beauty of the Sierra Foothills is awe inspiring especially in the late fall when the leaves are turning rust, amber and gold. The areas golden history and the chance to sample a diversity of wines in terms of style and varietals is all the reason to draw anyone to El Dorado County.

For More Information:

El Dorado Wines

Eden Vale Inn

1780 Springvale Road

Placerville, CA 95667

530-621-0901

the Smith Flat House

2021 Smith Flat Road

Placerville, CA 95667

530-621-1003

This is the first in a series of articles about the El Dorado Wine Country. I will be featuring many of the wineries in upcoming articles including Skinner, Narrow Gate, Nello Olivo and Illuminare to name a few. Many of these articles will be featured in my Brentwood Glen Wine Examiner column.

If you would like to follow more of Cori Solomon’s articles, she would love you to subscribe to her column by clicking the box next to her photo.

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