by Laura Ness
It seems that people have been searching for “El Dorado” ever since this continent was discovered. The literal meaning of the term, which translates to “gilded one” in Spanish, refers to “a place of great wealth or inordinate opportunity,” and it was thought to be somewhere in the “New World,” perhaps South America. Sir Walter Raleigh searched for it, the Spaniards thought they’d found it in New Mexico, and years later, the Gold Rush brought hordes of fortune seekers to the foothills of the Sierra, where they made the best of the situation. If they didn’t find gold or silver, at least they found a suitable place to grow fruit trees and vines, and thus was established one of California’s oldest grape growing regions. Over 2000 acres of vineyards flourished here at the turn of the 20th century.
There’s a bit of irony in the name being applied to a wine region that is vast and hard to define. Located about an hour east of Sacramento, the El Dorado AVA is huge, encompassing about 2000 vineyard acres, with elevations from 1250 to 3500 feet. To the north, it is bounded by the Middle Fork of the American River, and on the south by the South Fork of the Cosumnes River. El Dorado is a sub-appellation of the 2,600,000-acre Sierra Foothills AVA — one of the largest in California — which includes portions of the counties of Yuba, Nevada, Placer, El Dorado, Amador, Calaveras, Tuolomne and Mariposa. In deference to its altitude and the influence of the cool breezes off the Sierras, which results in longer hang time, the El Dorado group markets its assets with the tagline, “Taste at a higher level.”
There are at least four distinct microregions here. Greater El Dorado rolls westward on Highway 49 (to David Girard and Gold Hill) and south and west along 50. Apple Hill/Camino is truly the higher elevation portion, just north of Highway 50, where a slew of tasting rooms can be found, including Boeger, Bumgarner, Findleton, Jodar, Lava Cap, Madrona, Nello Olivo and Wofford Acres. The Pleasant Valley area is in the heart of the AVA, along Pleasant Valley road, where tranquil meadows and hills abound, and wineries like Sierra Vista, Holly’s Hill and Miraflores are located. Probably the most marketed subregion is Fair Play, to the south along E16, where Gold Mountain (complete with lodge), Mastroserio, Cedarville, Skinner, Mount Aukum and Gwinllan are located.
The breadth of soils and microclimates of the region mean that an enormous range of varietals — over 50 and counting — can grow and prosper here, from Bordeaux, to Rhone to Iberian to Italian. This very appealing strength can complicate the message for consumers who want to peg a region for just one or two varietals. Not so El Dorado. It’s the Wild West of the Wine World, literally.
Let’s hear from some of the key players as they tackle our questions.
What do you feel is the greatest challenge for the El Dorado AVA?
Ann Wofford, Wofford Acres: Definitely the fact that we have several recognizable “wine centers,” i.e., Fairplay, Somerset, Pleasant Valley, Camino/Apple Hill, Gold Hill/Coloma/49 North and Nello Olivo alone in Placerville. Other wine counties have promoted their County as a whole. The infrastucture of County zoning is a challenge to work with.
Tom Findleton, Findleton Cellars: Our greatest challenge would be something like Prohibition being enacted. Other than that disaster, I would worry about unfriendly farming policies that might inhibit the development of vineyard upgrades and new varietals we need, since residential and farming operations don’t seem to always get along.
John MacCready, Owner/Winemaker of Sierra Vista Winery: Getting a diverse group of thinkers to agree to a plan and generating the funds necessary to then implement the plan. Also we need to focus on a wine or wine type.
Grayson Hartley, Winemaker for David Girard: The main challenge for the AVA is for every winemaker to make the best wine possible. We need to focus on making higher quality wine across the board. Napa didn’t sort out its 14 sub-AVA’s until after they had established a reputation. They made amazing wines first. I look at Paso and see a bunch of young winemakers operating on a totally different plane, a whole set of different rules. They spend money and time on quality. Many vineyards are dry farmed with ridiculously low yields. The wines are huge: maybe too huge, but they are a natural expression of the region. When they make money, they plough it right back into farming. We need to do the same thing here in El Dorado.
Gordon Pack, Gwinllan Estate: Getting known and recognized.
Jonathan Lachs, Cedarville Vineyards: Every region gets to the same place and faces these challenges. Yet, no region is the same, and it is hard to use any other region as a template. We are pioneers!
Joe Norman, Winemaker for Lava Cap: The first challenge to defining the value of an AVA is to determine who are the majority of the regions’ customers, and why they buy.
Matricia Haigood, Marketing Manager, Miraflores: Getting the word out about the beauty of this area and the remarkable quality of the wines.
Greg Boeger, Owner & Grape Farmer, Boeger Vineyards: Getting the word out about us. It’s slowly building. (Boeger is one of the key “Founding Families” in the region, along with the Bush Family of Madrona, the Jones Family of Lava Cap and the MacCready Family of Sierra Vista. Beginning with Boeger in 1973, these families turned what was essentially a giant pear orchard into the vineyard paradise it is today).
Noreen and Charlie Jones, Marketing Manager and Vineyard Manager, Lava Cap: In our opinion, the greatest challenge is the lack of identity, recognition and exposure.
Lexi Boeger, VP Of Marketing, Boeger Vineyards: We have enjoyed being a cult-favorite, and a “hidden secret” destination for a long time. But now, we need to get on people’s radars. (Lexi is Greg’s daughter.)
Terrie Prod’Hon, Mount Aukum Cellars: We need people to find out about us. To that end, we are working on several grants to fund more FAM trips and market visits. We did over 130 events last year, all over the region, including Nevada and the Bay Area. (Terrie is also the Treasurer and PR/Marketing Chair of the El Dorado Winegrowers Association.)
What is the prime selling point of El Dorado, in your opinion?
Ann Wofford: Diversity, diversity, diversity! Celebrate not having a signature grape! Do we really need to limit ourselves? Revel in the different experiences each winery offers!! Promote not being a cookie-cutter wine region!!!
Tom Findleton: Our prime selling point is small custom productions of vineyard select varietals, each having their own distinct characteristics, unavailable elsewhere. El Dorado County is a gem.
John MacCready: At this point in time it would be “mountain grown” fruit with great value.
Jonathan Lachs: We saw the potential here 20 years ago and have been trying to achieve quality results. The quality is so far superior to what we expected, but we still need to up the quality across the board to get the proper attention. This is what motivates me! That said, we are now at a level that wineries outside the region are paying more attention to us: Napa, Sonoma, Anderson Valley. Rombauer is farming 150 acres here. I think our grapes represent an incredible value. Our flavors are outstanding.
Joe Norman: Wines from a given AVA must have perceived value and distinction. Our wines are home grown and offer great flavor by variety and wine type. The wines must be distinctive and taste good. This responsibility is on the wine producer.
Matricia Haigood: The quality of the wines and the unparalleled beauty of this area.
Greg Boeger: Our prime selling point is value and quality. We’re mostly family operations, we’re friendly and open, and in most cases, you can meet the winemaker. And our natural beauty, with canyons, rivers, valleys and historic towns makes this place unique.
Noreen and Charlie Jones: Our region’s uniqueness from other AVA’s in CA. Highest in elevation, unique soils and numerous microclimates created by mountainous high elevation terrain allows for a great diversity in varieties and high quality agri-tourism wine experiences. Also, proximity to large metropolitan areas (SF, Sacramento, Reno) and tourist destinations, natural beauty and history.
Lexi Boeger: There is no other AVA where you can get the kind of variety that we offer. It takes a very free-minded, experimental winemaker to fully exploit the opportunities presented by this diversity. A wide variety of interesting and unusual varietals, adventurous winemaking personalities, and the backdrop of the historic charm and beauty of enchanting gold-rush towns and rural foothill by-ways, all make for an irresistible destination. Especially for millennials, who are motivated by uniqueness, personality, and artisanship.
Terrie Prod’Hon: We have something for everyone: that’s a good thing. Come experience the breadth and depth of what our region has to offer!
Do you support the idea of focusing on a single varietal or a group of varieties, e.g., Rhones?
Tom Findleton: I think that it is good for an area to be known for a certain varietal, but El Dorado has years to go before one is recognized. Maybe Cabernet Franc.
John MacCready: I agree with this concept. There is no other region that touts Rhone wines that I know of. However, part of Paso Robles with Tablas Creek is heading that way as well as the south coast.
Gordon Pack: No, the climate here produces so many good varietals it would deter those who do not like the ones focused on.
Jonathan Lachs: We rode the early wave of Syrah. We’ve reworked our approach so that now we sell out quickly. I like the concept of varietal focus, especially when you focus on sense of place. Fair Play vs. Apple Hill is exciting to taste. I ask myself if we have a signature varietal, but I think truly, our diversity is our strength.
Joe Norman: Be careful in defining El Dorado by variety. The most recognized AVA’s in the world dictate acceptable grape varieties and may enforce grape yield requirements and picking dates. The EDC growers have chosen to plant countless grape varieties, which is not the cornerstone message of most AVA’s.
Greg Boeger: Like Madrona, we grow 30 different varietals. I love planting new grapes, but it makes my marketing people cringe. We have terrific success with Zin and Barbera outside the tasting room, but our wine club eagerly takes every varietal we make. Boeger’s current focus is on Italian and Iberian varietals. I think every winemaker should decide what grows best at his or her piece of land. If you have a vision for what you want and pursue what you are passionate about, it is far easier to tell your story.
Matricia Haigood: No. El Dorado AVA has the capability to grow many varieties of grapes, including some very unusual varietals. I think that is what makes this area unique from any other wine area.
Lexi Boeger: We support wineries focusing on whatever the heck interests them! I think the underlying thread is that the winemakers up here are extremely independent minded and not influenced by their neighbors or industry traditions.
Noreen and Charlie Jones: Due to the diverse number of varietals and quality grapes grown here, we support the idea of numerous groups of varietals.
Terrie: No. We don’t want to be pegged like Lodi for Zin or Napa for Chard and Cab. We grow over 50 varieties, and our region is becoming sought after for our special mountain grown fruit.
What do you think of grouping wineries by subregions, i.e., Pleasant Valley, and doing individual “trail” focused marketing?
Ann Wofford: I’d rather we market the County as a whole first. I think the regional groupings will fall into place as more people become more familiar with the County as a whole.
Tom Findleton: Yes, I think subregions are valuable information. Fair Play is a subregion of El Dorado, just like El Dorado is a subregion of the Sierra Nevada Foothills. The closer you can identify the wine to the vineyard, the more information the consumer has to identify the wine.
John MacCready: I am beginning to believe that a Pleasant Valley Appellation would allow us to focus when the County as a whole won’t.
Jonathan Lachs: I really like the trail concept. I’ve been working on a map that clearly delineates the different regions. We haven’t developed the concept of tours like we could/should.
Greg Boeger: We’ve talked about this a lot. Fair Play initially tried to set itself apart completely, but is now more integrated. Other areas are jealous of the traffic we get in the fall at Apple Hill! We now work together and co-promote. We don’t compete, we complement each other.
Noreen and Charlie Jones: Grouping the wineries by subregions and individual trails may help the individual wineries, but it could possibly be divisive for the greater El Dorado AVA and might take away from efforts to promote the broader region.
Lexi Boeger: I personally think that’s putting the cart before the horse. The world doesn’t know who El Dorado is yet, so it doesn’t make sense to split the focus already. But certainly, down the road I think it will be very interesting for aficionados of the AVA to focus more deeply on the different zones.
Matricia Haigood: No. I think the strength is in the numbers.
One thing is certain: this region, which was growing grapes and pulling millions of dollars of precious metals from its hills and streams before California celebrated statehood, continues to count on its pioneering spirit to forge its modern legacy. That’s a good thing. As winemaker Grayson Hartley observes, “There are lots of cowboys here.”