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El Dorado County, our neighbor to the east, is picturesque and varied. The landscape climbs from the valley floor through the foothills and all the way over the Sierra Nevadas to South Lake Tahoe.
Camino, on Highway 50 just east of Placerville, is famous for the Apple Hill fruit growers, a plethora of Christmas tree farms, and one of the most successful wine regions in California.
Each January, the El Dorado Winery Association presents “Bring Out the Barrel,” an opportunity for visitors to taste their new wine before it is bottled, blended or aged.
This year, 26 of the region’s 50-plus wineries opened their cellars to hundreds of guests. Tickets for the two-day event sold out early, and the flow of wine enthusiasts along the winding two-lane roads was steady despite the rain on Sunday.
The wineries range from Coloma in the north to Mt. Aukum, Pleasant Valley, Fair Play and Somerset in the southern part of the county. We heard glowing reports of wines from all of these places, but we were only able to visit a few cellars in Camino and one in Pleasant Valley on our trip.
As I know almost nothing about wine (yes, I’m one of those “…but I know what I like!” people), I was delighted to find that each cellar was staffed by patient and friendly folks who were happy to educate me. They were not only knowledgeable, but also clearly passionate about the wines they make and sell.
Barrel tasting is apparently a sort of gambling adventure. The wine in its young and brash state can whisper a promise or perhaps make a swaggering boast about its future in the bottle, but can it tell the truth? A wine lover has to decide how much to trust the youngster and can invest in wine futures if they dare. Not all wineries sell futures, but many do.
A late-season 2010 Zinfandel is drawn from the barrel at Lava Cap
I found that some of the barrel wines were a little rough – tasty enough, but lacking the smoothness I associate with good wine. Yet when the vintners poured the same varietal or blend from a few seasons past, the relationship was evident. All grown up, that gangly Lava Cap Rocky Dawn Zinfandel was transformed into a sophisticated sip.
Staff educate as they pour (above and below)
Of course, as the designated driver on our excursion, I swallowed not more than a couple of ounces of wine over the course of five wineries and four hours. But by the end, I was able to actually taste those rich fruit or floral tones, to appreciate the finish of a subtle Sangiovese (Jodar) paired with an artisan cheese, and to hear a wine called “impudent” without smirking behind my hand.
Wine and romance: Anthony Elges and Amy Arias traveled from Reno for the event.
While the barrel tastings serve to introduce the new wine to future investors and individuals, the winemakers are also keenly interested in introducing new wine drinkers to their products.
At Lava Cap Winery I met Adam Sonnenberg, an intern from Sacramento State University who is assisting the winery in developing a more robust social media marketing campaign to attract the 21- to 30-year-old demographic to the world of wine. Sonnenberg, seeming barely of drinking age himself, was drawn to the internship opportunity after taking a class in wine tourism.
We followed several fellow tasters as we toured the Carson Road wineries. One trio from Pleasanton had come for the barrel tasting event in 2009, and they were on their second day of exploration. They suggested some favorite wineries and wines, and photographer Kati Garner discovered a fellow fan of Narrow Gate's Chocolate Splash.
Bruce and Clairice Boom left the snow of their Pollock Pines home to take part in the event. They belong to two different wine clubs and were thoroughly enjoying themselves. We chatted over miniature cups of vegetable soup from one of the many local caterers assisting in the event.
“This is such a fun event, and educational too,” Bruce Boom explained. He said he and his wife had several wineries on their “must-visit” list, and they were eager to share their tips for making the most of our day.
On their recommendation, we visited the Madrona winery, and I was delighted to find a wonderful Cabernet Sauvignon.
Bread, cheese, and a 2009 Chardonnay at Jodar Winery
While most of the participating wineries offered food or cheese pairings with their selections, it was the pumpkin bisque soup from the Illuminaire winery that won my heart, along with the unusual Amador Pinotage I tasted there.
The El Dorado wine region covers more than 2,220 acres, and the 5,200 tons of wine grapes produced in 2009 were valued at $5.9 million by the association. This makes wine one of the county’s most important industries.
As early as 1870, the El Dorado region was the second-largest producer of wine in California. The unique microclimates of hillsides oriented to full sun, partial shade and every other possible combination of soil, sun and water have enabled the cultivation of nearly 50 varieties of grape. The top six varietals (in terms of tons of grapes produced) are Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Syrah, Merlot, Petite Sirah, and Chardonnay.
The El Dorado Winery Association succeeded in its mission to educate the uninformed and to bring new wine drinkers into the fold. I plan to spend much of the next year learning more about wine, and I will certainly make it a point to attend “Bring Out the Barrel” 2012.
SacPress Photos | Kati Garner