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El Dorado, Wild Wine Region

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Springtime comes suddenly to El Dorado, California’s most charming and mysterious wine-producing region. At the foothills of the still icy Sierras, the collection of 70 odd wineries perched over and under the winding roads and hilltops prepare their tasting season with a ‘Passport Weekend’ festival. No matter if you are visiting as a veteran wine hound or taking your first insipid sips, El Dorado’s ‘first blush’ season is recommended as a genuine California wine-tasting experience. The region offers an exceptionally candid taste of a local wine-making practice that is both old and new, and entirely not to be missed.

The wineries of El Dorado make up a budding wine country that wins competitions anywhere in the state for quality of wine, but which offers a more eclectic and personable environment for wine tasting and adventuring than more well known wine regions. North Central Valley wine lovers have every reason to get to know this remarkable wine producing country better, since it is right in our neighborhood.

Passport Weekend is a great place to start. A 20 year old affair that currently attracts 3,500 people, but still somehow feels quiet and uncrowded, the event exists to preview the upcoming year’s barrels. The event also offers a chance to taste just about every bottle in stock from years past. It is a rollicking good time.

The spirit of a brand new summer season comes spilling out of musty storerooms and fermenting cellars in the form of magical liquids which stain fingers and wooden barrels, and then mingle with the tongue and the blood. Just a sip or two of these strong wines transform the whole budding California hillscape into a jolly Dionysian Disneyland. Afterwards, the winding roads must be navigated carefully. Fortunately, Passport Weekend offers a designated driver ticket at a fraction of the cost.

Visitors looking for the fastest route to El Dorado’s wine, should take Highway 50 to Placerville. From that exit you are mere minutes from the most polished tasting rooms in the region. However, this reviewer recommends Route 16, through Amador county, and in through the Southern side of El Dorado for adventures looking to explore the unusual geography and culture of the county.

Driving from the South, hawks can frequently be seen staring fiercely from lonesome telephone lines. They prefer wires to trees for the better views of the fields and tasty spring voles. Peering down onto the topographical overlay of a Google map on my handset, I feel sympathetic. My destination is a small vineyard on a big dome of rock 2,600 feet above sea level. There’s nothing else around it on the map, and the satellite shows a lot of woods. I haven’t seen any vines yet. I wonder if the promise of El Dorado wine is an overblown myth. Then I take a right turn and suddenly there are vines everywhere.

The landscape is truly spectacular, with sudden valleys and steep hills increasing the sensation that something exciting is hiding any new curve. But it is the warm and welcoming scale of the vineyards that draws visitors every year. During this year’s Passport Weekend in particular, the vineyards Mount Aukum, Latcham, Fitzpatrick, as well as the very polished vineyards to the North: Boeger, Jodar and Lava Cap, provide exceptional tasting experiences.

All the wineries in El Dorado are small, family operations. Even at the most popular and oldest vineyards like Boeger, Latcham, Granite Springs, Lava Cap or Fitzpatrick’s, it is easy to meet the owners and winemakers.

Each of the vineyards is quite distinct and charming. Many reflect a history of winemaking and farming in the region that dates to the Gold Rush and before. Others are a product of the years after prohibition when small farms squeaked out their livings in relative obscurity. Many also represent a new and ambitious generation of wine-makers and vineyard owners whose vines and wines are brand new to El Dorado.

Latcham vineyard is an example of a farm with older roots in the region. It is a converted chicken farm which has retained the charm of its roots in its charming white farmhouses and fences and big black oak trees. The tasting room is unpretentious and staffed with clever, friendly people who pour liberally.

Mount Aukum is a newer vineyard with an outstanding outlook. At seven years old, it is already producing surprisingly complex Zinfandels and Syrahs from purchased local grapes, as well as from its own, snow touched Petit Syrah fields. Under the expert guidance of mischievous French owner and wine-maker Michel Prod’hon, formerly a resident of Northern France, Mount Aukum is thriving. For the spectacular view alone, as well as the charming host, this South end winery is worth a visit.

Another European winemaker whose acquaintance I made was Rugerro Masteroserio, of Milan. A man tasked with producing two distinct bodies of work for both the Latcham and the Granite Springs vineyards, Ruggerio appears to show very little stress or pressure. He shares with Michel the cool European mentality, and his whole being seems to suggest that it is a foregone conclusion that great wines can be produced in El Dorado. He himself said after I complimented his wine, “You like the smooth taste of our European wines, no?”

There is no mistaking the fine vintage of this exciting part of the state once you’re there. However, the getting there takes some effort. The barrier is primarily perceptual, El Dorado is less than an hour from Sacramento, and just over two hours from San Francisco, so there is no reason throngs of visitors shouldn’t stop in all year round. But, El Dorado is overshadowed by the combined Sonoma/Napa wine-destination juggernaut. People simply don’t know how close they are to world class winemaking.

All of the vineyards have their distinct charms, but they all share a common cause in the production and promotion of the El Dorado grape. Colder winters and the varied granitic and volcanic soils of El Dorado can produce an exceptionally wide array of distinctive vines that are quite distinct and well loved in Europe. Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Merlot, Syrah, Petit Syrah and Chardonnay are produced in quantity, but also interesting varietals such as Barbera, Sangiovese, Petit Verdot and many others.

Winemakers from the region demonstrate their admiration for European and exotic styles in exotic blends, but also produce many single varietal bottles that reflect the distinct character of El Dorado. Grapes that thrive in El Dorado include prized cold weather varieties. They can produce the rich anti-oxidant tannins that age well and mingle in complex formations with the oaken insides of American and French barrels, and they can last many years in the bottle.

The climate of the region produces extremes of heat as well as cold, which puts a distinctive stamp on the wine from year to year. Says Michel Prod’hon, the quiet owner of Mount Aukum, who grows Petit Syrah and a little Zinfandel at 2,615 feet, “It snows here a very little, but the grapes love the heat.”

Wine-makers like Mr. Prod’hon are enigmatic and complex. They are engaged in a complicated and old game with high stakes, and therefore are locked in deep syncopation at all times with the contents of their barrels. Their psyches feel sophisticated, often exotic, sympathies for their grapes, and they are busy fermenting out their next achievement a year or so in advance, even as they decant you a taste. They can only afford to be eccentric men.

The El Dorado region might not be as well known as Napa, but its wines have a particularly brilliant distinction among wine geeks and lovers. The skill of the region is well known to wine-world insiders who have been visiting El Dorado for decades. While the region is still considered a bit of a secret to the public, it is no secret to anyone in-the-know that world class wines have been produced here for many years.

That El Dorado is not overrun by throngs of weekend wine-warriors is a good thing, says Jolaine Collins, an advocate for and member of the El Dorado Winery Association.

“But people of the Sacramento region spend an hour and a half traveling to Napa and Sonoma without realizing that a first rate local bottle is available from the vinyeard 45 minutes from their door.”

El Dorado’s eureka moment for wine tourism may be tampered by a sense that its entry point is a quick-stop on the side of Route 50, between the ski hill and home. Travelers from the North will pass through the narrow streets of Placerville, which retails heavily to the snow crowd and gold country tourist, and will not see the rolling vistas of wine yards that are so clear to travelers in Napa and Sonoma.

Still, the Northern entry of El Dorado is the most used nonetheless. The polished wineries of Boeger, Jodar and Lavacap are minutes off highway 50 through Placerville.

Here, an experienced taster will have no trouble falling into conversation about the subtleties of a particular Aussie blend that influenced a particular bottle or discussing an unusual South African varietal.

Beginners will, meanwhile, discover much help in developing their understanding of wine. Especially during Passport Weekend, these friendly faces travel from many locations, like Folsom or Auburn, for their love of wine and to be part of the occasion.

For beginners like your reporter, basic rules of engagement become interesting. The best plan is to keep a cool head and to avoid saying or doing too much at first. It is best to try to listen to what other people are saying.

It is also acceptable to have no idea what you are tasting and to say so outright. A direct question, such as, “Is this what a Petit Syrah usually tastes like?” will invariably be greeted with a warm response and a good, informational leg up. Almost everyone pouring or tasting likes to share what information they have with someone who has a little less.

In El Dorado, you are much more likely to converse with your winemaker than in the oversized Napa or Sonoma regions. In fact, they are often the ones pouring liquids into your glass.

Winemakers are hip and accessible people if you can get close enough to them. At Single Leaf Winery, I leaned over to ask my pourer over the blast of 1970s arena rock, “Which person is the wine-maker?” He pointed down the line to the center of the crowd where a middle aged guy with sunglasses and a mic was jockeying discs to the joy of many other middle aged people, also in sunglasses. Many people were getting down in a serious way. Okay! Not my vintage, but good to see people having fun.

For a beginner, one exciting avenue of exploration is “futures,” which are wines that have been fermented but not necessarily bottled or aged. These youngsters have a lot more of their original grape juice fruitiness, which is easy for a newbie pallet to understand. The term that describes the way these flavors hit the tongue and mouth is “up front.” As soon as you put it in your mouth, the flavors hit you.

Comparing these new wines with bottles of the same variety that can be older by say two, five or even seven years, is interesting. You get a clue about what the whole process is really about. Grape juice flavors are, of course, undesirable because they are too obvious. The entire craft of wine making concerns the gradual seduction of wild, youthful sugars into sophisticated and unusual flavor entities.

To appreciate what such an accomplishment means in El Dorado it is necessary to get a feeling for the kind of country the wineries grow in. Passing through a small town on my way to wine country, I see a grizzled wooden biker bar presiding toothily over a downtown junction and gravel yard. Hordes of bikers suddenly motor by. A sign outside the nearby bar says, “Cage Fight: Saturday.”

But with a quick turn, the entire scene turns back into grassy knolls and narrow valleys. Green valley oaks and orange, lichen-covered rocks lean amiably against each other, and the whole silvery scene is ruffled by breezes.

Visiting El Dorado county presents many similar contrasts. It is the untamed edges of the place that give the settled vinyards their beauty. The soul of the place is wild, and therefore perfect for cultivated grapes. The granite and vesuvial feet of the snowy Sierra Nevadas, produce distinct flavors- but the somewhat forbidding history and landscape is what defines El Dorado as a region of potential and mystery. If you live in Sacramento or nearby, don’t take my word for it, travel the 45 minutes and taste for yourself what it’s all about.

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