Are El Dorado and Amador counties becoming California’s next Napa?

by Placerville Newswire / Apr 03, 2016 / comments

by Graham Boynton. El Dorado and Amador counties are emerging as compelling destinations for wine lovers [Boeger Winery, El Dorado county©Graham Boynton]
If I had a dollar for every time someone said this is what Napa was like 25 years ago, I’d be a millionaire.” Jody Franklin, tourism director at El Dorado County’s chamber of commerce, chuckles as another bottle is uncorked for the small group of wine tasters. We are at Saluti Cellars, Randy and Tina Rossi’s vineyard in a lush canyon in the heart of El Dorado wine country. He was in US government counter-intelligence and spent five years “sleeping on rocks in Iraq”; she was a police officer working in the organised crime department in Sacramento. Now they make wine — about 1,500 cases a year — organise weddings and run a tiny B&B. “The idea was that we would downsize our lives,” says Tina, “and all we’re doing is growing and growing.” Randy just laughs and says he wants to build a pizza oven next.

Their wines are very good, not least because integral to the winemaking process is their consultant, a bright young University of California viticulture graduate named Jonathan Pack, whose family owns a similarly beautiful patch of El Dorado just down the road. His parents, Gordon and Chris, are from the UK and they, too, saw a winemaking retirement haven here but haven’t stopped working since they opened Gwinllan (Welsh for vineyard, a reference to her family roots) 10 years ago. They are also small producers — 1,300 cases a year, most of which goes to their wine club members and travellers who come to their tasting room.

In these times of mass travel, it is rare to find a genuinely under-discovered enclave, somewhere where they are just beginning to stick their toes in tourism and are thus sweetly hospitable and generously welcoming. This is such a place. El Dorado, like the neighbouring county of Amador, lies between Sacramento and the Sierra Nevada mountains — you could broadly call it the Sacramento Valley, although the winemakers demur at this broad appellation. And it is accurate, if a trifle clichéd, to say that wine tourism here is what Napa Valley was a quarter of a century ago, before the film Sideways (2004) turned the trickle of Napa’s tourists into an avalanche, before the price of vineyards hit a million dollars an acre, before their Cabernets went past $100 a bottle.

What makes Sacramento particularly intriguing for oenophile tourists today is that you feel you’re discovering a work in progress. The wines here are nowhere near as well-known as those from Napa or its coastal cousin Sonoma, nor are they anywhere near as expensive. The locals appear pleasantly surprised that anyone from Europe would be interested in their part of California. When you travel the wine routes here you end up talking to the winemaker and the owner (often the same person), and you are charged a minimal, refundable tasting fee. In the well-oiled wineries of Napa, by contrast, you might pay up to $70 for a tasting session with the marketing manager.

The Sacramento wine lands are located north-east of San Francisco, around the Central Valley. What the locals say about this part of California is that it lies between the coastal fog line of San Francisco’s Bay Area and mountainous snow line that forms the border between California and Nevada. In other words, it is ideal grape-growing country that has for decades almost surreptitiously provided Napa and Sonoma winemakers with some of their grapes.

I started my journey in Sacramento, the state capital, a lovely city of half a million inhabitants that is a fast-developing foodie centre and a self-confessed beer town — they now have more than 50 craft breweries in and around the city and hold a 10-day beer festival at the end of February. Not surprisingly, the city is populated by government officials and their ranks of attendant administrators, but being within reasonable proximity of San Francisco and Silicon Valley, it is becoming increasingly attractive to tech companies. Intel, Hewlett-Packard, Apple and Oracle have set up here, their Levi’s-and-trainers-wearing staff easy to spot alongside the starched collars of the government folk. At a beer festival I attended at The Shack, a ramshackle bar and beer garden, the celebrants were predominantly millennials and the only people of advanced age were the featured band, Home By Dark, who probably should have been.

They’re experimenting out there, matching grapes with climate, which is why it’s a good time to visit
- David Block, viticulture professor at the University of California, Davis
The city grew up in the wake of the California gold rush, which at the time ignited the greatest human migration in history, luring Europeans, Chinese, Latin Americans and Australians to the gold fields some 50 miles north-east of the old city. Between 1848 and the late 1860s, Sacramento became a major distribution point, a commercial and agricultural centre and a terminus for wagon trains, stagecoaches, riverboats, the Pony Express and, most importantly, the First Transcontinental Railroad, the iron horse that linked the American West to the east coast. Today, Old Sacramento stands alongside the modern city and, although it is somewhat cheapened by the type of merchandise that attracts 21st-century tourists — T-shirts with silly slogans, sweets and chocolates — there is enough authenticity to make it worth a visit. The California State Railroad Museum in the heart of the town is outstanding and is the most visited railroad museum in the country.

The modern city looks back at its Wild West roots with a mixture of pride and amusement, and has embraced 21st-century lifestyle and culture with enthusiasm. According to a study conducted by Harvard University for Time magazine, it is America’s most racially integrated city and, with its self-proclaimed status as “America’s farm-to-fork capital”, it offers the epitome of the modern, idyllic Californian city lifestyle. The other area of dramatic growth is in winemaking. Professor David Block, head of the department of viticulture at the University of California, Davis, which is 15 miles outside the city centre, says that when he first arrived in 1996 there were around 800 wineries in California. “There are now more than 4,000,” he told me, “many of them smaller wineries, and many of them outside Sacramento, in Amador, El Dorado and around Lodi. They’re experimenting out there, still matching grapes with climate, which is why it’s a really good time to visit.”...

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