The Apple Hill/Camino region of El Dorado County is marked by steep, diverse terrain. This is where the Sierra Foothills start to transition into the Sierras. The landscape is a mix of fruit orchards, vineyards, Christmas tree farms, and at higher elevations pine forests.
In the middle of the 20th century, this was pear country. At its peak, 52,000 tons of pears were produced before a pear blight devastated the industry. Apples saved the day, and now the region is dominated by apple orchards. In the fall, the area is teeming with tourists picking apples and gobbling up fritters, pies, and apple cider doughnuts in scenes that could come straight out of a Hallmark movie.
Apples are not the only crop that took advantage of the pear demise, though. In the 1970’s, Greg and Sue Boeger bought a Gold Rush era farm and abandoned winery/distillery and became the first post-prohibition wine producer in El Dorado county. Now, dozens of wineries and vineyards dot the landscape. Diversity is the key here. The geological activity of the Sierras has created hillsides and valleys running every which way, and the soils are just as varying. You can find alluvial deposits a couple of feet from quartz beds that are a couple of feet from a granite outcropping. The microclimate variation is tremendous here, as well. Because of the numerous nooks and crannies, you can find spots suitable to both Grenache and Pinot Noir… sometimes even within the same vineyard.
Conveniently, Highway 50, the main route for Californians to get to South Lake Tahoe, cuts straight through the region. Some of the region’s best customers are would-be skiers who can’t make it up to the slopes during a snowstorm. A recent shift towards higher quality wines and the influx of skilled winemakers is now starting to make this region a destination of its own for great wine rather than a mere stop off on the way to or from the high Sierras.
But if you visit this region during the fall, expect crowds and traffic from people coming up for the apple harvest. The trade-off, though, are the apples and apple goodies you can pick up while you are here (and do not miss out on the apple cider doughnuts at Rainbow Orchards… you can thank us later!).
Boeger is an El Dorado county icon. Greg and Sue birthed the modern-day El Dorado county wine industry when they bought their Gold Rush era homestead and abandoned winery and turned it into Boeger Winery. Greg first planted Bordeaux varieties, and the Boeger Merlot drew notoriety for being stocked for White House dinners during the Reagan Administration. He then found added success when he started experimenting with other varieties. The Zinfandel was served for the Queen during a White House visit, and the Barbera has become world renowned. Now Boeger has over thirty varieties grown in the vineyard and/or produced in the winery.
Even after nearly 50 years, the Boegers live on the property and remain active in the business and in the community. Greg still manages the vineyard and was recently awarded a Congressional Commendation for Wine and a lifetime achievement award from the California State Fair. Son Justin has taken over most of the winemaking responsibilities, along with winemaker Byron Elmendorf, and daughter Lacy handles the business and marketing aspects.
The vineyard and tasting room are picturesque and quintessentially El Dorado county. Vines cling to steep slopes and narrow valleys that twist and turn in all manners of ways, and Greg has figured out the perfect spot for each variety. Byron trusts the grapes coming from the responsibly-farmed vineyard and minimizes all adjustments and manipulations to produce pure and excellent wines. The tasting room offers two different flights… be sure to splurge on the more expensive one as the wines are of significantly higher quality. Grassy areas and tables make for ideal picnicking after the tasting.
1709 Carson Road
Placerville, CA 95667
Hours: Monday-Sunday 10:00-5:00
This new winery has the elusive trifecta: top-level hospitality, amazing wines, and an incredible story. The story is straight out of a Hallmark movie… grandkids get together to take over and expand the family farm started by iconic grandfather… but this one is absolutely true. Italian immigrant, Edio Delfino, became legendary in the 1960’s when he spear-headed the planting of apple orchards to deal with the county’s ongoing and devastating pear blight. Edio created Defino Farms, and when his French wife, Joan, started making pastries to sell on the farm, Apple Hill started to take shape. Apple Hill would go on to become one of the largest agro-tourism events on the planet each fall.
Fast-forward: three grandkids, who grew up working the farm and idolizing their grandfather, along with their dad hatch a plan to continue the family tradition and add a wine operation. They planted five new acres of vines at the farm to go along with some old vines Edio had planted nearby. Christine, at the age of 17, orchestrated a let’s-do-this plan where she would handle the hospitality side, younger brother Peter would handle winemaking, and youngest brother Derek would take care of the vineyard. Then off the three went to Cal Poly to study and learn their respective specialties.
Christine has created an upscale tasting room and experience (finally proper stemware up here!) while maintaining an homage to the past. Peter’s wines are amazing… be sure to try the delicious Bandol-ian rose, the Albarino, and the GSM (when it is in stock!). There is also a very interesting delicate, old-worldish Cab Sauv from Edio’s nearby 3000-ft, own-rooted, low-yielding and cantankerous vineyard. I’m hoping they add a powerhouse, reserve version from these grapes. I think it could have some serious aging potential!
Oh, and did I mention the pastries made from Joan’s recipe? Oh-la-la!
3205 N. Canyon Rd
Camino, CA 95709
Hours: Thursday-Monday 11:00-5:00
As geologists, the Jones family knew exactly what they were looking for when they bought the property that would become their vineyard and winery in 1981. As the name suggests, the land sits on a lava cap, and the resulting volcanic soils have proven to be ideal for supporting the growth of vines and for imparting character into the grapes from those vines.
Since the first vintage in 1986, the Lava Cap wines have been as highly-regarded as any in the Foothills. Charlie Jones continues to run the vineyard and does so with an emphasis on the maintenance of a healthy ecosystem. The cellar was turned over to winemaker Joe Norman in 2013, who was formerly a winemaker at Heitz Wine Cellars in the Napa Valley. His experience with Cabernet Sauvignon is evident in the Lava Cap version which was named our Foothills Wino Cabernet Sauvignon of the Year and which can pass as a dead-ringer for a hillside Napa Valley Cab (for a fraction of the price). The Cabernet Franc is also excellent, as are the Rhone-style varieties. Lava Cap makes some of the best white wines in the Foothills, as well.
The winery is beautifully located in the middle of apple orchards and Christmas tree farms. The tasting room staff is friendly and knowledgeable. A large outdoor patio peacefully looks over the vineyard and out towards the valley of the South Fork of the American River. It is one of our favorite spots to spend an afternoon.
2221 Fruitridge Road
Placerville, CA 95667
Hours: Monday-Sunday 10:00-5:00
Madrona is a highly reputed winery situated in the middle of Apple Hill. You'll have to wind your way through Apple-town-orama as you work your way to the tasting room that is nestled amongst some ancient pines and cedars. In the middle of apple season, you might want to go to their co-owned Rucksack Cellars instead to avoid some of the crowd. They have vineyards surrounding the tasting room and in Pleasant Valley. The vineyards total 85 acres planted to 29 varieties. Bordeaux varieties predominate, but there is a wide range of offerings including Rhone varieties, Nebbiolo, and age-worthy Rieslings. Pours in the tasting room are often too skimpy for our taste, so don't hesitate to ask for a larger pour.
Madrona is part of the old guard here. Owner/winemaker Paul and his wife Maggie have been running the place for decades, but before that it was Paul’s parents, Leslie and Dick, that planted their first vines in 1973 and opened the winery in 1981. As Foothills wine pioneers, it was a learn-as-you-go operation. Some variety experiments have worked and others haven't. Thi is the way a region is supposed to be developed... not in a lab.
Paul is a gracious, salt-of-the-earth winemaker who has grown up immersed in the wines and soils of El Dorado County, a human embodiment of El Dorado terroir, so humble that there is hardly a mention of himself on the winery’s website. Not surprisingly, he makes some of the deepest, most soulful wines in the Foothills. These are not knock-your-socks-off wines but subtly grow on you much the way Paul does. Madrona offers a lot of interesting programs, such as their blend-your-own workshop, so keep an eye out.
2560 High Hill Road
Camino, CA 95709
Hours: Daily 11:00-5:00
There aren’t many brand new wineries that can be awarded a star right out of the gate. Starfield is the exception (and not because of the name). This property is nothing short of amazing and beautiful. Tom Sinton has meticulously and obsessively designed every inch of the vineyard. The rows of vines lie so naturally and gracefully on the rolling hills, they look as though they were placed there by the hand of god. The vines themselves are immaculately maintained. The vineyard is parklike with paved and unpaved walking paths that take you through canyons, to lakes, and to an amphitheater. A rose arbor guides you from the tasting room to a lakeside pavilion
The vineyard has 17 different varieties planted over 31 acres. The mix of Spanish, Southern France, and Italian varieties creates the potential for a wide range of offerings and for some interesting blends. Included with the standards are some less-grown varieties, such as Aglianico, Tannat, Cinsault, Counoise, Fiano, and Vermentino. Starfield also produces a delightful sparkling wine made from Marsanne/Fiano/Muscat, and a passito of Muscat of Alexandria that is nothing short of spectacular. The vines are still relatively young, and the house style is still evolving, but everything we have tasted so far is extremely promising.
The tasting room and grounds have only recently opened and are still a bit of a work in progress. They are currently open during the week for walk-ins and by easy appointment on the weekends. Give Jennifer a call at the below number, and she will make sure you are taken care of.
2750 Jacquier Road
Placerville, CA 95667
Monday-Friday 11:00-5:00 Walk-in
Saturday and Sunday: By appointment (see phone above)
Foothills Wino Wineries to Watch
Brian and Jennifer Bumgarner have been making some of the most highly regarded wines in El Dorado County for over a decade. They have a warm and inviting tasting room in Apple Hill and have recently purchased a facility in Fair Play which includes another tasting room. They also have the best hard apple cider in the region.
Eric and Emily Hays completely embody their philosophies. They are dedicated to sustainable, organic, and biodiversity in their vineyard, in the cellar, and in their lives outside of the wine world. For the wines, the focus is centered around a strong belief that great wines are made in the vineyard. Their vineyard is at a lower elevation than most other El Dorado vineyards, giving the wines an Amador-esque quality. They also source from other high-quality growers. The tasting room is interestingly appointed and one of the few on the south side of the Highway, making for an easy on/off when you are heading up the mountain. Original art of family members graces the labels. The Bordeaux varieties and the Zinfandel are excellent. The Gaia is a proprietary blend of the best of the best from each vintage and can be transcendent.
Clime is the private label of Byron Elmendorf, the winemaker at Boeger Winery, and his wife Miranda Capriotti. The two have traveled the world and spent extensive time in Italy, and their wines reflect those experiences. Our hats are off to Boeger for allowing Byron this opportunity and for even selling the Climes wines in the Boeger tasting room. The wines are made in micro lots, and are stunning and focused.
Wines are available on the Clime website and some are available to taste/buy at Boeger winery (link to Boeger above)
Steve and Bea Grace purchased the ranch for that would become their vineyard and winery in 2000. The winery and wines are named after Steve’s great, great, great grandfather who fought and died in the Revolutionary War. The winery was formerly known as Grace Patriot, and you will find some older vintages under that label. The wines are consistently outstanding and are crafted by Steve’s sons who compete with one another on some varieties. The tasting room is nice and with a view of the Sierras in the distance.
Wofford Acres is a small winery located off the beaten path and with beautiful views of the South Fork of the American River valley. Lifelong winemaker Paul Wofford and his wife Ann decided to get out of the hustle and bustle of the California wine industry and start their own small batch winery. They make an excellent Gewurztraminer, do some very interesting things with Nebbiolo, and have a delicious Port-style wine. It is well worth the effort getting there.