The other wine country

El Dorado County vineyards pair well with Apple Hill, other Sideways adventures

Becky Carroll, winery manager at Garnet Sun in El Dorado wine country.

Becky Carroll, winery manager at Garnet Sun in El Dorado wine country.

Photo By Deidre Pike

Chateau Davell’s tasting room in Camino, Calif., some 50 miles outside Sacramento, is a cute, 200-square-foot hut with a wrap-around deck. I’m standing at a small bar, surrounded by original oil paintings, handcrafted chocolates and heirloom tomatoes from the family farm.

Outside, on Carson Road just off Highway 50, cars zip by on their way to Apple Hill for fall festivities at area farms and ranches. Inside, open bottles of wine line the counter. The labels replicate the art on the walls—paintings of a lovely woman, the winemaker’s wife; and a round-faced cherubic babe, the winemaker’s daughter.

Chatting with the winemakers. Informal lessons in wine tasting. No stuffy Napa pretensions: That’s the wine scene in El Dorado County. The wineries here are open all year long. But a fall visit, during the apple and grape harvests, pairs nicely with fun, kitschy trips to apple barns where kids ride ponies and parents eat pulled-pork sandwiches in the afternoon sun.

“Would you like to start with something bubbly today?” asks the woman behind the bar as she pours 1-ounce samples of brut reserve into champagne flutes.

On a small plate are bits of cheese to taste with the wines. A sharp Gouda from a small California dairy pairs with the 2009 Chloe Chardonnay, made with grapes from the Carneros region. The 2007 Premier Cru, a Bordeaux-style red wine from grapes grown here in El Dorado County, pairs with a gooey cheese, Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog.

The Fog looks like blue cheese, but the veins of gray are not mold. They are the edible ashes of grape leaves. I know this because Chateau Davell’s owner/winemaker Eric Hays told me this the last time I visited. He’s not here today, his wife, Emily Hays, tells me. The family has been picking grapes at their vineyard since 6 a.m.—about 2.5 tons of organically, biodynamically grown grapes, cabernet franc and merlot.

“We picked the chardonnay last week,” says Emily, looking tired but pleased. “We’ve always picked them ourselves. This year we hired six people. I feel very indulgent and very excited.”

Many Sacramentans know this part of El Dorado County—a stretch of Highway 50 that joins Placerville, Camino and Pollock Pines—as Apple Hill. Hay-bale mazes and pick-your-own pumpkin patches. Apples by the pound or by the bushel—cheaper than what you get in the grocery store, but not by much. Wine? Sure. Plenty of light sweet wines made from, you guessed it, apples.

Apple wine didn’t sound enticing. And I wasn’t driving up to Placerville to save a couple bucks on apples.

I discovered the Sierra Foothills’ wineries on a meandering Sunday drive back from Yosemite a couple of years ago. I ended up bringing home a case of jammy red zinfandels, fruity cabernet francs and some spicy red blends.

Thirty-one wineries are listed at the El Dorado Wine Country website, It takes a few trips to explore them all. In Camino, I’ve been to most of the tasting rooms between Boeger Winery on the west end of town and Crystal Basin Cellars on the east.

Stephen Volz, a wine aficionado from Pollock Pines, visits the area’s tasting rooms a couple of times a month. He worked in the tech industry in San Jose for 25 years and took frequent trips to Napa and Sonoma, buying wine by the case.

But he hasn’t been to Napa, which he calls “quite pretentious,” since 2002. He likes the mom-and-pop feel of Sierra Foothill wineries.

“Why go there when I have great wines here?” he says, sipping a red blend, the 2007 Chateaupup-tu-Tuff, in the Garnet Sun tasting room. The wine’s label sports a photo of a dog. The winery is one of four—Auriga Wine Cellars, Illuminare Winery and Findleton Estate & Vineyard are the other three—sharing a building on Carson Road.

Michael Beem, winemaker at Garnet Sun, says working at an independent winery serves him well. “It’s great not to have to answer to a committee about my winemaking,” he explains.

Photo By Deidre Pike

Volz knows what he likes.

“This area has the best zins,” he says. “The cab franc is outstanding. And there are a few good pinots. … There are a lot of different wine areas in California. Here, it’s a lot more fun. A lot of wines I enjoy. And a lot of judges agree with me.”

He nods to a display of ribbons on the wall, awards for Garnet Sun’s wines.

A woman walks in and asks Becky Carroll, winery manager, for a sample of port. Carroll smiles.

“What kind of port?” she asks. “I have a zin port, a malbec port—a 2009 muscat canelli port in the barrel. It’s white.”

Carroll pours one of the above for the woman and then checks my glass. I’ve tasted the Chateaupup—that’s Carroll’s dog on the label—and moved on to the lagrein, made from an obscure Italian varietal. Garnet Sun’s tasting room feels emptier than usual. Winemaker Michael Beem and his lanky Great Dane, Linus, are missing.

Carroll explains that Beem’s out buying grapes and making wine. Linus has been sick. She pours me a dark purple malbec that tastes of black fruits and brown spices.

Beem shows up, sans dog, in a work-stained shirt. He’s a sturdy, red-bearded guy. Before starting Garnet Sun, Beem worked as a winemaker for Toogood and Perry Creek in nearby Fair Play, Calif. He’s been on his own for three years.

“It’s great not to have to answer to a committee about my winemaking,” he says. “It’s good to do it on my own.”

He enjoys working in the tasting room.

“Seems like all I do anymore is talk about wine,” he says. “I love it.”

After visiting a few wineries, it’s a good idea to take a break. My designated driver takes me to Abel’s Apple Acres, where we buy honey and an apple fritter. We share the latter while perusing displays of local crafts and tie-dyed T-shirts.

Then we’re tooling down a series of back roads, following the signs, to Lava Cap Winery, one of the better-known wineries in the area. Reno’s Costco carries Lava Cap wines, as do some local wine shops. I once signed up for the Lava Cap wine club to get a discount on a case of jam-a-licious 2005 Rocky Draw Zinfandel. Now I pick up a wine-club shipment four times a year. When I visit, I can taste any of the wines, including more expensive reserves. So I do.

The tasting room is packed. A group of young people from Sacramento, barely of drinking age, samples the sweeter wines.

I buy three bottles of 2006 Rocky Draw. The wine is named for the soil in a nearby vineyard. Tasting a wine means tasting the land, the air, the climate in which the grapes were grown. The French word for this is terroir. I speak French remarkably well after tasting a few dozen wines.

On the way out of town, we stop at Boa Vista Orchards on Carson Road. I buy 10 pounds of apples, some potatoes and squash and a bottle of, um, apple wine.