El Dorado Wine Country: Discovering the liquid gold of the Sierra Foothills

El Dorado Wine Country Vineyards
El Dorado Wine Country is situated in the Sierra Foothills.  For many, this may seem like a newer region, but in actuality, the area has been around for a very long time, perhaps before California officially became a state.  Its history is very colorful, like that of the changing of seasons that so impressively displays itself in these foothills just north of Sacramento.

California’s entrance into the wine industry begins in the 1800s. The Gold Rush brought wine production to the Sierra Foothills. Gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in 1848.  Miners who found their way to the Sierras to pan for gold, after a long day of work would imbibe the spirits nightly. Thus some of the first wineries, distilleries and breweries were established as part of the industrious hunt for gold. You might call it the liquid gold of that era. The winemakers found the terrain very similar to that of France. Hence many French varietals grow in the area and often used in the creation of French blends.

Placerville was one of many Gold Rush towns that now resides in El Dorado Wine Country.

The first vineyard was planted in 1849 with the Mission grape by Mr. Stevens. The location was close to what is now the town of Rescue. The Franciscan Friars brought the Mission grape to California. This grape known as the “native” or “Los Angeles” variety did not produce the best wine because it lacked character and structure. The exception, they produced a marvelous dessert wine called Angelica. Angelica is made by adding brandy to the fermenting wine allowing the two to age together to create a beautiful amber-colored wine that displays a sweet, nutty quality. This wine was very popular with the miners of the Gold Rush.

In the late 1800s, there were 2000 acres planted with grapes. The area became the 3rd largest grape growing area in the state. With the onset of Prohibition, the wine industry came to a standstill unless one made sacramental wine. Unlike some areas in the United States, where the federal government came in and confiscated equipment and pulled out the vines, the Sierra Foothills was spared.

By the 1950s the wine business was pretty dead in El Dorado County. Farmers came in and pulled out the vines and planted pear orchards. By the 1960s a disease called pear decline slowly ruined agriculture in the area. The demise of the pears was the rebirth of the wine industry. Many farmers began planting apple trees and wine grapes as a substitute for the pears.

Most wine enthusiasts know the story of how Chateau Montelena placed the California wine industry on the map with their illustrious win for their 1973 Chardonnay at the famous Paris tasting in 1976. Before this event, the foundation of the new El Dorado Wine Country reestablished the wine industry in the Sierra Foothills.

Boeger was the entrepreneur who helped restore El Dorado County as an important wine region. In addition to Boeger, Madroña, Sierra Vista, Lava Cap, and Granite Springs played a vital roll in reviving El Dorado Wine Country. Today, more than 60 wineries in the four regions encompass two AVAs, Greater El Dorado, Pleasant Valley, Apple Hill®/Camino and Fair Play. The El Dorado Appellation received its AVA designated in 1983, while Fair Play became an AVA in 2001.

Boeger Winery
The original Boeger Winery.

Due to the elevation, the wineries in the area produce high altitude wines. One finds a good portion of the wines very intense both in color and in quality because of this fact. Three features make the wines of El Dorado County distinct; high elevation, complex topography and the lack of coastal fog. Most of the vineyards are planted in young volcanic, granitic and slate soils. The region is quite diverse with at least 37 varieties grown including Bordeaux, Rhone, Burgundian, Italian and Spanish varietals. Zinfandel is one of the more popular grapes, but Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petit Syrah, and Primitivo also are well acclimated to the area.

The El Dorado Wine Country is very different than some of the more famous regions in California. It is more rural and countrified. Some of the cities like Placerville are a throwback to a bygone era. There is a quaint charm that draws one to learn about the history and discover the wineries of the area.

El Dorado Wine Country – Eden Vale Inn

On my visit to the area, I discovered the most charming B & B, Eden Vale Inn. Formerly an old hay barn from 1919 that was converted into a home in the 1980s, followed by a renovation in 2007 that transformed the property with guest suites and the B & B it is today.

Eden Vale Inn
Eden Vale Inn

Eden Vale Inn Gardens

When visiting the Inn, you can feel the love that proprietors, Mark and Gayle Hamlin have put into making Eden Vale very special as well as making your visit a memorable one. The landscaping enhances the charm of the Inn.

It is evident that Gayle took a lot of pride in making the grounds seem like a Garden of Eden. There is a peaceful Zen feeling as you stroll through. While wandering in this idyllic garden, you will find all sorts of fruit trees, lovely fountains, wonderful sitting areas, and a pond. It is very romantic and the perfect setting to enjoy a glass of El Dorado County wine. As my visit was in the autumn, I can only imagine the beauty of the gardens in the spring when the trees and flowers are in bloom

The Gardens at Eden Vale Inn
The Gardens at Eden Vale Inn
The Pond at Eden Vale Inn
The Pond at Eden Vale Inn

Staying at Eden Vale Inn

Upon arrival at Eden Vale Inn, the resident welcoming committee, Sydney, a black Labrador mix and Bushwack, the cat greet you. Both make you feel right at home.

Bushwack the cat welcomes you at Eden Vale Inn
Bushwack, the cat welcomes you at Eden Vale Inn

The rooms are charmingly rustic yet very modern. The guest suites include a fireplace, state of the art lighting, Wi-Fi, private decks and patios with deep soaking tubs.

Juniper Room at the Eden Vale Inn
Juniper Room at the Eden Vale Inn

Eden Vale Inn Breakfast

Breakfast at Eden Vale is something you cannot miss. Gayle goes out of her way to make sure you have an extraordinarily morning feast. I almost felt I would roll into my first winery after Eden Vale’s divine breakfast. I left Eden Vale dreaming of my gluten-free Almond Scones. Whether your meal consists of French Toast, Quiche or eggs with sausage, you will be totally satisfied with any of these yummy morning cuisines. For those with dietary restrictions, Gayle loves to accommodate.

French Toast at Eden Vale Inn
French Toast at Eden Vale Inn

Activities in El Dorado Wine Country

Besides visiting wineries, the area is rich in history, that it is worth spending the time visiting Sutter’s Mill or taking a stroll through Placerville. There are also many outdoor activities, and sports to enjoy including whitewater river rafting, camping, hiking, and skiing to name a few. Of course, if you are inspired by the history of the area, trying your luck gold panning or gold mining is a must.

The beauty of the Sierra Foothills is awe-inspiring especially in the late fall when the leaves are turning rust, amber, and gold. The areas golden history and the chance to sample a diversity of styles and variety of wines is all the reason to draw anyone to El Dorado County.

Note: Common to both the travel industry and wine industry, this writer received hosted accommodations and winery visits. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure.