Ever since discovering the wines of El Dorado County, I have been drawn to the region. One winery that came up on the radar after a media tour in 2013 is Illuminare Winery. What struck me about Illuminare’s red wine was its rich balance, elegance, and consistency. There is an opulent quality to every varietal and blend produced by this boutique winery.
After meeting the demure, soft-spoken owner/winemaker Aaron Hill you would not expect the bold, fruit-forward style of wine that he achieves so expertly. He strives to utilize maximum extraction with less oak. Aaron, with his wife Cherie, moved from Alaska to California in 1999. He completed the fire academy, but jobs were scarce in Anchorage, so after working for a time with Alaska Airlines, he and Cherie decided to make a change.
Aaron decided to go back to school, Sierra College, to study Electrical Engineering. During this time, he discovered a love for the wine of El Dorado County. Connecting with wine industry people, he began to help out in any capacity at various area wineries. He soon graduated to a cellar rat.
Aaron credits Arnie Gilpin, the prior owner of Windwalker Vineyard as being his mentor. Through his association with Windwalker, it became apparent to Aaron and his wife that producing wine was their destiny, opening the doors to their own winery in 2000.
Aaron’s style of winemaking elevates his wines to a level above what is typically seen in the Sierra Foothills. Buying his grapes from area vineyards, especially those located in a warmer portion of the region, brings out the rich black fruit, body, and bold flavors his wines are known for.
Naming the Winery
When deciding on a name for the winery, Aaron and Cherie wanted something that reflected their Alaskan roots. The Aurora Borealis lights up the Alaskan sky, and during the summer months, there is the midnight sun, so it was befitting to find a name that represents these phenomena. Illuminare is Italian, and its meaning is to light or illuminate.
Each bottle of Illuminare carries a label adorned with a burning candle that lights up the exceptional wine that lies within. The back label reads, “Every bottle tells a story – A story of the history of the vines and the ground from which they grow. The unique conditions of climate and the hands that made this wine.
The bottle tells our story – Aaron and Cherie Hill.” Sipping the wine you discover that there is an emphasis on sharing the history of wine in the Sierra Foothills, where the vines grow. At the same time, the elevation in this region enhances each grape that goes into Illuminare wine, and Aaron’s handcrafted wines show his ability to create a marvelous wine. These are all aspects of what enlightens Illuminare wines.
The Red Wines
Illuminare’s focus is on red wine, which includes Zinfandel, Petite Verdot, Barbera, Sangiovese, Syrah, Pinotage, and Cabernet Sauvignon varietals. Their flagship red wine is called Seeing Red, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Mouvédre.
I have now sampled four different wines from Illuminare and am impressed with each. The first wine exposure to Illuminare was the 2011 Zinfandel Thaddeus Vineyard. The elevation of this vineyard at 2000 plus feet and the ten-year-old vines play a part in the delivery of this Zinfandel. Adding 8% Petite Sirah also gives the wine a wonderful deep purple color and the backbone of its structure. The wine is big with ripe fruit, jammy, and fruit-forward. There are some underlying hints of spice.
I then experienced the 2011 Momentum, a blend of Petite Sirah, Zinfandel, Petite Verdot, and Merlot. This wine also is wonderfully consistent and balanced fruit-forward wine.
Being different and challenging himself with different varietals, Aaron produces a Petite Verdot. I originally sampled this wine at a party hosted by the winemakers of the El Dorado Winery Association. I have since revisited this elegant wine that showcases the virtues of a grape varietal typically used in blends. The wine is softer in texture and not quite as bold as many of the wines from Illuminare. The wine does exhibit a smooth velvety quality. At first, the flavors of almonds and blueberries were quite apparent. These opened up to cherry and stewed fruit with hints of nutmeg, allspice, and cocoa. The wine was earthy yet elegant.
Not many wineries in California can make a Pinotage. Illuminare is one of the few wineries creating a wine with this varietal. The wine stands out as an extraordinary example of what can be done with Pinotage. Pinotage is known as a South African grape created by Pinot Noir and Cinsaut. This wine has a wonderful French/Spanish quality to it. It is medium-bodied with earthy aromas and flavors of cranberry and cherry with hints of allspice and vanilla.
Those excited about fruit-forward red wine and want to find their own story within each bottle will be enlightened when they taste the various varietals that Illuminare has to offer.
For information El Dorado Wine Country Winery:
3500 Carson Road
Camino, CA 95709
Winery: (530) 306-3873,
Hours: Friday – Sunday, 11:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. or by appointment