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Wine Tasting in the Sierra Foothills

If you're driving up from the Bay area, or even closer, it may be worth considering a couple of stops at some of these wineries on your way to South Lake Tahoe. Download the Winery map here.

The following article was written by Heather Gould, and printed in Mountain News.

Pouring at Fitzpatrick, the oldest winery in Fairplay.Sometime back in the last century, when the main agricultural product of the Napa Valley was prunes, 60 wineries dotted the foothills of El Dorado County. The wineries sprang up in the wake of the Gold Rush. After all, these '49ers needed something to slake their thirst.

But over time, things changed. Napa discovered the prestige and profits that came with wine grapes, but as El Dorado County's population waned, so did its wineries. Finally, Prohibition finished off what vineyards remained and the county became known for its timber, ranches and apples.

Back in 1972, things changed again. That year, Greg Boeger, a descendant of the Nichelini wine family from Napa, bought a pear orchard just outside Placerville and replanted it with wine grapes. The estate had originally been a vineyard owned and operated by the Fossati-Lombardo family, Swiss-Italians who came to the county in 1856. For more than 40 years, into Prohibition, The Fossati-Lombardos provided sacramental wine for the Catholic churches in the area. In the early 1930s, the vineyard was turned to pears by a descendant of the original family.

That first year in 1972, the Boegers produced 500 cases of wine. Now, the winery annually turns out around 20,000 cases. Boeger's growth is also a reflection of the growth in El Dorado County's wine industry as a whole.

If Greg Boeger is the grandfather of modern wine making in the County, Dutch native Robert van der Vijver is one of its sons. Several years ago, Van der Vijver planted five acres in the South County (with a little help from Van der Vijver's parents, who are listed as "reluctant investors" on winery business cards). Originally, they made wine in a small candlelit cellar. The winery has continued to grow in both reputation and size, but still retains that unpretentious charm for which the area is known.

His long hair in a ponytail, a fedora on his head, dressed in a black blazer, jeans and yellow, flowered Dutch wooden shoes, Robert tells how he came to El Dorado County: Growing up, he always had a love of wine. After a high school friend spent a year as an exchange student  in Amador County, Robert was able to get work at a winery there, starting in 1994. But he soon found that working for others was not in his blood. "I wanted to make wines the way I wanted to make them without interference from anyone". He was ready to strike out on his own. He found opportunity just up the road in the Fairplay region of El Dorado County, which later became the first official, nationally recognized wine region in the county.

Almost every owner of the county's 50 bonded wineries (making El Dorado County one of California's largest wine producers) has a similar unique story. A long line of wine aristocrats they are not.

"It was just a hobby, and I got carried away," says Jack Venezio, of Venezio Winery & Vineyard. A 35-year State Farm insurance agent from Los Gatos and longtime home winemaker, Venezio retired to his country home in Cool, near Auburn, and embarked on his second career. The Venezio's recently expanded, opening a new tasting room and increasing their vineyards in Coloma.

John MacCready, the owner of Sierra Vista Winery and Vineyard, graduated with a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering and promptly bought land to plant his vines. He worked as a professor at California State University, Sacramento, until his winery became profitable. Another Ph. D., John Smith, owner of Oakstone, spent years in research and development for LifeScan, a division of Johnson & Johnson. He patented the glucometer, used by diabetics to test their blood sugar, and retired as a corporate vice-president. Then, like Venezio, he indulged his favorite pastime -home wine-making - in a big way. Smith recently opened a companion winery, Obscurity Cellars, that concentrates on unusual grape varietals.

John Latcham's father, a San Francisco attorney, had always had an interest in vineyards and wineries. In 1980, the elder Latcham came to visit his sister in El Dorado County and went to Boeger Winery to purchase some wine. "Greg Boeger happened to be in the tasting room that day", says Jon, "and he and my father got to talking and by the time we left, he had my father so worked up. We bought land here, and six weeks later we picked up and moved. Today the family owns the eponymous Latcham Vineyards along with Granite Springs Winery.

Zinfandel is the signature foothill grape and virtually every winery produces a tasty wine from it. Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot are also popular in the county as are several Spanish, Italian and even German varietals.

The quality of the county's wines is nothing to sniff at either, unless you're inhaling the bouquet. Every winery displays numerous ribbons and awards won anywhere from the county fair to international wine competitions.

Local winemakers attribute the ideal mountain climate in the 1,200-3,500 foot range with its warm summer days and cool nights for producing consistently well-balanced fruit.

The wineries of El Dorado County are definitely on the comeback trail. Drive around the county's wine country and you will spot the bumper sticker: "El Dorado makes wine, Napa makes auto parts."

Located off highway 50 about an hour south of Tahoe, all wineries are open for tasting on weekends, some daily. many have picnic facilities, so bring a basket and buy your wine there. For more information, call the El Dorado Winery Association at 1-800-306-3956 or visit their website at


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