Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Wines of El Dorado - A Visit to the Sierra Foothills

When I think of El Dorado I think of the legendary bandito Joaquin Murrieta, called the Robin Hood of El Dorado in books. He is the real bandito of California who the fictional Hollywood character Zorro was modeled after. The story goes that Joaquin turned to robbing gold miners after he was beaten and his wife was murdered by a group of them. Joaquin is even said to have laid in wait along Arroyo del Valle in Pleasanton, which I see out my windows, waiting to waylay miners coming back to San Francisco from the gold fields.

In 1853 Harry Love, Captain of the newly formed California Rangers, and his posse, caught up with Joaquin and his gang, the Five Joaquins, who were suspected of killing at least 20 people, and shot them down. They only lasted a few years and it was all over. It wasn’t long before the gold ran out either and prospectors had to find something else to do. Some of them turned to planting grapes and making wine in gold country. There was a fair amount of Zinfandel planted and produced during the gold rush to satisfy the thirst of panhandlers for strong, sweet wine. After the gold rush with most of the miners gone it was tough going, and prohibition about ended it all, but in the last few decades wine making has made a big comeback in the foothills.

It’s said that Sierra Foothills Wineries attract a different kind of winemaker than other regions. Farming grapes in the foothills is difficult, and given that the region isn’t so well know the wines do not command high prices. The dedicated vintners in this area make wines that express the difficult climate and terrain of the region. What this means is that you can get bargains on wines with character. Which is why I was interested when I heard about the tasting in San Francisco of El Dorado wines at Postrio.

The El Dorado AVA is rugged, mountainous terrain. The thin, austere soils are ideal for Zinfandel which has been grown here since just after the gold rush. Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Barbera, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc are also grown in the area and Sierra Foothills Wineries are known for producing wines from these grapes. So I knew I was in for some unusual wines at the tasting. The event was sponsored by the El Dorado Wine Makers Association.

El Dorado is just about a little over two hours from the San Francisco area. I’ve been up there exploring in my Mini Cooper and on my motorcycle but I’ve yet to go wine tasting. So I jumped at a chance to sample these wines in San Francisco. The event was put on by the Vinunderground a group of Sommeliers (educated wine geeks as they say), led by Mike Whipple. I met Mike when I got there and found him talking with Tom Merle, who runs a Meetup Group for wine fans and told me about this event.

Mike was saying how pleased he was to have it hosted at Postrio, a landmark San Francisco restaurant first opened on April 1, 1989 by Wolfgang Puck. We were treated to appetizers from their kitchen during the event. You enter from Mason Street through the pizza bar, past a lounge and descend a grand stair case to the main dining room where the event was held. As I looked down I saw over 20 tables with wines. I knew I’d never get to taste them all so I pulled out my brochure and started looking for what I wanted to try.

I couldn’t help but notice Postrio's unique art works from such artists as Robert Rauschenberg, and Roy Lichtenstein and blown-glass by Dale Chihuly. It was an impressive place with a lot of ambiance. But it was loud with wine fans enjoying themselves. While I was sitting in the mezzanine preparing my assault on the wines Rudy Simone was singing. She is a torch singer in the style of Billy Holiday. She was doing the old standards Billie and Judy Garland, with a lot of flair, accompanied by piano, and horns.

As I strolled around the room tasting wines I saw that Jim Preston from Winequesters was there. He has a iPhone and website that help you choose which wineries to visit. I stopped to chat with him about his work in documenting so many California wineries. He was doing video interviews with the wine makers and will be posting them soon to his site. I also met Jolaine Freitas Collins, charming woman who runs the El Dorado Winemakers association and helped to make this event happen. She told me that they are having passport weekends in April. Check out their website for details.

Okay, now about the wines. I made my way around the room and tried about 20 or so. There were a lot of good ones and there was no way I could do them justice in the short time I had and with an elbow to elbow crowd. I did get enough of an impression to know that I want to visit the area and go to the wineries and do some more in-depth exploration. Some wines that stood out were a Viognier from Sierra Vista Winery that was especially crisp and a spicy Zinfandel from Sierra Oaks Estates. The Grenache from Holly’s Hill Vineyards was like fresh squeezed strawberries. Granite Springs had a no oak Chardonnay that was especially creamy. I enjoyed the Petite Sirahs from Busby Cellars and from Mount Aukum Winery. This is only a partial list and I’m sure there were many other notable wines.

In all there were 24 tables featuring 24 wineries with about 4 – 6 wines each. Here’s a list of which wineres attended: Click Here. If you get the chance check out the wines of the Sierra Foothills. I know I'm going to be putting this wine tasting to good use since were are studying the Sierra Foothills at my Wines of California class at Las Positas College in Livermore where I'm in the viticulture program.

1 comment:

Tom Merle said...

My Great Great Grandfather, Patrick Edward Connor was in that posse. He went on to lead a regiment back to Utah to keep the Overland Trail free of Indian "incidents" and to keep Utah from succeeding and/or siding with the Confederacy. Here's the Wikipedia article http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patrick_Edward_Connor#Civil_War . Also he once lived in what is now the oldest house in San Mateo County.