But it was in the higher sections of the Sierra Nevada foothills that I experienced an actual wine epiphany: in El Dorado County, an appellation with a history of winemaking going back to the Gold Rush of the 1850s, but so poorly respected today that nearly the entire production of its fifty or so wineries are sold at the door rather than outside the county. Make no mistake, El Dorado is a spectacular place to go wine tromping – its vines perched on 2,000 to 3,000 ft. elevations (in some parts, more like mountaintops than foothills) – and face it: wine does taste better when you’re given a taste by the winery owners, like the MacCreadys at Sierra Vista, or Jonathan Lachs or Susan Marks at Cedarville Vineyard (in how many North Coast tasting rooms will you still find the owner or winemaker?).
You need to allot two and a half hours to drive from San Francisco or Napa to get to El Dorado, turning off 80 East at Missouri Flat Rd. just before Placerville; and when you get there, by all means drop in on the MacCreadys, Jonathan or Susan, who have been bravely carrying El Dorado’s dimly lit torch in recent years. But the people you really need to see today are Cheryl and Victor Alvarez at Miraflores Winery. Well, Victor is not always there, as he still practices pathology in Yuma, Arizona. But Cheryl usually is, and the little daughter Isabella is the one skipping through their working winery, just completed in 2007 and serving as the Miraflores tasting room. They grow and produce Zinfandel, Syrah, Petite Sirah and Viognier on a 250 acre (39 and counting planted) estate. I hate to use an overused wine writer’s expression, but in this case it can’t be helped: I was blown away by the breadth, intensity, balance and beauty of each and every one of their wines.
And like many good things, my experience of Miraflores was happenstance: we originally made the drive just to touch base with another dear friend, Marco Cappelli, the former longtime winemaker (seventeen years) of Swanson Vineyards. Marco “retired” from the hustle and bustle of Napa Valley (although he still fashions Swanson’s dessert wines, available in Swanson’s Salon) to El Dorado soon after purchasing the thirty year old Herbert Vineyard, a spectacularly sited hilltop – forty acres of noble, head trained vines (mostly Zinfandel, Syrah and Petite Sirah), which Marco cultivates organically (as are the vines at Miraflores). Miraflores is one of the five El Dorado wineries for whom Cappelli consults while he readies his vineyard for production under his own name.
A lot of Miraflores is Marco, and a lot of it is Victor and Cheryl, but most of it is the high elevation, granite dominated terroir to which Cappelli applies all the magic he’s known since the days when he worked alongside Andre Tchelistcheff: hand sorting, whole cluster fermentations, natural yeast fermentation, partial red wine barrel fermentation, and even partial foot crushing (by design, not for show – a reflection of the gentle, minimalist, yet labor intensive approach espoused by Marco, Victor and Cheryl).
Enough of that, what about the wines? First my favorite, the 2005 Miraflores Petite Sirah: you’ve heard of iron fist in a velvet glove? This is crushed velvet – violets and opium den spices – wrapped in a blanket of steely muscle. The 2004 Miraflores Syrah –which my colleague Catherine Fallis MS recently described as “attention-grabbing… blueberry, black truffle… cocoa… luscious, opulently fruity” (why use my notes when she’s expressed it well enough?) – is a mountain of solid, brightly textured Syrah-ness. Then there is the 2005 Miraflores Zinfandel: as big and jam-packed with raspberry and peppercorn as any, but wrapped in an amazingly fine silkiness, nary a sharp or rough edge to be found.
When you taste these wines you can’t help but think of the many years during which wines of the Sierra Foothills (El Dorado as well as Amador and Calaveras counties) were known more for pruney, overripe fruitiness, usually couched in searingly high alcohol, coarse tannins and furniture polish-like oak. Not to be critical, but there is still a lot of that around, but wines like that of Miraflores (and in my mind, of Cedarville as well) are exploding that bad rap as we speak.
Now for the good news: the 2006s in the barrel are even more proportionate and finer in quality, yet just as mountainous in intensity. What do you expect out of Cappelli? I don’t think there was ever a vintage at Swanson when you could not see markedly more maturation of thought than in the vintage before; minds and vines continuously coming into their own. It’s just that here in 2008, Cappelli is much further along on the curve.
Oh, and the Miraflores Viognier: both the 2006 in bottle and 2007 in barrel exuding honeysuckle and sweet cream, along with the multi-textured, soft, seamless melting qualities of judiciously applied barrel and natural yeast fermentations.
They say nothing brings more joy than the discovery of a new star. El Dorado as a wine region may not exactly be “new,” but its ascending star quality is bound to make one of the best feel-good stories in years. What are you waiting for? There’s new gold out in those hills!