El Dorado: An AVA’s search for Wine

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el-dorado-wines-avaRe-published from Wine Industry Advisor

It seems that people have been searching for “El Dorado” ever since North American continent was discovered. The literal meaning of the term, which translates to “gilded one” in Spanish, refers to “a place of great wealth or inordinate opportunity,” and it was thought to be somewhere in the “New World,” perhaps South America. Sir Walter Raleigh searched for it, the Spaniards thought they’d found it in New Mexico, and years later, the Gold Rush brought hordes of fortune seekers to the foothills of the Sierra, where they made the best of the situation. If they didn’t find gold or silver, at least they found a suitable place to grow fruit trees and vines, and thus was established one of California’s oldest grape growing regions. Over 2000 acres of vineyards flourished here at the turn of the 20th century.

There’s a bit of irony in the name being applied to a wine region that is vast and hard to define. Located about an hour east of Sacramento, the El Dorado AVA is huge, encompassing about 2000 vineyard acres, with elevations from 1250 to 3500 feet. To the north, it is bounded by the Middle Fork of the American River, and on the south by the South Fork of the Cosumnes River. El Dorado is a sub-appellation of the 2,600,000-acre Sierra Foothills AVA — one of the largest in California — which includes portions of the counties of Yuba, Nevada, Placer, El Dorado, Amador, Calaveras, Tuolomne and Mariposa. In deference to its altitude and the influence of the cool breezes off the Sierras, which results in longer hang time, the El Dorado group markets its assets with the tagline, “Taste at a higher level.”

There are at least four distinct microregions here. Greater El Dorado rolls westward on Highway 49 (to David Girard and Gold Hill) and south and west along 50. Apple Hill/Camino is truly the higher elevation portion, just north of Highway 50, where a slew of tasting rooms can be found, including Boeger, Bumgarner, Findleton, Jodar, Lava Cap, Madrona, Nello Olivo and Wofford Acres. The Pleasant Valley area is in the heart of the AVA, along Pleasant Valley road, where tranquil meadows and hills abound, and wineries like Sierra Vista, Holly’s Hill and Miraflores are located. Probably the most marketed subregion is Fair Play, to the south along E16, where Gold Mountain (complete with lodge), Mastroserio, Cedarville, Skinner, Mount Aukum and Gwinllan are located.

The breadth of soils and microclimates of the region mean that an enormous range of varietals — over 50 and counting — can grow and prosper here, from Bordeaux, to Rhone to Iberian to Italian. This very appealing strength can complicate the message for consumers who want to peg a region for just one or two varietals. Not so El Dorado. It’s the Wild West of the Wine World, literally.