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After the Gold Rush

Exploring the Wine Country of
California’s Sierra Foothills

(April 26, 1999) "SO TELL ME,  where can I go in this state to escape insane wine prices?"

     We were having dinner at Mustards on our recent trip to Napa Valley with our good buddy Stuart. He's a local, a wine fanatic and a champion of winedom’s underdogs, so I knew he’d have a sage suggestion or three.

     "Have you been to the Sierra Foothills?" he asks.

     "No," I admit. How far from here?"

     "Two hours or so from Yountville. Go East, young man."

     So we did.

     And I’m shocked that more wine geeks and tourists don’t do the same.

     For one thing, it’s an easy drive from Napa or Sonoma. You simply get on 80 and roar across the Central Valley. Before you know it, the scenery starts getting pretty again. You’re there.

     Better still, it’s like driving 20 years back in wine history -- to Napa Valley the way it used to be.

     The wines aren’t expensive. A number are truly exciting, with a character all their own. And the people in the tasting rooms are genuinely delighted to see you and talk. You don’t have to be a muckety-muck -- just a person who loves wine.

      We'll be visiting three different wineries here. You can read about them in order or hop to the ones that interest you most:

Click on any heading below to jump to that section:

Part 1: Lava Cap Winery

Part 2: Boeger Winery

Part 3: Coming soon!

Part 1. Lava Cap Winery

     If you drive west of the old gold-rush town of Placerville, high up on a picturesque ridge called Apple Hill, you'll come across a sweeping stretch of vineyards and a sign that says LAVA CAP.

     I hadn't made an appointment here -- we were just nosing around the area.

     But as we drove by the entrance, I got a feeling the wines might taste pretty good. The vineyards are high up, the soil looks stony and everything seems well cared-for.

     In we went.

lavacapsmall.jpg (3787 bytes)
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CHECK OUT THE VIEW at Lava Cap. Click here to see more photos

    A pleasant fellow greeted us in the tasting room and we moved through the current line. The whites were very drinkable but unexciting:

     1997 Lava Cap El Dorado Fume Blanc is made in a simple, fruity, unwoody style. Crisp but not over-acidic, with pears and melon on the palate. No cat-pee or grass. Drink it young.

     1997 Lava Cap El Dorado Chardonnay Reserve appealed to Phylis a lot, but I found it too oaky for my likes. Still, she made me buy a bottle for lunch. So register a strong vote from the oak crowd.

     The reds were a lot more interesting. In particular:

     *1996 Lava Cap El Dorado Cabernet Sauvignon gives you a lot to like for $16.50 full retail. Well balanced with very full black cherry flavors -- the black cherry seems typical of better Foothills reds and I like it a lot. Plus there are overtones of herb and tar that give this wine lingering interest. All in all, one of the two best Cabs I tasted in the Foothills. The best was...

     *+1996 Lava Cap Stromberg Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. A lovely bowl of Foothills fruit! Cranberry, red-cherry, strawberry flavors with a chocolately finish. Very impressive indeed. I bought a bottle of this for later and enjoyed every drop.

     After this, the 1996 Lava Cap El Dorado Zinfandel Reserve seems comparatively light. Medium ruby, garnet at the rim, with strawberry flavors shaded by tar and an astringent finish.

     But no such problems were shared by the **1996 Lava Cap Petite Sirah Granite Hill Vineyard! Practically black. Dark ruby at the rim. Take a slurp and you get a rush of blackberry flavors, trailed by pepper and...cinnamon?...yes! Body is thick and rich. Approachable now, but this is a b-i-g boy.

     We then ambled out to the picnic tables for a spot of lunch. Pretty soon -- what do you know? -- another man approached and offered us a couple of merlot-filled chocolates. Mmm. Lovely.

     No, he’s not Santa Claus, but Lava Cap founder David Jones. Just being nice to the guests. Now tell me -- would this happen to you anywhere in Napa Valley?

     So naturally we got to talking.

     I found out that Lava Cap is, as you may have guessed, a family operation. He bought the property in 1981, while his kids were in college. Now one of his sons, Charlie, manages the vineyards. His other son -- Tom, a U.C. Davis grad -- makes the wines.

     The property was originally a pear orchard, but David points out this was wine country before a vine was planted in Napa Valley.

     Certainly, the Lava Cap site seems unusually grape-friendly. All the estate vineyards are from 2300 to 2800 feet up and everything’s planted on slopes. So they get good drainage, sunny days and cool nights. In a good year, yields are about 2-3 tons per acre.

     Spring frosts are a serious threat in these parts, but the Lava Cap vineyards are protected by local geography. The nearby hills channel warmer air up from the American River Canyon. As a result, they don’t get slammed as frequently by temperature spikes.

     And the soil is, of course, volcanic. The term "Lava Cap" is an old gold prospectors term to denote the layer of ash that often covered gold deposits.

     I ask, "What was 1997 like for you?"

     "Terrific," says David. "Could be our best vintage ever. But yields were way down. Want to go over to the winery and taste what we'll be bottling?"

     What a question.

     The *1997 Lava Cap El Dorado Syrah (pre-bottling) is one of several excellent Syrahs that I tasted in the Foothills. Deep ruby, medium body, with lots of young, grapey character and white pepper on the finish. Elegant and Rhonish.

     And the *+1997 Lava Cap El Dorado Cabernet Franc (pre-bottling) seems like a new Foothills star in the making. Violets on the nose, plenty of black currants to please your palate. Very little of the stemminess that can be the plague of Cab Franc. A ripe, juicy cup of pleasure.

     As we wind up our visit, I ask if Lava Cap is distributed on the East Coast.

     "Yes we are," replies David. "We have a terrific distributor in New York and North Jersey."

     "You don’t mean Michael Skurnik," I say.

     "That’s the one! How did you know?"

     "Oh," I say, "it seems like these guys are always one step ahead of me."

     Anyhow -- wayttago, Skurniks. You’ve got a winner here.

P.S. For more information about Lava Cap Winery call 1-800-475-0175 or click here to link to their Web site.

P.P.S: Since Stuart put me onto the region, the least I can do is plug his own weirdly great wine page, thestupids.com. Hop there for an in-depth review of another terrific Foothills winery, Sierra Vista.

Go to part 2: Boeger Winery

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