After the Gold Rush
Exploring the Wine Country of
Californias 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 winedoms underdogs, so I knew hed have a sage suggestion or
"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
So we did.
And Im shocked that more wine geeks and tourists
dont do the same.
For one thing, its 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. Youre there.
Better still, its like driving 20 years back in wine
history -- to Napa Valley the way it used to be.
The wines arent 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 dont 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
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.
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, hes 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 everythings 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 dont 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
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
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 dont mean Michael Skurnik," I say.
"Thats the one! How did you know?"
"Oh," I say, "it seems like these guys are
always one step ahead of me."
Anyhow -- wayttago, Skurniks. Youve 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,
Go to part 2: Boeger Winery
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