Gold Country Culinary Tour
Once known for the rare element found studding its foothills, California's El Dorado County now produces some of the state's finest wine and food treasures.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY KAREN SCHMAUTZ
After carpenter James Marshall spotted a few glittering flecks of the precious metal in a sawmill tailrace in 1848, the California Gold Rush was on. The fateful Sutter’s Mill, located in Coloma midway between Sacramento to the west and Lake Tahoe to the east, would become ground zero for the 80,000 fortune-seeking immigrants who would soon flood the state.
In Coloma today, you can still visit the site of the former mill and pan for gold at nearby Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park. But there are other treasures worth discovering in the gold-speckled hills of north-central California. Among the region’s modern treasure troves are the food and wine currently being crafted by the descendants of those early California pioneers — as well as by an eclectic collection of newcomers — who populate this fertile region’s diverse culinary scene.
Attracting more than 50,000 food and wine pilgrims annually, El Dorado County serves one-tenth of Napa’s annual visitors, making it a more rustic and intimate way to experience some of the best viticulture California has to offer. Plus, the area produces more than just wine: With a centuries-old agricultural pedigree and a unique climate and terroir, the region is rife with a wide variety of fruits — including cherries, blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, peaches, apples, pears, persimmons, and oranges — as well as pumpkins, flowers, honey, and even Christmas trees.
To get started on your Gold Country culinary adventure, head east out of Sacramento (or west from Tahoe) on Interstate 50 to Placerville, El Dorado’s county seat. Formerly known as “Dry Diggin’s” (for the gravel that had to be carted to water for panning) and “Hangtown” (for the preferred local method of justice), Placerville has developed a reputation in recent years for producing vibrant quality wines in the scenic foothills of the Sierra Nevada.
Once you reach town, head north on State Highway 49. At Wallace Road take a left to Hooverville Orchards, a 72-acre family operation that supplies farmers markets with fine fruit all the way from Tahoe to San Francisco. “I’ve found a way to fill every day of every season with something to harvest,” says farmer Chris Hoover. His orchards produce 100 varieties of fruit, including 10 varieties of crisp and brightly flavored Asian pears.
After stocking up with a basket of fruit, some jalapeño raspberry jam, or a strawberry rhubarb pie, head back south to Interstate 50 East and pick up Carson Road at the Schnell School exit. You are now entering a fertile region called Apple Hill, home of some of the county’s best sources for fruit, vegetables, and wine. Follow Carson Road east to Boeger Winery, where the original 1872 structure serves as a picturesque reminder that Italian winemakers settled here. A century-old pear orchard still occupies the grounds, while a modern high-tech winery sits across the gardens, boasting a tasting room, offices, cellars, and an enology lab. “We were the first winery in the county to reestablish after Prohibition,” points out Greg Boeger, a third-generation winemaker at the family-owned winery.
Continuing east along Carson Road, you’ll find Smokey Ridge Farm & Charcuterie, where house-made pâtés, confits, sausages, and condiments make a perfect addition to your picnic basket. After picking up some provisions, head up the road to Grace Patriot Wines, where the patio provides a panoramic spot to uncork a syrah or cabernet sauvignon and enjoy your culinary treats. Set on part of the former Pony Express route, the winery was founded by the Grace family in 2000. “Big reds do particularly well in the Sierra Foothills,” says winemaker Tyler Grace, who has a Napa career under his belt. “Our wines have big structure and big fruit.”
Watch for the Madroña Vineyards sign farther east along Carson Road. Turn left and follow the signs about a half-mile. Madroña Vineyards is known for 20 varieties of Rhone and Bordeaux grapes and for hosting the occasional alfresco vineyard dinner. Second-generation winemaker Paul Bush is a man with a motto that sums up what the El Dorado experience is all about: “Living well close to the source.” According to Bush, El Dorado County is the true agritourism hub of California. “Here, we balance what we eat with what’s in season,” he says. “The focus is local.”
If you managed to save room for something sweet, head to any number of you-pick Apple Hill farms and bake shops. At Denver Dan’s Apple Patch, you can enjoy your fruit fresh from the tree or baked into tender turnovers, dumplings, pies, and their signature apple crisp.
A short drive south from Apple Hill through densely forested countryside ends in Pleasant Valley, where another Napa veteran, winemaker Marco Cappelli, works with estate-grown zinfandel, syrah, cabernet sauvignon, barbera, viognier, and muscat at the lovely Miraflores Winery. “I like to make a style statement with my wines,” he says. “Besides terroir, precise timing of the harvest and the duration of maceration make a great deal of difference in defining style.”
Farther south in the Fair Play region is Skinner Vineyards, one of the first vineyards in El Dorado County, where today Chris Pittenger holds the winemaking helm. Historical records show Old World varietals here: mission, grenache, and carignan. Skinner Vineyards is still known for its grenache. “I feel strongly about estate wines, or at least about sourcing fruit from within El Dorado County,” Pittenger says. Out on the tasting room’s sunny terrace, the view of Fair Play’s woods and vineyards seems to roll on forever.
Backtracking from Fair Play to Placerville, the trail ends in this well-preserved Old West town built with gold fortunes. But don’t let the original 19th-century facades fool you. Behind wooden doors are olive oil tasting rooms, steaming espresso machines, and chefs cooking up what’s fresh that day from local farms. For dinner, Cafe Luna is a local favorite, featuring mostly Italian-inspired dishes made with El Dorado ingredients and paired with El Dorado wines.
An after-dinner stroll down Placerville’s Main Street, past the sign erected where the “Hangman’s Tree” once stood, serves as a reminder that life here was not always so genteel. Thankfully, it just keeps getting more delicious.