On a gorgeous first day of spring 2014, I drove with a friend up to El Dorado County, California, for a visit to Boeger Winery, situated on a ridge rising above the historic village of Placerville.
Boeger Winery is a special and historic place to begin your wine tasting visit to El Dorado County. Established by Greg and Susan Boeger in 1972 with four acres of Zinfandel planted on phylloxera-resistant St. George rootstock, it is the oldest winery in the County. Greg and Susan (together with Lloyd Walker: Zinfandel planted in 1968), are also credited with re-establishing winegrape-growing in El Dorado County—some forty years after the 1933 repeal of Prohibition. Their wine offerings today are impressive, featuring in addition to a consistently wonderful Estate Zinfandel from his 1972 plantings a benchmark Barbera and, most recently, a stunning Burgundian style Pinot Noir.
It took many years for Greg and Susan to achieve such quality and consistency—twenty years, Greg would say, to the early 1990s for his winemaking and viticulture practices to evolve into the style and quality he knew was possible on that land, especially as concerning Zinfandel. While Amador County was making a big splash with its Sutter Home “Deaver Vineyard” 1968 Zinfandel, the luscious high alcohol and intensely flavored, almost overripe, style of that blockbuster wine was not the style that El Dorado County could produce. In this higher elevation (2100+ feet), cooler region with its thinner, rockier soil, Greg had no modern regional precedents to draw inspiration from.
Furthermore, Greg was also interested in discovering what other premium varieties might do well in his vineyards besides Zinfandel, and so his Zins were mostly left to their own resources. After all, his property had remnants of old Zinfandel vines dating to the mid-1800s; Zinfandel had obviously survived, even thrived, in the region for 100 years. But the results of such laissez faire practices showed in many of the early vintages: they could be a bit weak, said Greg, with a lighter, more fruity character.
By 1990, with interest in the production of premium quality red Zinfandel increasing throughout the North Coast and Sierra Foothills, Greg found himself at a crossroads with his Zinfandel: should he pull out his 1972 UC Davis clone vines; or revisit his viticulture practices. Greg opted for the latter choice, specifically, leaf-pulling, to allow for more sun exposure on the clusters; and crop thinning, to develop more intensely flavored grapes, both somewhat new practices in California viticulture. These two practices brought about the dramatic improvements in his Zinfandel that he was seeking. “We were getting more intensity, more pepper, an inkier, thicker wine,” Greg said, that came with a luscious ripe plums character, and an enviable balance of acids and sugar associated with high elevation vineyards. (A Zinfandel Odyssey 94)
These wines became something of a benchmark for El Dorado County Zinfandel.
Boeger Winery had also found white varieties such as Chardonnay suited to the region and the soils, Barbera and, most recently, Pinot Noir.
The Pinot Noir is after the fashion of some of Burgundy’s more elegant and delicate PNs. A bewitching wine, it’s nothing like the PN’s you will find coming out of such low-elevation American Viticulture Areas (AVA) as the Carneros of Napa County, or Mendocino County’s Alexander Valley. I found Greg’s 2011 to be an elegant wine with delicate raspberry notes balanced with some understated spices and a long finish, a wine that should do well in a cool dark cellar for a couple or three more years. It’s a wine, however, that should you today put it before guests who appreciate European style wines, I recommend you have a backup bottle or two on hand!
What is even better, perhaps, about a visit to Boeger Winery (and all El Dorado County wineries) than tasting the exquisite wines is their prices. Although the quality can equal or surpass the quality of such wines from the more famous regions of Napa and Sonoma Counties, the prices are usually a point or two below the prices of the wines of these renowned wine regions. (Remember: Price is not a score!)
I didn’t get beyond Boeger Winery on this visit to El Dorado County, since my friend and I were also taking in Daffodil Hill, a few miles to the south, in Amador County, that morning.
So my favorites at the end of the day were Greg’s 2012 Zinfandel Estate (the fruit from the 1972 vines supplemented since the mid-1990s by fruit from his Old Vine cuttings grafted onto French Columbard rootstock), the 2009 Barbera Vineyard Select, and the 2011 Pinot Grand Reserve.
I made my first visit to Boeger Winery in 1996, when I was launching my investigation of the Sierra Foothill Zinfandels for my book, A Zinfandel Odyssey (2002), just in time to taste the impressive results of Greg’s new viticulture practices. With its unbroken 40-year history of family ownership, Boeger Winery provides its visitors a taste of history, a taste of the evolution of a tradition, in every sip of wine. Greg and Susan’s son, Justin, now the winemaker, ensures that the family tradition continues.
Established by Greg and Susan when they were just a couple of kids with a passion for their venture, Boeger Winery is a nice place to begin your exploration of the wines of the high Sierra Foothills, and to be reminded that there still are regions in California where family-owned “estate” wineries are the rule, a way of life, and not the exception.
Today, Boeger Winery is just one of a growing collection of family-owned estate wineries in El Dorado County dedicated to making hand-crafted wines that express the piece of ground the vines grown in. A visit to any of these estates will be memorable not only for the lovely wines at affordable prices but also for the rustic charm, warm hospitality, and spectacular views from many of the ridge top locations.