County grape growers rush to collect final crush
PLACERVILLE – Three West Slope families have taken advanced education and determination to achieve one common goal, to produce great tasting wine.
The owners of Fitzpatrick, Single Leaf and Sierra Vista wineries are just three of 18 vineyards continuing more than a century of grape growing tradition in El Dorado County.
The first grapevines were planted in the Sierra foothills in 1848 at Johnson’s Ranch, near the Placer/Sutter County line. By 1900, 5,000 acres of grapes were under cultivation.
Last year 1,349 acres of grapes were harvested, according to the county agricultural department, bringing in $3,880,200 for 3,345 tons of grapes.
This translated into $23 million in wine sales and more than $13.6 million in tourism revenue.
However, county Tourism Director Susan Sutton said winery owners like the Fitzpatricks would like to keep their Fair Play area quaint so it doesn’t reach the large commercial setting of Napa.
Brian Fitzpatrick and his wife Diana celebrated their 21st grape crush this season at their winery and bed and breakfast in Fair Play.
A soil and water specialist, Brian Fitzpatrick was the first grower to produce organic wine in the Sierra foothills.
Fitzpatrick said he doesn’t use any chemicals or pesticides to kill weeds in the vineyards for safety and ecological reasons.
“If you can (grow organically), then why not do it,” Fitzpatrick said.
Despite many misconceptions, Fitzpatrick said sulfites are still added to his wine, because he feels wines without sulfites are inferior.
“All my wines have sulfites because quality is No. 1 in the wine business,” he said. “It’s got to be quality oriented.”
Fitzpatrick said less than 1 percent of the population is hypersensitive to sulfites, which bond with oxygen to keep the wine from spoiling.
Fitzpatrick and his wife said they love running their vineyard and handcrafted log lodge that boasts five large guest suites, a wine tasting room, wine cellar and gift shop.
“It’s rewarding to see people enjoy,” Fitzpatrick said. “We open our whole life to our customers.”
– Single Leaf
Just a few miles up the road, Pam and Scott Miller, owners of Single Leaf Winery, crushed the last of their Zinfandel Monday before the rain could touch the delicate plants.
In 1988, the Millers left their jobs as a lobbyist and museum professional to run the vineyard.
“We wanted to get into something that’s more down to earth,” Pam said. “So, we left our corporate jobs and we’ve been a lot happier everyday here being dirty.”
Scott said having a microbiology major has helped him to learn the viticultural ropes, producing 5,000 cases of wine a year.
“All the local guys here have helped me over the years,” he said. One of whom is a psychiatrist who Pam Miller said closes his practice during the crushing season just to help out at Single Leaf.
She said fellow growers and local friends enjoy the end of the season by getting together to share the fruits of their labor.
“Life’s a little slower out here,” she said. “It’s a wonderful lifestyle.”
– Sierra Vista
Outside the Fair Play area sits Sierra Vista, a medium-size vineyard owned by John MacCready, his wife Barbara and daughter Michelle.
With a doctorate in electrical engineering, John MacCready bought his vineyard in 1972 and celebrated his first grape crush five years later.
“I wanted to live in one spot,” MacCready said of his decision to become a winemaker. “And there’s nothing better than a farm to live in one spot.”
With his statistician wife working the books and daughter co-running the fields, MacCready said he’s glad he’s stuck with his 40-acre vineyard.
“A couple of years ago we were going to sell it. But my daughter Michelle said, ‘You haven’t let me decide whether I want to run it,’ ” MacCready said. “Now (that she’s helping) we’re working harder than ever.”
Michelle MacCready, who has a degree in biology, has taken a course in sensory evaluation of wine and said she continues to use her skills to bring out different aromas and tastes within the varietals Sierra Vista produces.
“She has a wonderful pallet,” John MacCready said of his daughter smiling. “She could detect spices in different foods when she was little.”
MacCready said he is most proud of the Syrah varietal his winery has perfected over time.
“Syrah has a lot of good flavor,” he said. “It tends to be more soft like Merlot, but it has no tannin, just more flavor.”
There are more than 40 different wine varietals produced in the Sierra foothills, according to the El Dorado Wine Grape Growers Association.
Many are sold at the wineries and in stores and restaurants across the country.
Popular varietals include: Barbera, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Grenache, Merlot, Mourvedre, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah and Zinfandel.
For more information on El Dorado County wineries call the visitors authority, (530) 642-8029.
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