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Winery grows from grinding rocks and rattlesnakes

By Rick Chandler

Tribune Staff Writer

Editor’s note: Third in a three-part series.



“Wine improves with age. The older I get, the better I like it.”

— Anonymous.




Call it a melding of the future and the past; a marriage of modern science and local history. As such, Oakstone Winery can be considered a metaphor for the El Dorado County wine industry itself.

John Smith, the scientist, has a Ph.D. in analytical chemistry and spent his professional career in the design and development of scientific and medical instruments. But within months of moving to California from New York in 1988, Smith began a search for a small vineyard that might become a winery in retirement. He is now John Smith the winemaker, and it is a description that consumes him.

The property he found had acquired the name “De Cascabel,” from an episode during the clearing of the land when the removal of a large boulder revealed a nest of hibernating rattlesnakes (sepiente de cascabel is Spanish for rattlesnake).

But that is not all Smith found. The name Oakstone was coined due to the grinding rocks found on the property, used in past centuries (primarily by the Miwok tribe) to grind live oak acorns into edible meal. “When the property adjoining the original vineyard was purchased and combined to form the winery grounds, the owners discovered a black oak tree that had grown out of a huge granite grinding rock,” Smith said. “The rock had been fractured over the centuries, creating crevices large enough to walk through.”

The unusual natural feature serves today as both a monument to the Native Americans who once lived on the land and as a picturesque, shaded picnic ground.

“I never started out to own a winery,” said Smith, whose operation now produces 5,000 cases annually — featuring estate-grown Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, El Dorado Zinfandels and Chardonnay. “It started out as a hobby, grew to a passion and has turned into an obsession.”

Smith’s parents were both musicians — his father was a violin maker — and his brother is a cellist with the Philadelphia orchestra.

“For years I had searched for my own means of self expression,” he said. “Winemaking somehow matched with my artistic desire. It’s the opposite of science. In science, you repeat experiments. But in winemaking you never repeat the same experiment. You search for subtle clues and missing elements in the grapes and the environment. It’s a new, creative process every year.”

Smith has been heavily involved with the El Dorado Winery Association and the Fair Play Winery Association, and produces an industry newsletter, The Oakstone News, every month. Smith’s wife, Susan, is an educator at San Jose City College, and adds coordinating Oakstone’s tasting room to her other activities.

“A winery is a terrible investment,” Smith said. “You won’t get rich. You have to love it. But rugged individualism still persists out here, and I enjoy being a part of that.”

David Jones

Lava Cap Winery

“People only see the bottle on the shelf,” said David Jones. “I wonder how many realize how much of ourselves we dedicate to that product?”

Jones will be the first to admit that being a winery owner is not exactly easy pickings.

“The wine industry is a dynamic business, and we have to wear a lot of hats,” said Jones, whose Lava Cap Winery, located in Placerville, was purchased in 1981 and began production in 1986.

“A winery owner today has to be a farmer, a winemaker, a businessman and a salesman,” he said. “Each requires a different range of talents, and every year is a gamble.”

But Jones has been equal to the challenge. Lava Cap expanded in 1993, and is in the midst of another large expansion in which the winery will triple in size, to 14,000 square feet.

“We’re thriving right now, as is the El Dorado County wine industry as a whole,” he said.

Jones began with a 68-acre block, and now has about 125 acres. It is a family operation — wife Jean helps run things, and two of their four children are in the business.

Jones, who taught geology at UC Berkeley, retired from teaching in 1996 to devote his energy to the winery.

“When I was ready to buy a winery I looked all over the state,” he said. “But it’s hard to get access to land in Napa if you’re an outsider, and Mendocino was too far away. In 1980, the wine industry in El Dorado County was almost unheard of. But Boeger and Madrona were here, and I found some land right between the two.

“It was a real good spot, and we had an immediate crowd to draw on from Apple Hill. We grew. We were, and still are part of a dynamic, growing industry up here. It’s been a great experience.”

John MacCready

Sierra Vista Vineyards and Winery

At first blush, John and Barbara MacCready do not seem likely candidates to own a winery in El Dorado County. John, who earned a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the University of Missouri, was a college professor and designed computer equipment. Barbara, who owns degrees in mathematics and statistics, was involved in programming the first sub-orbital space flight for NASA.

“We made wine when we lived in Ohio, but we didn’t like the grapes out there so we came to California,” John said. “We found this place in El Dorado County (in Placerville), and it was reasonably priced. We planted five acres of Cabernet Sauvignon and we were on our way.”

That was in 1974, which makes the MacCreadys one of the founding members of the Sierra foothill wine industry. They have flourished there, and a daughter, Michelle, is being groomed to take over the operation.

“Michelle has a degree in biology from Lewis & Clark,” MacCready said, and she’s working at a winery in Australia now to gain experience.

“It’s a great life (running a winery), but you get to the point eventually where you can’t climb ladders.”

Sierra Vista’s signature attractions, aside from its Rhone-style wines and blends, is a spectacular Sierra view and a beautiful picnic area which is a particular favorite with tourists.

“It started out as a part-time thing, but we decided to make a real business out of it,” he said. “And we haven’t regretted it.”


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