Winery owners carving a place in ‘vino’ history |

Winery owners carving a place in ‘vino’ history

In the beginning, there was gold.

And as the masses swarmed into the Sierra foothills to seek their fortunes, mining communities were pressed to produce their own wine and spirits, due to lack of transportation and primitive roads.

Then there were grapes.

The first grapevines were planted in the foothills in 1848 at Johnson’s Ranch, near the Placer/Sutter county line, by two ranchers who obtained vine cuttings from an old vineyard at Mission San Jose. By 1855, the wine industry was firmly planted in El Dorado County, with some 3,000 acres under cultivation.

But by 1954, there were only 54 acres of vineyards in the county; the single most important crop at this time being pears. But bad weather and disease caused a pear decline in the mid-1960s, and the county’s farmers needed a replacement.

That opened the door once again for the wine industry, which has grown to booming proportions. El Dorado County wineries produced 2,961 tons of wine grapes last year, with a total retail value of $3.1 million. But that doesn’t take into account the other influences on the economy that wineries promote, such as tourism. Overall, it is estimated that wineries were responsible for almost $50 million to the county’s economy last year.

There are currently 18 wineries in El Dorado county, and their respective owners are an eclectic mix of visionaries, entrepreneurs and even scientists, who at one point in their careers discovered that they longed to, somehow, return to the land. Most came to the West Slope to take advantage of relatively cheap land and unique weather, which have subsequently served to produce some of the finest wines in the world.

Just as it was with their Gold Rush forebearers, these men came to the Sierra foothills seeking opportunity, and created a legacy.

Dick Bush, Madrona Vineyards

Dick and Leslie Bush are two of the new pioneers in the county’s wine industry – they were there in the beginning, when it was no cinch that a winery would make it in El Dorado County.

Bush purchased a 52-acre parcel five miles east of Placerville, in Camino, in 1972, planting 35 acres with grapes the following year. By 1980, he had a winery in operation – Madrona Vineyards.

“In the beginning, it looked like it would be an interesting part-time job.” said Bush, a former engineer with the Ford Research Lab in Dearborn, Mich. Born in Washington D.C. and raised in Vallejo, Calif. Bush graduated from Stanford University with a PhD in Materials Science and a Masters in engineering, and was a partner in an engineering consultant firm when he decided to go into the winery business.

“I’ve always liked this area of the country, my wife is from here, and the climate is good for grapes. We have a lot of advantages over Napa, because our climate is more uniform.”

Madrona specializes in premium estate bottled wines – or table and desert wines, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Gewrztraminer. Madrona produced about 10,000 cases last year, most sold retail.

Leslie Bush is a teacher, and two of their sons are also in the wine business – Paul manages the Madrona operation, and David has a vineyard nearby on Pleasant Valley Road.

One might say that the children enjoyed a varied education – Bush taught American School in Africa for two years in the 1970s.

“We lived in Zaire, and Leslie and I both taught,” he said. “It was an interesting experience for our (four) kids. Getting out and seeing other cultures really allows you appreciate what you have here in the U.S.”

The family recently planted 40 additional acres, and plan to expand overall operations by 40 percent over the next two years.

Michael Chasen, Perry Creek Vineyards

It has been 10 years since Michael Chasen happened on the Sierra foothill wine scene, purely by accident.

“I was driving to Reno to go to the rodeo,” said Chasen, a New York native who owns his own textile business. “Suddenly I started passing all these signs, advertising land for sale. They were like Burma Shave signs, with a different, rhyming phrase on each one.

“I wrote down the number of the broker, and the rest is history.”

Chasen found that piece of property not to his liking, but soon found another – 155 acres in the Fair Play area that he fell in love with.

Today, 70 acres are planted with grapes, with 85 percent producing Estate wines. The Perry Creek facility produces about 30,000 cases a year, in about 14 varieties, making it one of the two largest wineries in the county (Boeger Winery is the other).

“My concept was to build a facility for people to enjoy themselves, not necessarily to taste wine,” said Chasen. “It’s a place where people can just sit and have a good time.”

But the winery is a reflection of Chasen’s own personality, which means one will have a hard time just sitting in one place. Chasen’s classic car collection is there, featuring Model A’s, motorcycles and even a vintage Rolls Royce, with a few mini-cars thrown in. There’s a cigar humidor room, a mission-style tasting room, and of course “Zin Man” (for Zinfandel), the official Perry Creek mascot that graces the apparel in the gift shop.

Apparel, you see, is how Chasen made his first million – co-founding a successful textile business based in southern California and southeast Asia, which produces sweaters and other articles of clothing for manufacturers all over the world, including Bugle Boy and Hagar. Chasen used to spend six months of the year out of the country on business.

“But now I’m 100 percent in the winery business,” he said. “I still travel, but not as much. It’s amazing how running a winery can consume you, become a passion.”

And Chasen believes that this is only the beginning for El Dorado County winery owners.

“There’s a barrel of opportunity up here,” he said. “We provide world-class wines, winning medals and competitions against all those big guys on the North Coast. We can go head-to-head, glass-to-glass with anyone. And people are just starting to realize we’re here.”

Next week: Greg Boeger (Boeger Winery), Frank Latcham (Latcham Vineyards), David Jones (Lava Cap), John Smith (Oakstone), John and Barbara MacCready (Sierra Vista).

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