Living in wine country is just as much fun as you would imagine. It’s just a short jaunt to world-class wine tasting (and we take advantage of this often), there are wine-related events every weekend throughout the summer and fall, all of the restaurants in our region have great wine lists, and we are making friends with winemakers and winery owners in the area.
The first few years we lived here we made it a point to visit all of the wineries in El Dorado County so we could become familiar with the distinct characteristics of the region and the quality of the wines here. During each of our first two summers we hosted a wine-tasting retreat at Reverie that included visits to three wineries and culminated in a multi-course dinner paired with local wines. To prepare for those retreats we had to work really hard to visit all the wineries in time to choose good ones. Who knew tasting wine could actually be considered work? But one day close to our deadline we had a grueling tasting schedule of 10 wineries. I definitely had to spit out, rather than swallow, most of the wine we tasted that day or there was no way I was going to make it to the end.
We were looking for good wine, of course, but we were also seeking out varied experiences for our guests that showcased the intimacy and personal connection of this region. What we discovered is that there are many small mom-and-pop wineries in the area where you can taste wine without a tasting fee and where the owners and/or winemaker are the ones pouring you the wine you taste in your glass. It felt like Sonoma or the Russian River Valley did when I first started seriously tasting wine back in the early 1990s. And we also discovered that there is great wine here that is a great value in comparison to other more famous wine tasting regions in California or even Oregon and Washington. But I won’t lie – we also tasted some pretty awful wine (but that’s a risk even in the “great” wine regions).
Here are our current top three favorites in El Dorado County, with two honorable mentions.
Located in the Fairplay wine region about 20 minutes south of Placerville, Gwinllan Estates is owned by Chris and Gordon Pack. Their son Jonathan is the winemaker and vineyard manager, and he is definitely elevating the quality of wine in this region. He consults for other winemakers in the area as well. The tasting room, always staffed by at least one of the three family members, is at the top of a ridge with beautiful views of the vineyards and oak groves below. The actual tasting takes place in a wine cave that Gordon built himself.
While the El Dorado County growing climate and terrain heavily favor red grape varietals, and Gwinllan certainly has several outstanding choices, they also have a very nice Chardonnay (and I’m not often a fan of Chardonnay). And I’m especially excited about their first sparkling wine, which ranks right up there with the best of the California sparkling wines. The Blanc de Blanc California Champagne, Méthode Champenoise won Best in Class Premium Sparkling Wine at the Orange County Fair 2016.
They could certainly use a better website, but don’t let the quality of their website put you off on visiting. www.gwinllanestate.com It’s a stunning place with great wine and truly lovely people who clearly care immensely about their craft. And be sure to throw a few balls for their three border collies while you are there.
Located conveniently right across the street from Gwinllan is MV Winery, owned by John and Cindi Miller. They specialize in big bold reds. One of my favorites is their Tempranillo, but really, you can’t go wrong with any of their wines. I don’t think I’ve had a wine from them I didn’t love. In the last few years they started making rosé as well. It’s expensive – definitely more than I would normally pay for a rosé — but it was that good so we can’t help but buy more every time we visit them. When Ramon’s sister and her partner Arthur were visiting last month we took them to some of our favorite wineries, including MV, where we arrived late in the afternoon about a half hour before they were closing. There were no other guests, so we sat out on the porch and they brought the wines out to us, along with a big plate of cheese, crackers and fruit (gratis, they just showed up with it!). Once the tasting room closed both Cindi and John joined us out on the deck and we had a lovely late summer evening hanging out drinking wine with them and hearing the local winery gossip.
This is the kind of experience it’s still possible to have in El Dorado County.
The tasting room is tiny, and is always staffed by either Cindi, John or their daughter Kristi so you get the chance to meet the owners and learn first-hand about the wine. Outdoors there is a picnic area and a bocce ball court. www.mvwinery.com
David Girard Vineyards
David Girard Vineyards is a slightly larger operation than the previous two, located a bit out of the way from most of the other wineries in El Dorado County, about 10 miles north of Placerville off of Hwy 49 near Lotus/Coloma (where gold was discovered). For now they are only doing tastings by appointment since they are transitioning their winery to being fully organic over the next few years, which means their inventory of wine will be low until they make the full transition. They offer a really fun full-experience tasting that includes a motorized tour of the vineyards and property, combined with a sit-down wine and cheese pairing. Rob Edwards, their general manager, usually does the tours and he combines his theater background with a rich knowledge of local lore to create a highly entertaining experience. The property is absolutely stunning, so the tour is a really great way to take it all in. If you aren’t up for the full tour but just want to do some quick tasting, all you have to do is call them a little bit in advance to schedule a tasting.
They specialize in grapes that are traditionally grown in the Rhone Valley in France, with both red and white selections. They also have a really nice rosé. www.davidgirardvineyards.com
Jodar, located in the Apple Hill region, certainly has good wines. But what really makes this winery stand out is the tasting room manager, Mitch Foster. I guarantee if he is in the tasting room you will not stop laughing the entire time you are there. He manages to describe the wines in hilarious terms, bordering on inappropriate at times. But he also really knows his stuff and will steer you well toward wines the fit your taste, and offer great suggestions on how to pair them with food. www.jodarwinery.com
Skinner wines regularly end up on the SF Chronicle’s Top 100 wine list and for good reason. They are easy drinking and approachable, but still have a lot going on. But one of the best reasons to visit Skinner is their incredible views. You can taste wine on the deck overlooking the valley and the sierra mountain range for an incredible distance. They do charge a $10 tasting fee, the only of the bunch that does, but it’s waived upon purchase of wine. This one definitely has a bigger, less personal feel – you won’t run into the owners or winemaker here—but the wines are great and the experience is really lovely, so that’s why they get an honorable mention on this list. www.skinnervineyards.com