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It’s almost a cliché in articles about less-developed wine regions to say, “It’s like Napa before it became famous.”

But it’s certainly true of El Dorado County and its wineries. While most of its wineries are in the hills and mountains, not in a flat valley, the similarities to Napa in the 1950s and ’60s are many: Few wineries, few inns and restaurants and many amateur winemakers who’ve gone pro.

The best-known wines are those Napa Valley was once filled with: petite sirah, zinfandel, a random assortment of red and white grapes. Some of the wines are excellent wines comparable to others produced elsewhere in the state, but some are pretty rustic.

One of the area’s oldest wineries is even owned by members of the family that own the oldest continuously owned winery in Napa County, too. And unlike Napa, El Dorado County boasts reasonable prices.

All of this makes El Dorado, less than two hours away from Napa, a great place to spend a weekend. El Dorado. Its major town, historic Placerville — once called Hangtown for obvious reasons — boasts a hardware store unlike any other. Among its stock, Placerville Hardware carries gold-mining equipment.

Although the Gold Rush, which started at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma near Placerville, only played a few years, locals still pan for gold, and a clerk at Placerville Hardware proudly showed us a photo of a huge nugget he had uncovered.

Gold and wine are forever linked in El Dorado County — the county name means “the Golden One.” Many early prospectors figured that they could make more money selling wine to the miners than panning gold themselves, however, and planted vines.

John Sutter and James Marshall, early figures in the gold discovery, planted vines as early as 1848 near El Dorado, and Claude Chana and Pierre Theodore Sicard planted vines there from the vineyard at Mission San Jose in present-day Fremont.

The first vineyard in El Dorado was planted in 1852. It was mission grapevines, the first grape the friars planted for sacramental wine, but not ideal for good wine. It was often turned into Angelica, mission grape juice and brandy, and a few wineries still make it in El Dorado County.

Later, growers planted a panoply of varieties including zinfandel, various whites and muscats and malvasias, which they often fermented together. They also planted hearty native American varieties and hybrids, though thankfully, those aren’t grown for wine anymore.

By 1904, the county contained 2,100 acres of grapevines, its peak up to then and still above today’s figure.

Phylloxera, the Depression and Prohibition, however, devastated the industry, and by 1938, only 230 acres remained in the county. That dropped to 11 acres in 1966, fewer than in the first census in 1855.

Many of the vineyards were replanted in pears. Ironically, a disease later killed the pears, opening the way for the return of grapes.

In addition, apples became a big draw, and an area called Apple Hill boasts many orchards and businesses that attract tourists. Many stop in local winery tasting rooms when they visit apple country.

Newcomers bring vines

Although less dramatically than in Napa, El Dorado County’s wine business was reborn when newcomers discovered the area. Its mountain and hills, where grapes grow at 1,400 to 3,000 feet, provide conditions similar to Napa’s mountain vineyards, and the area is above the fog belt. And the land is far less expensive than Napa’s.

In 1972, UC Davis ag/viticulture graduate Greg Boeger, the grandson of Napa’s Anton Nichelini, bought the old Lombardo/Fasotti Winery and established a new wine business. Today, the winery produces 20,000 cases and is the county’s largest winery. Its tasting room is modern, but the old wine cellar has been restored for special uses.

Other pioneers included Les Russell, original owner of Granite Springs Winery, Lava Cap, Sierra Vista, and Dick Bush of Madroña Vineyards, whose vineyard lies at 3,000 feet. Mike and Carey Skinner built a modern winery in honor of his family’s old Skinner Winery, founded in 1861.

Today, the county has more than 70 wineries, with most making only a few thousand cases per year. The county may be best known for zinfandel but that’s really the specialty of neighboring Amador County.

Diversity rules

One thing that characterizes El Dorado’s wines is their diversity. Perhaps the growers haven’t yet found the area’s signature variety, but growing conditions are so diverse, that may not be possible. Some have suggested petite sirah, which seems especially suited to the area, but many other varieties are grown.

Boeger, for example, grows 31 varieties and Madroña 29. Windwalker Winery produces 30 different wines, although most of the wineries buy and sell grapes to each other as most plots are small.

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Since the climate isn’t very different from the mountains of Napa County, varieties like cabernet and other Bordeaux grapes should do well, but many growers have had great luck with Rhone varieties like syrah.

A few, like Italian-American Nello Olivo, specialize in Italian varieties, and they also find the climate compatible. Most of the wines are red, though some whites, often not chardonnay or sauvignon blanc, also seem to prosper.

Some of the wineries are modern operations and many have trained winemakers, but others are home winemakers who’ve gone into business and some of the wineries and tasting rooms are quite rustic.

One standout winery is Cedarville Vineyard in Fair Play, owned by UC-educated winemakers and viticulturists Jonathan Lachs and Susan Marks. It even has a cave, rare in this topology. It was made by digging out the hillside and building a structure, then covering it with earth.

Organic and even biodynamic vineyards are common. Narrow Gate Vineyards is among the latter.

A visit to El Dorado County seems like a relaxing trip into Napa’s past, too. There’s plenty to see and taste, and it’s kind to wallets used to Napa prices.

If you visit

We stayed in bucolic Eden Vale Inn about 15 minutes outside Placerville. Although it has only seven rooms, it’s luxurious and serves excellent breakfasts. Owners Mark and Gayle Hamlin are most welcoming and we even enjoyed pizza from their wood-burning oven with some winemakers and owners and s’mores around the fire pit.

You don’t want to miss touring downtown Placerville. You can even take an interesting historical walking tour led by Don Uelmen. Definitely check out Placerville Hardware.

There are many places to eat, many fairly basic, but the Smith Flat House offers innovative cuisine.

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