Exploring the ‘Gold Rush’ Wineries of Apple Hill

still-lifeThe Gravenstein, Jonathon and Gala apples are in.

As October begins, Golden Delicious, McIntosh and Paula Reds are reaching full ripeness.

As the days start to get cooler, Mutsu, Empire and Red Gold apples will be picked.

And as November nears, it’ll be time to bring in the Honey Crisp, Pippin, Winesap, Granny Smith, Fuji, Pink Lady and Arkansas Blacks.

It’s apple harvest time in the California Gold Country area known as Apple Hill — home not only to apple orchards, but also acclaimed bake shops, Christmas tree farms and wineries.

In 1951, Floyd Bolster decided to retire in a Gold Rush community called Camino. He bought a ranch that had 10 acres of apple trees and dreamed of working his land and reaping the rewards of the life of a farmer.

Six years later, Bolster died, and his son Gene left his job in Southern California to go to the ranch and complete his father’s dream.

In 1964, Gene Bolster, along with Dick Bethell, the county’s pomology specialist and farm advisor; Ed Delfino, the county’s agricultural commissioner; and Bob Tuck, a retired army officer, united to form the Apple Hill Growers Association. This is the association’s 50th year and Apple Hill continues to attract people from all over the world.

“There were about 16 ranchers back then,” said Bolster. “We usually gathered at Bob Tuck’s house at the end of the day and talked about how awful farming was. We’d had an awful pear blight and we had to do something to survive. Our major crop was pears.”

To this day, a few of the old pear orchards are still around.

“An orchard can produce for 50 years if it is taken care of,” said Bolster. But the pear blight took production from 52,000 tons in 1958 to 8,435 in 1965. A few of the ranchers had some apples planted, but pears had been the primary crop. It was time for a change.

Bolster and Delfino set out to discover a way to help the ranchers keep their farms and make the rich soil of Camino productive again. In 1962, they visited Oak Glen in Southern California.

“They had a successful marketing program, so we got a copy of their bylaws and improved on them,” Delfino said.

Armed with this information, they returned to Camino, gathered the local ranchers together and formed the growers’ association called Apple Hill.

“We faced competition from Washington state apples,” Bethell said, “but the growers in Camino had to do something.”

Bolster noted that the apples on the hill don’t have “that long shape,” like Washington apples. “They have longer days than we do, but we have an ideal growing season, with a long chilling season. In other words, the trees stay dormant longer. So while a Washington apple may look great, our apples have better flavor.”

The local winery owners are equally proud of their products. In fact, Apple Hill also is home to pioneers and innovators in winemaking.  You’ll find family-run wineries working at nature’s pace, making small lots of wines from an intriguing variety of grapes.

Wineries that call Apple Hill home include:

  • Boeger Winery — A friendly, knowledgeable tasting room staff, divine outdoor areas for picnics, a beautiful visitor center and gift shop, and a venerable cellar are highlights of this historic estate. www.boegerwinery.com
  • Fenton Herriott Vineyards — A family owned and operated winery that began producing wines in 2003. Among the unusual bottlings are a Ruby Syrah Port and a White Port. www.fentonherriott.com
  • Lava Cap Winery — The Jones family planted its first vines in 1981 and opened the winery in 1986 on a special site in the heart of the Sierra Foothills. The family of geologists specifically selected this location for its prime volcanic soil that is particularly well suited to growing fine wine grapes. They named their new business after this unique “lava cap.” www.lavacap.com
  • Madroña Vineyards — A pioneer in high-elevation winemaking, Madroña makes exceptional wines that powerfully express the exquisite nature of its diverse hillside vineyards. Each of its wines is unique, telling its own story of grape variety, terroir and vintage. http://madronavineyards.com
  • Wofford Acres — After years of making wine for others, Paul Wofford founded his own winery in Camino, and continues to win gold medals vintage after vintage. In the past, you may have experienced his deft touch in the cellars of Clos du Val, Zaca Mesa, Martin Ray and/or Bargetto. www.wavwines.com
  • Grace Patriot — The estate grapes of Grace Vineyards and the winery are on an historic piece of property that originally was the Irving Ranch. Established in 1890, the ranch was ideally situated along the Pony Express route, and the Irving family was one of the founding members of Apple Hill. The integrity of the property’s history has been preserved, and today’s vineyards surround the original Irving barn and ranch house. http://gracepatriotwines.com

A day spent among Apple Hill wineries is a day you’ll discover that quality craftsmanship in California Gold Country isn’t restricted to baked goods.

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For further information on the wineries of Apple Hill, click here: www.applehillwineries.com

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