Imagine a wine region nestled high in the mountains, home to one of the most famous skiing regions in the world, exciting white water rafting, and with bears wandering in the vineyards. This is El Dorado County wine country nestled in the Sierra Foothills of California, but many people have never heard of the 65 wineries that exist in this region. El Dorado is grappling with an issue that plagues many emerging wine regions – how to differentiate itself and gain national attention for its delicious wines.
About El Dorado County AVA (American Viticulture Area)
El Dorado County is the birthplace of the California Gold Rush, and home to Lake Tahoe ski area as well as many other outdoor recreational parks and activities. Though El Dorado vineyards were originally planted during the Gold Rush in the 1850’s, many didn’t survive Prohibition. However a few winemakers started planting new vineyards in El Dorado in the late 1960’s, and today the region has over 2000 acres of vines. The wineries there now produce 80 different varieties, ranging from chardonnay and albarino to zinfandel and mourvèdre.
A major distinguishing factor of the region is that they possess the highest elevation vineyards in the state of California – ranging between 1200 to 3500 feet. This means they often have snow on the vines during the winter, and have a later ripening season. At the same time they have longer daylight hours and high UV radiation during the summer, allowing them to produce grapes with more intensity and color. The region could be compared to higher altitude vineyards in Northern Italy, such as Trentodoc, Alto Adige and parts of Piedmont.
“Another differentiating factor about El Dorado County,” says Paul Bush, owner of Madrona Vineyards, “is that there are no corporate wineries here. We are all small family run estates and sell the majority of our wine directly to consumers.”
Fortunately the regions has many tourists, lured to the ski resorts in the winter, the lakes and rivers in the summer, and to shop at the many local farm stands that dot the area. “Many people come from the cities to buy our blueberries, apples and plums in the spring,” says Bush, “and then return again later to purchase peaches, pears, and nectarines, along with all of our fresh vegetables. In the winter they drive up to buy our Christmas trees. Each time they stop and buy a case of wine.”
However, during Covid, wines sales were more challenging. “We came in every day and said ‘what can we do to sell wine,’” recalls Jennifer Hunt, Director of Hospitality of Starfield Vineyard. “We put together special packages and discounts for our local wine club members, and encouraged visitors to drive up to hike through all of our vineyard trails.” In the end, their wine sales were actually higher during Covid than the previous year.
The Challenge of Being an Emerging Wine Region
“Emerging regions like El Dorado are made up of small winery businesses that alone can’t compete with more established regions in terms of funding resources,” says Lee Hodo, a PR & Marketing consultant who has been working with El Dorado wineries.
So without a lot of funding resources, how can a relatively unknown wine region manage to gain the attention of wine lovers? Some guidelines can be found in the archives of wine tourism research, specifically that conducted by Dr. Steve Charters, a professor at the Burgundy School of Business, who identified several critical success factors necessary to propel a wine region to fame.
Success Factor #1: Collaboration Between Major Wineries in the Region
A key success factor is collaboration between wineries in a region, combined with solid leadership. A good example is the role that Robert Mondavi played in Napa Valley, when he encouraged the wineries to come together and promote Napa Valley as a whole, rather than just their individual wineries. Charters refers to this as ‘cohesion of actors’ and ‘willingness to accept a territorial brand.’
El Dorado County has made some good progress on this front, with the development of the El Dorado Winery Association, which has a goal of promoting the appellation for its members. Also, the majority of the wineries seem to support one another. Just recently a group of eight wineries, labeling themselves the El Dorado Eight, have worked together to bring media attention to the region.
A complicating factor is that the El Dorado AVA is actually just one of eight counties that make up the larger Sierra Foothills AVA – see chart. Tourists are often confused by this, and have a tendency to group all the counties together. For example, Amador County AVA, the next door neighbor of El Dorado has more than 80 wineries, whereas Mariposa AVA near Yosemite only has around 12. Altogether the Sierra Foothills AVA is estimated to have around 200 wineries, according to Guy Tucker, author of the Foothills Wino blog.
Success Factor #2: Identification of an Icon Product for the Wine Region
Charters’ research also shows that most successful wine regions have an “icon product” for which they are known. This can be a specific grape variety, such as cabernet sauvignon in Napa Valley, a signature blend, such as the Southern Rhone, Bordeaux, and Chianti, or even a unique winemaking/viticulture style, such as the qveri of Georgia and the 500-year old wreath vines of Santorini.
Here is where El Dorado County, and the Sierra Foothills AVA as a whole, encounters a challenge. They do not yet have an icon product for which they are known. However, there is much discussion amongst the wineries about the issue. Some believe it should be zinfandel, because that is what they grow the most (see chart). Others believe they should focus on Italian varieties such as Barbera and Sangiovese, whereas another faction thinks the answer is Rhone varieties.
“The majority of us produce some type of Rhone varieties, which perform well here,” says Nolan Jones of Lava Cap Winery. “However, our biggest seller for our winery is our chardonnay.”
“Rhone varieties such as syrah, grenache, mourvèdre and viognier shine here,” Christine Delfino of Edio Vineyards agrees, “but at the same time Spanish varieties like albarino are also excellent.”
Success Factor #3: A Common Story – The Bears Know Best?
Another critical success factor of successful wine regions is that there is a ‘common story’ about what makes the region special. This is communicated by wineries to consumers, on websites, in brochures, and to the media. It always includes the icon product, as well as other special attributes, such as regional tourism spots and the special taste of the wines.
El Dorado County AVA excels in attracting tourists to the region, but they are still working on the common story. “We have conducted some blind tastings of our wines,” reports Hodo, “and there are some common descriptors that emerge again and again. Everyone agrees that the wines are fresh, bright, and often have an aroma of ‘Sierra spice,’ similar to Christmas tree spices, such as allspice, clove, and ginger with a hint of pine.”
Meanwhile, as the El Dorado County wineries continue to discuss their icon product and common story, it is possible that the bears may already know the answer. “Every year the bears break through my fence and eat several rows of my mourvèdre grapes,” reports Gordon Pack, owner of Gwinllan Estate. “They automatically know when the grapes are ripe.”
Bush of Madrona Vineyards agrees. “There is something about mourvèdre that just attracts bears. They seem to like the smell of that variety of grape.”
Mourvèdre is one of the three major grapes that go into Rhone blends, along with syrah and grenache. Perhaps the bears are on the right track, and Rhone blends could be the icon product of El Dorado County AVA.