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Call of the Winery: Offering cheaper land and a slower pace, El Dorado County is drawing newcomers who want to hop on wine bandwagon.

By Mike Lee -- Bee Staff Writer
Published 2:15 am PDT Friday, July 2, 2004

Wine bottles await tasters at Sierra Vista Winery in Placerville. Owner John MacCready is a winery veteran in El Dorado County, having started growing grapes there 32 years ago. Sacramento Bee/Brian Baer

Priced out of Napa and California's other well-known wine havens, Frank and Teena Hildebrand planted their dream in the Sierra foothills.
Four years after plunking down $610,000 for 91 acres in Pleasant Valley, the former members of the Huntington Beach set opened El Dorado County's newest winery on June 1.

But Narrow Gate Winery didn't hold that distinction for long. On June 26, John and Judi Alexander uncorked Colibri Ridge Winery a few miles away in the Fair Play area.

From their perch, Frank Hildebrand can spy a patch of dark earth being prepared by an Arizona transplant seeking the same Sierra dream.

"Little wineries ... seem to sprout up every day up here," said Betty McIntire, director of the county winery association.

Napa and Sonoma lead the state with more than 200 wineries each, according to a June report by the Wine Institute of San Francisco. Wineries are cropping up so quickly that the report is already outdated. It pegged El Dorado at 32 wineries, followed closely by neighboring Amador County with 25.

"It's pretty much a case of people wanting to get on the bandwagon," said Leon Sobon, the founder of Shenandoah Vineyards in Amador County. "They think it's a real romantic business and it is - for the first week or so."

Over the decades, Sobon has seen some would-be winemakers get discouraged and quit. Instead of glamour, they find worries about the weather, physical labor and lots of waiting - waiting for grapes to ripen, juice to ferment and customers to arrive.

"Pretty soon," said Sobon, "people ... don't have enough money coming in."

But enough have stuck around in El Dorado that a new report by agriculture officials estimates that industry-related spending in the county rose 4 percent to $170 million in 2003. That includes wine sales, tourism spending, employee salaries and other spinoffs.

Since 1994, the acreage in the county that bears wine grapes has doubled, as has the value of the county's grapes, which topped $4.4 million in 2003.

While the numbers are still small compared with Napa-Sonoma, they are large enough to attract restaurants and bed-and-breakfast inns. That's critical as El Dorado tries to solidify itself as a destination rather than a curiosity for Tahoe tourists.

"People come up here on purpose," said John Alexander at Colibri Ridge. "It's not by mistake anymore."

Like most in the industry, he predicts more growth driven by relatively inexpensive land, unique soils and a slower pace of life, though some prospects could be dampened by an overall wine industry slump.

El Dorado's growth spurt took off when the wine industry was flying high in the late 1990s, the same time the Hildebrands were looking for a simpler life.

They discovered Placerville on a trip to Lake Tahoe and were attracted by land prices far below what they found on the California coast. They were sold when they tasted local wines.

Four years and about $1 million later, they are the proud owners of an understated red-roofed stucco winery tucked in a stand of Ponderosa pines on what used to be a cattle ranch. Up the hill sit 12 acres of vines, still years from maturity.

To cut costs, the Hildebrands have done almost everything around the vineyard and winery themselves, including chipping holes for young vines out of solid rock with a pickax.

"I am part of every (work) crew that we have ever had," said Frank Hildebrand.

The glamour wore off long ago, but reality didn't diminish the couple's passion. "We lived that really fast-paced ... making-lots-of-money kind of lifestyle, and it was just not fulfilling," said Teena Hildebrand, who helps pay the bills by working for a Bay Area wine distributor. "Now we are humble farmers."

But they are the educated kind. Frank Hildebrand studied agricultural economics at the University of California, Davis, before pursuing a career in sales. By 2002, when he lost his job in a company takeover, he was the West Coast vice president of a major fashion distributor.

During long business trips, he began to develop a passion for wine. "When I should have been prepping for meetings, I was studying how to plant my vineyard," he said.

Along with years of preparation, the Hildebrands have relied on the help of veterans like John MacCready, who started growing grapes in El Dorado County 32 years ago and built Sierra Vista Winery into a landmark near Narrow Gate.

MacCready said his neighbors are doing the right things, and that's good for everyone interested in improving the county's wine. "It's competition, of course, but that means we have to do a better job," he said.


About the Writer: The Bee's Mike Lee can be reached at (916) 321-1102 or mflee@sacbee.com.

Sisters Suzanne Curtis, left, of Gold River and Rebecca Kinyon of Carmichael celebrate their birthdays at a wine-tasting event at Sierra Vista Winery in Placerville. El Dorado County ranks sixth in the state with 34 wineries. Sacramento Bee/Brian Baer

Sacramento Bee/Brian Baer

Sources: El Dorado Winery Association; Bee research Sacramento Bee/Olivia Nguyen


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