Apple Pie + Zinfandel
The damp, rural road, just a few minutes outside of Placerville, California, wound its way through bright green vineyards. Rain was in the forecast, but so far we’d avoided it; the clouds tampered with the sunlight, highlighting the soft buds that broke on the vines that weekend. We were just a few hours above Fresno, east of Sacramento, near Apple Hill. Our three kids and dog were packed in the car, and we were on a mission to enjoy the family and dog-friendly nature of a wine region that still feels undiscovered and secluded, despite its popularity.
Placerville, often referred to by the more infamous nickname “Hangtown” (for its numerous hangings during the California Gold Rush), was bursting at its tiny seams with people walking their dogs, drinking coffee, and dining at one of the many eclectic restaurants housed in the unique downtown buildings along Main Street. Just a few steps from a bell tower (that was constructed in 1865 to alert the town in the event of a fire), we ate lunch on the dog-friendly patio of Sweetie Pies. Built that same year, the converted Victorian home is rumored to have once been owned by the sheriff of “Hangtown,” and was converted into a restaurant specializing in home-cooked food in the 1990s. Soon after, we wandered down Main Street, taking in the small wine stores, coffee shops, restaurants, and gift shops. The copper ceilings and wood floor of the Hangman’s Tree Ice Cream Saloon on Main Street hardly alluded to the fact that it opened only a year prior, after an extensive renovation; the owner’s effort to preserve the original character of the saloon above the infamous “hanging tree,” complete with a look-alike door and original flooring, makes patrons feel like they are walking back in time.
Just a few miles from Main Street, in nearby Shingle Springs, we arrived at our first winery. The expansive, shady grounds of Cielo Winery, set on forty-one acres, offers picnic space, a wedding venue, a place for summer concerts, and a tasting room (complete with kids’ area on the porch). The kids played nearby in the grassy area with our dog while we walked around the grounds, getting our first look at the budding Sangiovese vines.
We drove up the road before arriving at 24 Carrot Farm, a small, roadside, urban farm in Apple Hill. Specializing in you-pick wildflowers and certified organic produce, the farm opened shortly after we got an exclusive tour—offering yoga classes, fresh-baked bread, and a quiet reflection area (where wooden chairs overlook a small pond), the farm’s rustic charm was obvious.
The idealism of Apple Hill’s charm continued; a few minutes later, we were cuddling a winery puppy and sipping a rich, bold Petite Syrah on the lush grounds of the Boeger Winery, where well-behaved dogs are even welcome in the tasting room. The first post-prohibition winery to open in El Dorado County, we viewed the historic wine cellar with Greg Boeger and toured the art studio where his daughter paints. We saw the blacksmith quarters, and laughed about dogs and wine with the Boeger family, enjoying the hospitality of some of the friendliest hosts in El Dorado.
By the time we reached Mill View Ranch, we were both exhilarated and exhausted, yet we still poured out onto the grounds, our kids taking advantage of the swings and teeter-totter while we admired the ranch’s fresh-baked apple pie.
Up the road, we stopped at the roadside barn that constitutes the storefront of Smokey Ridge Ranch. It was closed to the public when we got there, but a small display of the ranch’s specialty jams and mustards were neatly strewn on a checkered tablecloth for a private tasting. We walked the length of the ranch, under the shade of their apple trees, before returning to the barn for a wine tasting. At that point, seeing the doors open, a group of couples had wandered in; without hesitation (and indicative of Apple Hill hospitality and inclusion), the owners welcomed them to join the tasting. Collectively, we heard stories about the ranch’s namesake (Smokey the donkey), and left with bottles of wine and jars of jam tucked under our arms, with a sense of familiarity and friendship.
Shortly after, we settled down for dinner on the back porch of the Forester Pub and Grill, located in the heart of Apple Hill. With our dog still in tow and our kids playing football in the back of the restaurant’s grassy area, the small-town, local vibe of the restaurant was everywhere. Under a canopy of pine trees, we took in the luxury of this cozy and secluded place, complete with a pool table and wooden bar that stretched the length of the restaurant. Offering quality, homemade, reasonably-priced food, a wine list (that highlighted the best of the region’s winemakers), and homemade desserts in a casual atmosphere, the pub felt like a perfect fit for traveling families and locals alike.
We left Apple Hill content. If Napa is “Disneyland for adults,” El Dorado County is like the small, county fair where town residents pit their grandmother’s best apple pies against each other for a blue ribbon and bragging rights. It’s the place that everyone wants to go, and whatever it may lack in glamour it more than makes up for in authenticity and warmth. Just like apple pie, it’s real, and sweet, and genuine. It’s a place full of roadside stands, baked goods, organic farms, and wine, where everyone is welcomed with an unmatched openness.
The next day, we carried out our plan to drive to Lodi, on the way back home, to experience what many in the wine industry have labeled the unofficial “Zinfandel Capital of the World.” On a Sunday morning, shortly before 11 o’clock, we scoured the parking lot of Michael David Winery for space. Just a short distance from Highway 5, the popular winery and restaurant was packed with people and its parking lot was full, despite the time. The doors leading in from its center entrance were divided into two areas: the small bustling café and a farm store, offering vegetables and picnic supplies (like fresh-picked strawberries, salami, and gourmet cheese). The doors from the store opened up onto the massive park-like grounds, where a tasting room, tables, and chairs bordered the vineyards, and lounge areas were set up around rocky waterfalls, bocce ball courts, and a kids’ play area. Home to some of the most popular and coyly named Zinfandel wines on the market, the 7 Deadly Zins winemaker’s grounds reveal the fun, entertaining side the brand is known for. On the east side of the winery, gigantic tanks emblazoned with the carnival-inspired Freakshow Cab label offered an appropriate backdrop to the fun and vibrant outdoor area.
In the heart of downtown Lodi, in a small galley-like storefront, we opted for patio seating at Smack Pie Pizza. A pizza bar offering local Lodi wines, the restaurant sits next to the historic Woolworth building, in the center of Lodi’s diverse and varied dining scene. Around the corner, we wandered into an art gallery serving ice cream. The walls of the Double Dip Gallery showcase the work of Tony Segale, artist and owner. In addition to the handcrafted jewelry pieces of other local artists, the gallery serves up edible works of art by way of Gunther’s Ice Cream (from Sacramento), like their popular Mon-Petite Petit Sirah sorbet that is made exclusively for the gallery (using the Michael David label).
Headed home, we stopped at Durst Winery & Estate, where two friendly winery dogs greeted us as we pulled up to the tasting room. Located behind the Durst’s family home, an expansive grass yard stretches to meet wisteria-covered tables. Adirondack chairs and picnic blankets dotted the yard where families and young children enjoyed the spring day. Couples came and went from the tasting room, taking a bottle or two of wine out to the yard to enjoy. We grabbed a glass of Tempranillo and sat in the sun, our children and dog content to run around the yard with the gigantic plastic balls provided by the winery. Occasionally, one of the dogs would meander over for a belly rub from one of the available kids in the yard, taking advantage of the extra attention.
Reluctant but satisfied, we drove away from the second wine region that weekend cognizant that we were only a few hours away from the types of wine, dining, and entertainment culture that so many of us expect from larger wine regions. We passed winery directional signs on the way home, each pointing a different way to a new place we have yet to discover—we took note and vowed to return.
For more information about visiting El Dorado County’s wine region, go to Visit-ElDorado.com, and to learn about visiting Lodi’s wine region, check out VisitLodi.com.