Situated just 90 minutes’ drive from Lake Tahoe in and around the Sierra Foothills town of Placerville, El Dorado County offers visitors a unique wine experience.
With more than 70 wineries and 800ha of vines, the rocky, mountainous region features high-altitude growing conditions (foothill vineyards sit between 365m to 975m) that offer long, warm dry days and cool to cold nights. This has made the region the perfect place to plant Rhône varieties, among others.
While El Dorado County may be one of the newest modern-day wine regions in California, there were actually vines planted and wines made here in the mid to late 1800s during the Gold Rush era. However, the region’s wine industry had virtually disappeared by the 1920’s, replaced by fruit, nut and later Christmas tree farms.
It wasn’t until the 1960s when a few pioneers began experimenting with planting vineyards, that the region reawoke to the potential for quality wines. Greg and Sue Boeger founded the first commercial winery in the region in 1973 and El Dorado became an official AVA (American Viticultural Area) in 1983.
Today, there is a burgeoning wine movement in El Dorado County, spearheaded by second- or third-generation locals who have returned home to contribute to the evolving wine industry, as well as multi-generational winemaking families.
Most wineries are within five to 20 minutes’ drive west or south of Placerville, in or near the tiny hamlets of Camino, Fairplay and Somerset.
El Dorado County: wineries to visit
David Girard Winery
Over the past 20 years, this estate has established a reputation for crafting elegant wines that convey a sense of place, particularly for its estate-grown Rhône varieties and blends. The focus is on the right vineyard sites and conditions for each variety rather than on manipulation or heavy oak treatments in the cellar.
At 425m elevation, the winery organically farms 14.5ha, most of which have been planted to Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Counoise, Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier, Grenache Blanc and Rolle.
Guests can book casual or formal indoor and outdoor tastings in the winery’s beautiful European-inspired villa or courtyard. The winery also offers cheese and wine pairing experiences and several vineyard tour options.
- Address: 741 Cold Springs Rd, Placerville
- Open: Thursday to Monday, 11am-4:30pm. Reservations required.
The connection between Skinner Vineyards’ modern-day origins and the history of the Skinner name in El Dorado County was made when present owners Kevin and Kathy Skinner discovered that James Skinner, a Scottish immigrant who relocated to El Dorado during the 1800s Gold Rush era and founded Skinner Ranch, was Kevin’s great, great, great grandfather. The couple purchased 10ha of vineyards near where the original Skinner Ranch had stood and started work on building the winery in 2007. Made with 80% recycled steel, and run on solar power, it is one of the most sustainable wineries in the region.
Since opening, the winery has focused almost solely on Rhône varieties, mostly from estate vineyards at 425m. Winemaking director Adam Smith (who returned to El Dorado County after making wine in Oregon’s Willamette Valley and on the Sonoma Coast) focuses on balance, elegance, subtlety and texture in his wines. Visitors can taste indoors or outdoors on the winery’s balcony, which overlooks the estate vineyards, and even bring a picnic or purchase bottles of wine to enjoy at their table.
- Address: 8054 Fair Play Rd, Somerset
- Open: Thursday to Monday, 11am-5pm. Reservations required.
Edio Vineyards at Delfino Farms
A rising star in El Dorado County, this 9ha organic family farm is one of the most picturesque in the Apple Hill/Camino area, set in a cool valley surrounded by trees and mountains.
Edio Delfino, an Italian immigrant who relocated from St Helena to take up the position of local Agriculture Commissioner, started it in the 1960s. Apples were the focus then, and Edio and his wife Joan ran both Delfino Farm and a bakery for decades.
Today, Edio’s four grandchildren run the winery, three of whom studied viticulture, winemaking, and agriculture before doing stints at respected wineries across Napa, Sonoma and the Central Coast.
Indoor or outdoor tastings offer visitors a unique experience, surrounded by vineyard and mountain views, and a lineup of fresh, balanced, varietally expressive wines.
- Address: 3205 N Canyon Rd, Bldg 1, Camino
- Open: Thursday to Monday, 11am-5pm
E16, named for the highway off of which the original vineyard was planted, offers guests tasting experiences in a unique subterranean tasting room.
The winery focuses on making terroir-driven wines from both their El Dorado County vineyards and select parcels from Russian River Valley. Visitors can try critically acclaimed estate-grown Rhône varietals and blends as well as Barbera, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
- Address: 8085 Perry Creek Rd, Somerset
- Open: Friday to Sunday, 11am-5pm for tastings. No reservations needed for the tasting bar but seated tastings must be booked in advance.
Self described as ‘a taste of Italy in the heart of El Dorado County’, Via Romano focuses on 100% Italian varietal wines (with the exception of a few blends) including Vermentino, Fiano, Friulano, Dolcetto, Primitivo, Sangiovese, and Barbera.
Guests can book a place in the winery’s barn-inspired tasting room (built in a renovated tractor shed) or outdoors at patio tables. The winery also offers a limited food menu between Friday and Sunday, including patio pizza nights with live music on Saturdays, brunch on Sundays and outdoor bocce courts.
- Address: 3400 Carson Court, Placerville
- Open: Daily, 12pm-5pm for tastings by reservation
Located in the heart of Apple Hill, less than a 15-minute drive from downtown Placerville, Madroña Vineyards is one of the highest-altitude estates in El Dorado County, with the three vineyards at 900m or more.
The winery grows an eclectic selection of Italian and German varieties, including Nebbiolo, Barbera, Riesling and Gewürztraminer, as well as most of the key Rhône and Bordeaux grapes. Tastings offered outdoors in Madroña’s forested picnic seating area or indoors in the tasting room.
- Address: 2560 High Hill Rd, Camino
- Open: Daily 11am-4pm for tastings. Call 530 644 5948 for reservations. Tours by appointment.
El Dorado County: where to eat and drink
Smith Flat House
Dating to 1853 (when Placerville was known as ‘Old Hangtown’), this historic building sits over a mine shaft, featuring tunnels dug during the Gold Rush era. Guests can get a glimpse of these if dining indoors. The restaurant also offers outdoor dining on its expansive patio, which often features live music by local musicians.
The menu is a mesh of old-school fine dining and modern-traditional fare, featuring a variety of seasonally inspired small plates, salads, pastas and mains. Expect substantial portions and friendly, professional service.
- Address: 2021 Smith Flat Rd, Placerville
A regular haunt of wine industry locals after work on weekends, thanks to its extensive selection (more than 40%) of El Dorado Wines and intimate, unpretentious atmosphere. The Winesmith doesn’t serve food, but allows guests to bring in snacks or meals to enjoy with purchased wine.
Guests can order a selection of more than 40 wines by the glass (from $9) or bottle (from $33 – discounts if you are taking away), making it a fun and affordable way to try new wines.
- Address: 346 Main St., Placerville
- Open: Thursday to Saturday, 12pm-10pm. No online bookings.
A favourite among locals, Heyday Cafe is on Main St in downtown Placerville, across the street from the Historic Cary House Hotel. The restaurant features a wide and eclectic selection of El Dorado County wines and offers a fun, casual atmosphere as well as friendly service.
Heyday’s menu changes based on what’s fresh and in season, and daily specials often feature locally sourced produce and wild-caught fish and meat.
- Address: 325 Main St, Placerville
- Open: Wednesday to Saturday, 11am-9pm. Call 530 626 9700 for reservations
Myka Cellars, next door to Via Romano in Apple Hill, is a great place to stop for lunch while out on the wine trail. The winery offers a small but appealing selection of small plates and lunch items that change weekly, and that can be enjoyed at one of the outdoor patio or garden tables – along with a glass, bottle or tasting selection of Myka wines.
- Address: 3405 Carson Ct, Camino
- Open: Sunday to Thursday, 11am-5pm, plus Friday and Saturday, 11am-6pm
A great place for a casual breakfast or grab-and-go cappuccino, chai or matcha latte, this café is like stepping back into the modern world, after the historic Gold Rush feel of Main Street in Placerville. The health-conscious menu includes gluten-free avocado toast, bagels with a variety of savoury toppings, muffins and other light fare, baked fresh each morning.
- Address: 312 Main St, Suite 104, Placerville
- Open: Wednesday to Monday, 7:30am- 4pm
El Dorado County: things to do
From apple picking and farm visits, fly fishing, kayaking or canoeing on the American River, and a wealth of hiking trails that offer stunning scenic views or waterfalls, El Dorado County offers a variety of year-round entertainment options and activities. It is also situated conveniently close to Tahoe and a number of ski resorts for visitors to explore further afield. Annual wine, food and/or art events include the Great Out There (April), and WINEderlust Renegade (September). Concerts and live music events include the Gold Hill Music Festival (September), Motherlode Beer and Music Festival, Edio Vineyards/Delfino Farms ‘Folk on the Farms’ concert series (June-August) and many more.