Dunne on Wine: Madroña's well-staked claim

Published: Tuesday, Jun. 4, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 3D
Last Modified: Tuesday, Jun. 4, 2013 - 3:17 pm

As Dick and Leslie Bush got ready to plant their vineyard, they took delivery of a load of hardwood stakes from Malaysia, to be driven into the ground to support their vines. The Bushes were told the stakes should last 25 years.

"Oh, my gosh," Dick Bush recalls thinking, "that seemed beyond the future. We just had no vision when we started."

That was 40 years ago this year.

"At 40, they're still in the ground," said Dick Bush of those first stakes.

And the Bush family still is in the wine business in El Dorado County. When the Bushes bought their property on Apple Hill in 1972 and began to pound those stakes the next year, no one really knew whether El Dorado County's wine trade could be revived.

Early in the 20th century, El Dorado had been home to 2,100 acres of wine grapes. Not long before the Bushes began to put in their vines the total had dwindled to 11 acres. Today, it's back up to 1,900 acres.

The turnaround is due in no small measure to the gumption of a handful of people like Dick and Leslie Bush. She had grown up in Placerville, but he was a newcomer to the area, drawn by a chance to put his engineering degree to work on hydrology projects while she taught elementary school.

As the 1970s dawned, they began to scout for potential homesites around Camino, largely because they wanted a place with a view of the Sierra Nevada's Crystal Range. They bought a 52- acre parcel, then started to ponder what they'd do with all the land not occupied by their house.

At the time, a small wave of new vineyards and wineries was starting to rise in California. The Bushes had noticed a trial vineyard just down the road from their place. They asked the local farm adviser, Dick Bethell, and the agricultural commissioner, Ed Delfino, how they might put their spread to use.

"Dick Bethell said to put in grapes or Christmas trees," Dick Bush said. "Christmas trees didn't catch my fancy, but grapes did. I thought that grape growing would be an interesting part-time activity."

He did his homework. He learned that California's coastal vineyards customarily were planted where Ponderosa pine trees, madrone shrubs and poison oak thrived. He had all that on Apple Hill. He liked the open exposure of their ridgetop. Their red volcanic soils drained well.

Cool air swept over the place at night, tempering the heat of a summer day and providing frost protection.

"There was no reason to believe that it wouldn't succeed," Dick Bush recalls. "Madrones are established in the best grape-growing regions in California. That they were here was a good reason to believe that this elevation would be suitable for wine grapes."

Vineyards weren't being planted that high up the Sierra foothills – 3,000 feet – but the Bushes were so confident that their spot was right for wine grapes that they ignored Delfino's cautious advice that they initially put in 5 acres; instead, they planted 24 acres the first year, 11 the next.

In addition, they didn't stick to the region's conventional varieties of that era – zinfandel, petite sirah and merlot – but gambled with grapes rarely cultivated in the Mother Lode, such as cabernet sauvignon, gewürztraminer, chardonnay and riesling.

Initially, they sold their grapes to several of the rising stars of the California wine scene – Joel Peterson of Ravenswood Winery in Sonoma County, David Bruce in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Robert Mondavi in Napa Valley and their neighbor Greg Boeger.

By 1980, they were ready to build their own winery, which they named Madroña Vineyards.

It was all very gutsy – neophytes cultivating a large vineyard of unfamiliar varieties in virgin territory – but the Bush family's Madroña Vineyards is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, firmly established yet as eager as ever to embrace risk.

They make about 12,000 cases of wine a year, grow nearly 30 varieties of grapes, and tend three vineyards – their original 35-acre estate on Apple Hill and two vineyards at Pleasant Valley south of Camino – the 12- acre Enye and the 24-acre Sumu-Kaw.

Over the decades, they've retained consultants to review their vineyards and wines. Virtually all of them have approached the task thinking that they would end up advising the Bushes to cut back on the number of varietals they make. After they've tasted through the lineup, however, they've hesitated to recommend that any be pulled out of production.

"In any given year any one of them could be a world-class wine," said Paul Bush, who has succeeded his father as vineyard manager and winemaker. (Paul's wife, Maggie, is Madroña's chief financial officer and general manager. Paul's brother David and his wife. Sheila, who live in Sacramento, own the Sumu-Kaw Vineyard in Pleasant Valley.)

Madroña wines, even varietals not traditionally associated with the Sierra foothills, including cabernet sauvignon and gewürztraminer, frequently win high praise among critics and in competitions. Though their wines are stocked by restaurants and shops in the Sacramento region, they sell nearly two-thirds of their production at the winery.

One of their newer releases is the family's first sparkling wine, the Madroña Vineyards 2010 El Dorado Extra Brut Blanc de Blancs.

Though the wine constitutes the perfect toast to celebrate the family's 40 years in the trade, the anniversary wasn't even on Paul Bush's mind when he began to make the bubbly nearly three years ago.

"We made the wine because not only did we think our fruit (chardonnay) had the potential, but it also sounded like fun," Paul Bush said.

He harvested a bunch of the estate chardonnay earlier than usual, fermented 550 gallons of juice, and though he wasn't initially impressed by the results – the wine was too tart to his palate – his father hauled it to sparkling-wine specialist Rack and Riddle in Hopland, Mendocino County, for finishing. After a series of dosage adjustments and taste tests, Paul and Maggie Bush settled on an assemblage with 0.3 percent sugar.

The result is a dry, sturdy and vibrant sparkling wine with the color of Golden Delicious apples and the aroma and flavor of citrus fruits, particularly lemon zest. That tanginess, coupled with the wine's sharp acidity and vivid beads, make it an eminently refreshing bubbly, ideal for sipping by people who like to search for notes of yeastiness and minerality in their bubblies.

There's no wood on the wine, though the vines that yielded the grapes are supported by some of those original stakes that went into the ground when Dick and Leslie Bush really couldn't imagine what they were creating 40 years ago.

Madroña Vineyards 2010 El Dorado Extra Brut Blanc de Blancs

By the numbers: 12.5 percent alcohol, 165 cases, $35.

Context: The Bush family agrees unanimously that the Blanc de Blancs is especially enjoyable when it is paired with Lay's traditional potato chips. "They're salty, starchy and greasy, bringing out the wine's strengths," said Maggie Bush. They also like the sparkler with Cypress Grove's Midnight Moon goat cheese.

Availability: Madroña's Blanc de Blancs is sold only at the winery, though some restaurants in the region soon may add it to their wine lists.

More information: The tasting room at Madroña Vineyards, 2560 High Hill Road, Camino, is open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. www.madronavineyards.com

Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne's selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions and visits to wine regions. Read his blog at www.ayearinwine.com and reach him at mikedunne@winegigs.com.

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