Just east of Placerville, where narrow and windy Carson Road starts to scale Apple Hill, a vista not of orchards but of vineyards suddenly opens to the north.
It’s a landscape that could have been painted by Grandma Moses, or maybe Thomas Kinkade, all light, color and order – rows of lush vines rippling across the hills, a scattering of weathered outbuildings, a few equally old pear trees, a brook coursing through it all.
This is the home of Boeger Winery, which for 46 years has been a model of industry and imagination, creating vintage after vintage of wines notable for their lucidity and equilibrium.
Greg Boeger is the founding grape grower and winemaker, so instrumental in bringing recognition to the Sierra foothills wine trade that officials of the California State Fair bestowed one of its two lifetime achievement awards on him just before the start of this year’s exposition. (The other went to the Bogle family of Clarksburg, owners of Bogle Vineyards.)
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He shares that tribute with his wife Susan, their son Justin, who has taken over as lead winemaker and their daughter Lexi, who directs marketing for the winery, all of whom live in homes on the estate.
Greg Boeger almost always is in motion – powering a D2 Caterpillar through a vineyard, joining a blending session in the winery, restoring vintage vehicles or rebuilding classic bamboo fly-fishing rods – but he set aside some time recently to play 10 questions in his office.
Q: Your heritage in California winemaking began with your grape-growing and winemaking grandfather Anton Nichelini in Napa County in 1890, but you came to an El Dorado County pear orchard in 1972 and began to restore it as vineyard and winery. Why El Dorado?
A: When we began to look for property in Napa and Sonoma, prices were really high even in those days. Then I remembered reading an article that (El Dorado County agricultural commissioner) Ed Delfino had written for The Sacramento Bee about six experimental vineyards that he and (El Dorado County farm adviser) Dick Bethel had talked UC Davis into developing up here. The first wines from them were being made in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I read that and I said, ‘Gee, maybe that’s where I want to go.’ So I came up and met with Ed and Dick, and they just grabbed me, took me all over the county, showed me all the potential land and then helped me find this particular ranch.
Q: The first vineyard you planted in 1973 was merlot. Why merlot?
A: I was intrigued with it. I’d tasted some over in Napa in the 1960s and just saw it as an up-and-coming variety. It was pleasant to drink, but I also knew I could blend it with cabernet sauvignon to soften the cabernet. The merlot got us our first notoriety when David Berkley at Corti Brothers tasted it and said it would be just the perfect thing to put in the White House. (At the time Berkley was advising President Ronald Reagan’s administration on wines to stock for state dinners).
Q: In the 1980s, Boeger got a lot of press for wines served at the White House, for a special bottle of zinfandel served at functions for Queen Elizabeth during her visit to California, and so forth. What impact did that have on the winery?
A: It certainly allowed us to get out in the market much better. It allowed us to penetrate the Sacramento region and get into the Bay Area, and some out-of-state markets as well. We also were selected the American Champion Merlot, which got us invited to the Four Seasons restaurant (in New York) for a celebrity dinner to talk about our wine. I was paired with (actress) Maureen Stapleton from the movie “Reds.” (Actor) Burgess Meredith was there and took us back to our hotel because we couldn’t find it.
Q: Your wife Susan got her degree in philosophy, then after you started the winery she returned to school to work on a master’s in business and finance. How important was that to get the winery on track for financial success?
A: She had a strong business background, being business manager for her father, a Sacramento surgeon, so she had a framework for handling the accounting side as well as the philosophical side of the business. I couldn’t have done this without her. I had the idea and inspiration for planting and doing all these things, but left to my own accord I might just be a small farmer. She watched it like a hawk, she was innovative, she got us with a good CPA firm, she computerized everything. She has great analytical ability. And she’s an artist on top of all that. She couldn’t grow grapes, but she’s kept me growing grapes.
Q: These days you manage the vineyards, Justin conducts the winemaking and Lexi coordinates marketing. How is that transition going?
A: I think Justin and Byron (assistant winemaker Byron Elmendorf) are sort of following my path. Justin gets energized about a variety like barbera and will go out and buy barbera from various vineyards. Zinfandel is another one he’s tackled in an expanded way. Byron and Justin are a good balance. Justin is good at seeing the overall market and how it is going, while Byron may have more interest in individual niche varieties, so we’ve picked up things like albarino, which is just flying out of our tasting-room door. Byron is sort of taking over my more technical role while Justin keeps a practical approach to things and doesn’t get so bogged down in details.
Q: You grow 30 varieties of grapes. If you were to cut the number of varieties to three based on the most consistent wines they yield, what would they be?
A: Barbera probably would be number one. Zinfandel would be second. It’s in my blood; I grew up on an 1882 planting (of zinfandel) at Nichelini. The third one is a little tough to say. I hate to say merlot, but it has been real consistent for us. It’s gone up and down in popularity overall, but I think we consistently make a merlot that is just phenomenal. My trouble is I can never be limited to three things. That’s why I have 30.
Q: You’ve talked of the pure pleasure you get in being out in the vineyard alone, driving an open-air, noisy D2 Caterpillar rather than a tractor with air conditioning and a stereo system. What’s with that?
A: I just listen to the clank, clank, clank of the track. It keeps me happy, and hasn’t impaired my hearing yet. I think that if I listened to music with a headset I would lose the feel of what I’m doing. I like to go down every row and look at every vine to see what is going on, what needs to be taken care of. The air-conditioned Kubota (tractor) is good because we can travel faster, but there’s something about getting on the D2, whether pulling a disc or a mower behind you, that is very secure and very fundamental. By secure I mean very stable on the ground. We have slopes up to 30 percent steepness, and there’s nothing like having a tractor crawler to make those tight turns, whereas a four-wheel drive with rubber tires just doesn’t have that sense of stability you get with a crawler.
Q: Over the years you’ve used all sorts of grape varieties for your roses. Have you yet settled on one variety you think is best for the style?
A: Zinfandel is the one I grew up with. Nichelini used zinfandel for a nice rose. Here, we’ve found that primitivo is even better than zinfandel because it has a little more acidity and a little more structure. It makes a little crisper rose. But then we had a little extra pinot noir, so we made a pinot-noir rose. Both are in the sales room now. I think they are reaching two different markets, so we’re settling in on primitivo and maybe pinot noir.
Q: Twenty years from now will barbera still be the grape and the wine most closely identified with Boeger Winery?
A: By all indications, yes. For sure, the next 10 years. I don’t know what else might pop up as closely associated with us as barbera. We’ve planted more acreage of barbera. We’re purchasing almost all of the barbera grown in the county. Our long-range plans are to stick with it unless something happens in the market and customers turn away from it. I think it is one of the proper varieties for this region. This higher foothill elevation is much like Piedmonte (barbera’s ancestral home in Italy). In fact, I think in some respects we may be better than Piedmonte in that going into the fall we don’t have rain, and barbera can be a little sensitive and thin skinned. Our cool nights and warm days into the fall are just ideal for barbera. And our soils, which are not overly deep and fertile, allow barbera to express itself a little more.
Q: Do you have any concerns about the direction of grape growing and winemaking in El Dorado County?
A: No, I feel pretty optimistic. Every winery is doing a good job of finding what is best for their location, so what we are finding in El Dorado is this plethora of varieties being grown. The beauty of El Dorado is that it has so much potential in terms of individual microclimates because of our elevation, which ranges from 1,200 feet to 3,500 feet. The slopes and exposures just allow you to grow almost anything you would like to try. And we have three types of soil - sedimentary like our schist and shale here; deep volcanic clay loams for higher-elevation vineyards; and granitic soils in the south. It just seems like there’s something for everybody up here.