Dunne on Wine

Perfect wine for a backcountry trek? Try Rucksack Cellars

Paul Bush of Rucksack Cellars heads from winery to outdoor tasting area with his arms full of bottles. Photo/Mike Dunne
Paul Bush of Rucksack Cellars heads from winery to outdoor tasting area with his arms full of bottles. Photo/Mike Dunne

Paul and Maggie Bush have taken a hike. By their usual trekking standards, it isn’t far, just across Carson Road from their customary campsite, Madrona Vineyards, established 45 years ago on Apple Hill just outside of Placerville by Paul Bush’s parents, Dick and Leslie Bush.

Now Paul and Maggie Bush have staked out their own tent, though they remain owners and key players at Madrona, he as winemaker and vineyard manager, she as chief financial officer and general manager.

Their new site is Rucksack Cellars, its name inspired by Paul Bush’s long affinity for backpacking. While earning a degree in macro-economics at the University of Nairobi in Kenya in the 1980s, Paul Bush spent breaks hiking about Africa with pals and fellow students.

Many of them were from Europe, Australia and New Zealand. What he called a backpack they called a rucksack. “When you travel like that, a rucksack embodies everything you own. It’s your home,” Bush says.

In several ways, Rucksack Cellars reflects the Bush’s fondness for the outdoors beyond the name. It has no traditional enclosed tasting room. Everything is outside. Visitors who stop for a taste meander up to a counter of thick and rough timber stretched over a couple of wine barrels. If they want to sit down, picnic tables and bales of straw are scattered about the grounds. The site also is appointed with a fire pit, a stone tortoise, a waterfall fountain and a large wooden rabbit, a prop from a local production of the musical comedy “Spamalot.”

“This is one of the most beautiful places in the world,” Bush says. “We want people to get out into it.”

At 3,000 feet up the Sierra foothills, the concept is dicey, with inclement weather the biggest challenge for anyone who isn’t as keen on roughing it as the Bushes. They recognize that, and close the tasting site from mid-December until the first weekend of May. This gives them a break to kick back at home or to resume hiking. (The Rucksack tasting area, 3030 Carson Road, is open noon to 5 p.m. Friday through Sunday.)

At Rucksack Cellars, other touches reinforce their appreciation of travel. They hand out reusable polymer wine glasses, and anyone who returns with the glass in hand gets the initial $5 tasting fee waived. The labels on their bottles include Sierra scenes, was well as a passport stamp, journal entry or luggage tag. One of their wines, a fragrant and sweetly fruity Bordeaux-style blend, bears the proprietary name “The Cache,” referring to the backpacker practice of safely securing food and other provisions from varmints.

The Bushes had qualms about whether wine enthusiasts would share their affection for being outside – would breezes interfere with their appreciation of a wine’s aroma? would traffic on Carson Road be too much of a distraction? – but based on repeat visits their novel approach is a hit.

They’ve adopted two other practices out of the ordinary for the wine trade. For one, all their wines bear the appellation “Sierra Foothills,” which Paul Bush sees as an opening device to educate consumers about just how big and varied the region is. Also, a single broad appellation circumvents having consumers buy wine based on preconceived notions about this or that sub-appellation.

Similarly, the Bushes have priced all their wines at $24 per bottle. “This simplifies the decision making,” Bush says. “You leave with only what you really like.”

The creation of Rucksack Cellars in no way signifies any kind of family split. Paul and Maggie Bush continue to run Madrona Vineyards, which they have been largely responsible for for nearly 20 years. (Paul’s brother David and his wife Sheila also are in the local wine trade as owners of the highly regarded Sumu-Kaw Vineyard in nearby Pleasant Valley.)

The elder Bushes fully support the new venture, though Dick Bush questions whether the typeface of Rucksack’s labels might be too small.

Why have the younger Bushes headed up this trail? After all, Paul Bush has said that “only one thing more stupid than owning a winery is to own two.”

The couple’s reasoning is twofold. For one, the 21-acre site, a former Christmas-tree farm, faces a long stretch of Carson Road. When it came on the market, Paul and Maggie feared someone would buy it to take advantage of that frontage and convert the farm into something more commercial or industrial. They wanted to keep the land agricultural, so they bought it to develop a vineyard and winery.

Secondly, Madrona Vineyards was firmly established, having developed a loyal following for its clear-cut and elegant style of winemaking and for its long success with varietal wines not commonly associated with the Sierra foothills, such as gewürztraminer, chardonnay, nebbiolo, riesling and malbec.

Paul Bush sees Rucksack as an opportunity to extend that heritage with more new grape varieties, grape clones and styles of wine. Rucksack wines may end up being a touch more expressive in fruit than what consumers have become accustomed to tasting at Madrona, but they won’t wander radically from the balance that long has distinguished Madrona’s wines, Bush says.

“Madrona is our heart and soul. It’s established and more formal. Here, we’re having fun and experimenting. There’s a different flow here,” he says.

At Madrona, he makes around 10,000 cases of wine a year. At Rucksack, he doesn’t expect to make more than 2,500 cases.

As an exhibit to one of the direction he is taking at Rucksack he points to the winery’s 2017 chenin blanc, a varietal wine seeing a modest revival in popularity but one he didn’t make at Madrona. The light and lively chenin blanc was made with the second vintage of grapes he harvested from a small block of the variety he planted on the Rucksack property. It is fruity, spicy and caressing, seizing with expressions of pear and delivering them with just 11.2 percent alcohol.

He uses barbera, another variety he didn’t exploit at Madrona, despite its popularity in the foothills in recent years, for two catch-up interpretations - a dry, bright and light 2017 rose notable for its invitingly rich aroma and suggestions of raspberries on the palate, and a jaunty and finely honed 2015 red with deeper and earthier fruit, yet also refreshing in its relaxed tannins and acute acidity.

Bush is especially keen on the prospects of cabernet franc in the foothills, and his first release from a new block planted to the variety, the 2016, validates his hopes with a memorably floral aroma and pointed cherry fruit on a wiry build.

As at Madrona, and as at most wineries in the foothills, Bush makes zinfandel at Rucksack, using fruit mostly from the Sumu-Kaw Vineyard. For a high-elevation zinfandel, it is exceptionally deep and robust, brightened and lightened with suggestions of juicy raspberries and dashes of black pepper. It packs the warming alcohol and earthy heft that would be welcome in a tent alongside a High Sierra trail on a chilly night.

Bush has thought of that, and is planning to release some of his 2017 barbera in bota bags. “Everyone is asking for that, for backpacking,” Bush says. Ideally, in keeping with the backpacking ethos of taking out whatever you take into the wilderness, he’d like to find a refillable bota bag in which to market wines, but so far hasn’t had any luck. He’s mapped out a journey that could resolve that matter, however. “I’ll attend the Wine and Grape Symposium in Sacramento next year to further search out the right producer.”

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. He can be reached at dmichaeldunne@gmail.com.