45 Years and a Bit of Passport

It really is hard to believe that the whole Madroña Vineyards story started just a mere 45 years or so ago. For me, as a kid growing up in it and then tackling wine as a career, it seems like an eternity. Better said, perhaps, is to point out I can’t really remember a time when the vineyards and the winery weren’t part of my life. And I’m 51 years old!

A kid’s view is always skewed just a bit, but back in 1973 I have memories of playing in stacks of hardwood grape posts that still line our rows today. It was a “family” outing planting those first vines, with friends coming to help. At just six years old, I have a feeling the vines that I planted probably didn’t survive, but I remember it was hot, dusty and tiring. (By the way, I still feel vineyard work is hot, dusty and tiring!)

After planting most of the vineyards, our family moved to Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) for the next two years. My parents could work at The American School of Kinshasa (TASOK) while sending their earnings home to pay for this new project. For me, it was fun and games, not knowing that my parents were pioneering high-elevation grape-growing back home.

So try to remember back to 1973-1975. For us, I remember my parents and two oldest siblings went to the Rumble in the Jungle (Mohamad Ali vs. George Forman), President Nixon resigned, and Evil Knievel didn’t make it across the Snake River. If you can’t remember these things, you’re younger than our vineyards!

When we returned in 1975, the vines were growing strong. With our family staying with my grandparents in Placerville, my dad would head up to the vineyards every day in our old Chevy pickup with the dent in the front of it (from when my sister was trying to learn to drive). As kids, we helped too, but mostly my older siblings. I did a lot of tractor driving (since I was 9) with our old Ford 9N.

The vines grew, we had our first harvest in 1976, and we sold fruit to wineries like David Bruce Winery and Ravenswood back then. It wasn’t until 1978 that my dad made his first vintage of Cabernet Sauvignon with the Madroña name down at the Boeger’s winery in Placerville. Incidentally, this tight-knight group of new winery owners (the Boegers, the MacCready’s (Sierra Vista), the Russell’s (Granite Springs) and my parents) helped spur on the local wine industry as well as each other during the tougher times of the early 80’s (when interest rates were 13% or higher). I remember that as a kid for sure!

The continual growth of our winery meant summers behind a hot-glue labeling machine, hours swearing at the vines, overheating on the tractor and long, long days (nights) during harvest. It was so much “fun” that I swore in college that “it would be a cold day in hell before you ever found me again in the wine industry.” Today, however, I wouldn’t change those difficult days/years if it were to mean I couldn’t work with my parents, the beautiful vineyards, or Maggie.

The Passport Weekends this year are celebrating the last 45 years with selections and pairings that tie to various times in our family and winery’s history.

Station #1: Coq au Vin—This is a dish that I remember my mom making out of Julia Child’s Mastering The Art of French Cooking. I had always assumed (and experienced) this dish as a hearty red wine stew. It was until I was in my late 20’s that I actually read the recipe and noted that Julia Child suggested two traditional wines to be used…Pinot Noir and Riesling. With our Riesling being one of the original plantings in 1973 (first bottling in 1980) and with this variety being one of our signature wines, of course I was going to try it out.  More elegant than a red-wine version, using Riesling gives Coq au Vin a bright and lively action and fills the dish with a core of fruitiness. Needless to say, the pairing with the 2017 Hillside Collection Riesling is seamless and brings me home with comfort food.

Station #2: Oscar Wilde with the 2014 Hillside Collection Zinfandel—This is a double historical aspect of Madroña. First of all, our Hillside Collection Zinfandels are traditionally a blend of all of our different Zin vineyards planted in 1974, 1994, 1997 and 2001. With the youngest vines already in their 17th year (the oldest in their 44th year), the characters and richness in this wine are more old vine than young vine. Being 51 years old myself, let’s call it “mature” vine, shall we?

The second historical aspect is our friendship with Mary at Dedrick’s Cheese, and our usage of her knowledge and her shop for I don’t know how many Passports. Each pairing is tasted and retasted, finding just the right match. This year’s aged Irish cheddar just brings out the fruit in the 2014 Zinfandel while emboldening the richness of the wine. This is exactly why we love cheese/wine pairings.

Station #3:  A Deconstructed, Reconstructed Pasta paired with the 2013 Signature Collection Cabernet Franc—Since grafting in Cabernet Franc in 1984 for blending with our Cab Sauvignons, this wine has quickly become a family favorite. Ironically, the Cab Franc we put in was an older clone with incredibly structured tannins, making it difficult to blend early on. But with time, the elegant and spicy characters developed and led us to pairing it with foods.

At the first Passport Weekend ever done in the El Dorado appellation, our family literally made homemade raviolis for all the guests. The combination of tomato, sausage, spinach and pasta simply brought out the flavors in the wine. This year, the 2013 Cab Franc with its dark, complex fruit, spiciness and smokiness let us use our imagination, trialing out different flavor profiles until we found the perfect combination of sausage, basil, goat cheese, ricotta and sauce. As the first producer of varietal Cabernet Franc in the region (1985), this pairing highlights what we found so special in such a food-oriented wine.

Station #4:  El Tinto, Lot 37—This blend, which has evolved over the years, is the basis of sustainability in our winery. The core of El Tinto is to allow us to make the best Cabernet, Malbec, Chardonnay, Zin, Grenache…we taste in the fruit. When blending the wines, we often end up with just a little bit of different lots left over. We can blend these perfectly good orphans together with other press wines or lees wines to make an amazing base wine. Then closer to bottling, we tweak with fruit-oriented wines (Zin, Barbera, Grenache, etc.) to get just the texture and fruitiness we’re looking (or tasting) for.

In the end, this red table wine adorns many a table every night of the week, and has for the last 20 years.

Station #5:  The VIP Cabernet Experience—This multi-decade tasting is more than a mere vertical. Instead the idea is to showcase what our appellation, El Dorado, can do almost better than any other California region. With our cooler climate and higher elevation vineyards, we can and do make more structured wines but with an essence of the variety.

This tasting of Cabernet Sauvignon from our Estate vineyards (planted in 1974) showcase not only the unique differences of wines from the 1980’s, 1990’s, 2000’s and 2010’s, but also how a vineyard matures over time. How interesting is it to taste the same vineyard over 4 decades?!? You’ll find out.

Station #6: Walnut Cake and a Mini-Vertical of Ports—Even though some of the first wines we ever made at Madroña were port-styled wines, we really didn’t get into it until the late 1990’s. But when we did, my dad knew exactly what the percentages he wanted to plant of each of the seven Portuguese varieties in 1997. You’ll be tasting our first New-World Port made under our Madroña label from Estate grown fruit with the 2001 vintage. Aging beautifully, it’s dark berry fruit and seductively round palate shows why one ages port.

The 2011 vintage, is much more fruit-oriented due partly to the vintage (2011 was a cooler summer year) and partly to the age of the wines. By 2011, the vines were 14 years old and maturing nicely. With the walnut cake (a recipe from our travels in France), the 2011 melds exquisitely with the nuttiness of the walnuts making a much more complex experience.

Through all these years at Madroña, we’ve made a lot of wine, grown tons of grapes, paired lots of foods, and made a bunch of friends. Personally, I would hope to have matured as well as our vines have. I don’t know if that is case (although I’ve never gotten mildew), but I do know that I’m proud of the wines they still produce. I have my favorites (over the last 45 years), and I still look forward to the future. But mostly I hope you get a sense of all of this when you open up a bottle of Madroña.


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1 Response to 45 Years and a Bit of Passport

  1. Kathleen Jermstad says:


    I really enjoyed reading this. Such vivid and poignant memories from childhood!



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