What: Celebrating 40 years — taste freshly crushed grape juice and special barrel selections
Who: Boeger Winery
Where: 1709 Carson Road, Placerville
When: Saturday, September 29 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Enjoy free wine tasting and winery tours from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Cost: no admission charge and no reservations are required
The year was 1972. Boomers were graduating, Watergate was headlining, Vietnam was unwinding and the Quarter-Pounder was debuting.
A young Northern California winemaker named Greg Boeger was about to turn the elitist wine industry on its head.
To this visionary, El Dorado County could be the next Napa Valley and perhaps fine wines could now be priced for the exploding American middle-class.
For Greg, it was an idea whose time had come.
That year, Greg and wife Sue closed a deal to buy some hilly property along Carson Road in Placerville. It had been a vineyard decades earlier, and the Boegers knew it could be again.
The undulating land was complex — shaley and rich, sunny and shady, lush and sparse, full of micro-climates and definitely acidic.
The knolls drained well, and carried an abundant array of important nutrients. In many ways it resembled Tuscany, Italy, a cradle of some of Europe’s fine wines.
Greg, who spent much of his childhood on his grandfather’s Nichelini Winery in Napa, was convinced a wide array of grape varieties could prosper in this quilt of environmental opposites.
Near the coast, many benefits received by the grape vine from the cool ocean breezes could be realized in El Dorado County through the increase in elevation. Twenty-eight hundred feet was perfect.
The property was originally settled by Giovanni Lombardo in 1856, an Italian immigrant who developed a small winery which flourished until Prohibition.
Ripping out most of the vines, the Lombardo-Fossati family successfully switched to pear farming, downsizing the vineyards to almost nothing.
Misfortune struck again, as a fast-moving disease nearly wiped out most of the region’s pear orchards at the pinnacle of prosperity. Without commercial grapes or pears, the family eventually sold the land and structures to the Boegers, and the first post-Depression commercial winery was under way.
Four decades have passed. The Boomers are now retiring, Watergate is an object lesson, Vietnam is a trading partner, McDonalds encircle the earth and the start-up Boeger Winery has blossomed as a preeminent developer of superb, affordable California wines.
Other wine operations in the region have naturally followed suit. The six foothill counties boast more than 250 wineries, many of which have developed loyal followers.
But the Boeger Winery is a “first among equals,” said Henri Clausen, a local wine expert. “And the most adventurous.”
Other critics have described Boeger wines as intense, unique and sometimes experimental.
Its wine club has swelled to more than 1,400 and 20,000 cases of Boeger wine will ship this year.
“I’ll tell you the secret weapon to all this,” said Greg, pointing to his wife. “It’s Sue.”
Sue helped launch the winery in 1972, and kept track of projects and priorities in the critical survival years.
While Greg and his childhood friend Bill Wagoner (the go-to guy who still looks after things) worked the vines and the early crushing machines, Sue developed accounting and tracking systems, organized priorities, dealt with vendors, produced and raised two children, cooked, redesigned the buildings, and paid the bills.
Agricultural business cycles were sometimes cruel, and Sue intuitively figured a higher education would help her stabilize the enterprise against the ups and downs.
What she learned after several years of master’s study, was the opposite.
Nobody can stop the stormy cycles of business, but they can learn to ride the waves through intelligent planning and sound project management.
Confident, Sue also kept her eye on the big picture. When the time came, she advocated strongly for dramatic expansion, including replacing the remaining pear orchards with grapes.
“It meant borrowing a lot of money,” reminisced Greg. “But the timing turned out to be perfect. Without that project, and the increased fruit production, we’d have been behind the curve and probably lost our competitive window for growth.”
The east Placerville Boeger estate is stunning in its charm. Perfect rows of vines arch endlessly through the retreating hills, interrupted by robust stands of oaks, cedars and pines. And a few buildings.
The original Lombardo house and grape processing shed have been preserved and restored.
Six hundred barrels age under son Justin Boeger’s trained eye, each made from a specific wood and containing a certain varietal.
Picnic grounds under the last of the pear and apple orchards are popular, and tours host visitors from nearly every country on earth.
Artists flock to the picturesque hillsides and render paintings and drawings. Its tasting rooms and inspiring premises are visited by more than 40,000 people annually.
“For me, the Boeger vineyards are like a half-way stop to artists’ heaven,” said Marilyn Shea Feldman, gallery owner from San Jose. “I wish Van Gogh had seen them. Impressionism or American Primitive, we all love to paint those hills. And I’m crazy for that Old Clone Zin.”
She is referring to a unique Boeger Zinfandel produced from original legacy vines over 100 years old.
So, it looks as though Greg and Sue’s original vision has been fulfilled.
Or has it?
What about the next 40 years?
Greg shrugs and nods toward son Justin. “He’s the winemaker, I’m just the farmer.”
Some farmer — Greg’s early years in the orchards and vineyards and a relevant University of California, Davis, education paid off with 30 different varietals developed over the years.
During the course of his years as the Boeger winemaker, Greg won hundreds of awards including several double golds, best of class and best of regions.
Indeed innovation is no accident at this winery.
Like his father, Justin learned the business by osmosis. He too graduated from UC Davis in 1998 with a degree in fermentation science, then interned in two prestigious German wineries.
Justin is now the head winemaker for Boeger Winery. Following in the pioneering tradition, Justin has introduced several new wines and techniques to Boeger Winery, including the now very popular pinot noir and a comprehensive and diversified oak aging program.
He has also won numerous prestigious awards, including double golds, best of’s and the 2008 California Grand Champion Zinfandel (the 2006 Walker).
Boeger Merlot was served in the White House in 1984 during the Reagan administration and Boeger Zinfandel was presented to Queen Elizabeth II as a gift from the state during her visit to California in 1982.
Daughter Lexi Boeger is a world-renown yarn-spinning expert and author of three books on the subject.
She produces a “Yarnival” on the property, operates “Pluckyfluff” fiber-art studio, and offers a considerable variety of handmade pottery and fiber art.
“Just the good stuff,” she laughs, scribbling notes for her next book.
The Boeger success story is not without challenges overcome. The rolling foothills he purchased for a break-out winery, began looking attractive to large real estate developers. Agricultural use of scarce water was questioned, and the allure of a property tax windfall from a large subdivision was always persuasive.
Greg, in his plain-spoken but educated manner encouraged El Dorado County supervisors to maintain an agricultural character to the area, arguing that Boeger Winery could be the anchor of many similar farms. An entire industry was at stake. He found sympathetic ears, and today more than 60 wineries flourish in that county footprint.
Wise use of water including drip-irrigation techniques, recycling nitrogen-rich grape skins as mulch, and distributing plant stems over the dirt roads (minimizing erosion) have led environmental standards.
The Boeger Winery, like the others in the county, has sought, earned and received support from local residents.
The winery has lots of growth left without changing its business model. Greg has purchased some nearby acres, but still has a good-sized piece of the original property available for cultivation. Leased land comes and goes, but the family owns about 90 acres.
Not all his grapes bear the Boeger label.
“We also buy and sell grapes, depending on special needs, weather and yield. Some folks think they recognize the distinct Boeger taste in other labels.” He smiles. “Not surprising.”
Wine making is an uneven business. Consistency is difficult to maintain year to year, as growing conditions change. Time on the vine is different for each varietal, proper aging can mean moving fermenting wine from one barrel type to another. Standardizing the taste of a favorite wine sometimes requires custom blending techniques, a complicated art learned through years of winemaking study.
Justin loves it.
“That’s part of our future,” Greg said. “The grapes speak for themselves each harvest. Nonetheless we’re always experimenting and challenging yesterday’s boring blends with more evolved, exciting tastes.”
Looking over the 40 years Greg cites two levels of immense satisfaction.
One, through establishing the winery and working ceaselessly with the county, he helped imprint the area as a recognized wine producing region with a worldwide following.
Two, his family has stayed close and works hard to keep it all going — family and community.
Pastor Phillip Freise of the Holy Redeemer Church in Phoenix has used Boeger wine in his sacrament service for 12 years.
“Something about this wine is just extra good.” he exclaimed. “Here, maybe this explains it.” He flips through the Bible and reads from First Corinthians. “I planted, Apollo watered, but God gave the increase.” He looks up, laughing. “Man, he was sure watching out for these people.”
A 40th anniversary special event is planned at Boeger Winery on Saturday, Sept. 29 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. There is no admission charge and no reservations are required.