A long-awaited project for both the residents of the Divide and the owner of the land, Jose Wine Caves on Prospector Road, opened the first part of May.
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With a view overlooking the Coloma Valley it is ready to serve guests on weekends, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and for special events.
Proprietor Alfonso P. Elena, who travels from Solano County, is eager to provide service and, of course, wine.
“I bought the land (40 acres) for an investment and began in July 2004,” he said. “I had a 401(k), which had been losing money so I decided to take it all out and invest it in real estate.”
Although not exactly a winemaker by trade, Elena has spent the last 38 years in vineyard installation and management. Not long after he purchased the property, however, his family was met with a devastating disaster.
“I hired my brother, Jose, to polish the rough work on the property and that is when the accident happened,” said Elena.
In October 2004, while tilling the steep, rocky hillsides where the vineyard sits, Jose rolled on a bulldozer, killing him.
“I was going to sell the property in 2005,” said Elena. “But Jose liked this property so much I decided to remember him with the name. And the label is not just a label.”
Jose Wine Caves’ label also honors the memory of Jose with the year of his birth on one side and an illustration of a hand (representative of Jose’s) holding a glass under a bunch of grapes turning to drips of wine.
On the other side of the label is Alfonso’s birth year and when he passed.
Elena said there will be another arm/hand holding a glass under a bunch of grapes representative of him.
Elena has planted four red grape varietals on the Garden Valley property — petite verdot, dulcceto, montepulciano and aglianico, the oldest of his vines.
He plans to have aglianico this month in a limited release. The grape also is known to be one of the oldest in the world and originally from Southern Italy with similar weather and topography as this part of El Dorado County — hot and rocky.
“It takes about 5 years from the time the vines are planted to crafting a quality wine,” he said.
Later in the year he plans to have wine made from the dulcceto grapes, both from the Coloma/Garden Valley property.
A self-made man from farmers in Mexico, Elena, 56, is the sixth child of eight.
He came to the United States in 1975 and has been working in the winemaking business since. In 2000 he left his former employer and started his own vineyard installation and management business.
“I am not a winemaker,” he said. “I refer to myself as a wine player. In 1988 by playing with grapes I made a cabernet sauvignon and won first place in 1989 at the Napa County Fair.”
The following year, after talking with wine consultants, Elena said he only won third place.
The same year he began “playing with grapes,” Elena said he began studying English and attended Napa Valley College. He graduated in 1994, worked as a legal assistant and attended law school, but after just one year of law school he said he became sick with testicular cancer.
“I decided to discontinue law studies,” he said. “I am a survivor. After my treatments, I decided I was going to live each day fully and take one day at a time.”
While working for others, Elena said he met a couple from Somerset in Napa at the Growers Appreciation Dinner.
“Jim Oliver told me about El Dorado County,” he said. “For seven months I came over almost every weekend to look for property. In 1998 I found the property (10 acres) in Somerset,” where Elena grows zinfandel and syrah grapes. “I officially started out on my own in 2001.”
Admitting that “making and selling wine is new” for him, Elena is a consummate businessman.
He holds two licenses — a wholesale license and a type 02 for making and selling retail. While going through the permit process for the vineyard, he said his law background helped him wade through the paperwork.
“When I took all my money out of my 401(k), I paid the penalties and along with my savings and credit cards I invested it. I hope to grow one step at a time.”
A property owner in Solano, Napa, and El Dorado counties, Elena has installed and managed vineyards in Marin, Napa, Sonoma and El Dorado counties.
One look at the rolling hills in Garden Valley where Jose Wine Caves is located, and the untrained eye might think “but how does he get water to his plants?”
Elena is a dry farmer. The vineyards get water the first three years. There is a well and holding tanks on the property for that and for instances where more water may be needed.
The following years, the grapes rely on the water in the ground and already in the plant. He uses small amounts of sulfites, but otherwise grows his grapes as natural as possible.
“I use no chemical of any kind here,” he said, adding that in Somerset he uses an organic fungicide on his grapes, which currently make up the wines he sells at Jose Wine Caves.
And the caves?
“They are coming,” he said. “When I first discussed the idea of caves with engineers they told me it would be too expensive to build, so I built this building.”
The one-room tasting room is delightfully cool with fabulous views, especially of the Coloma Valley and the South Fork American River. Three large gazebos (replicas from Elena’s Somerset vineyard) provide outdoor shelter and free wireless Internet rounds out the general ambience of the winery.
By next year, Elena said he plans to begin the process for the cave, which will be primarily for wine storage, but will have an elevator to carry visitors to the topmost hill on the property, where a lone picnic table currently sits.
Elena is a grateful man with much to celebrate. He lives with Maria, his wife of 32 years, with whom he shares three grown daughters — his, hers and theirs.
Jose Wine Caves can be accessed online at josewinecaves.com or for special events contact Alfonso Elena at 707-695-7843.