In early 2001, three transplanted Texans cleared a mountaintop in the lonely zip code known as Mt. Aukum and planted 5,000 grape vines. The trio, all cousins, named the enterprise Mount Aukum Winery.
As their new vineyard would require years to mature, they were eager to partner with local growers. One particular grape farmer stood out. He owned a young vineyard, had grown up picking and crushing fruit, and understood the nuances of good blending.
The stage was set for Michel Prod’hon.
Deals were made, and grapes from local fields were harvested, pressed, fermented, clarified, aged and finally bottled. The first batch of Mt. Aukum wine debuted to outstanding reviews in 2003, but not before the founders hired Prod’hon as assistant winemaker.
Over the next five years the grape farmer added his own grapes to the mix, and helped the owners push production to 3,500 annual cases of zinfandel, malbec, and petite sirah varietals, as well as sangiovese, cabernet sauvignon, and a few others.
In 2009, after a string of successful seasons, Prod’hon and wife Terrie bought the Mt. Aukum winery from the Lone Star founders, and began fulfillment of their own dream — an old-world winery in the nouveau California marketplace.
The estate’s 5 acres of choice fruit matched perfectly with the winemaker’s 10 acres. Life’s unchartered passage was coming full circle.
Michel grew up in the Champagne area of France, coldest of that country’s major wine regions, and center of viticulture for two millennia.
Wine was a constant throughout his childhood and early adult years. After emigrating to California in 1980, he launched his professional career in the seemingly dissimilar logistics-driven furniture warehouse world.
But the grape was never far from his thoughts. Michel had long been attracted to El Dorado County’s higher wine growing elevations, specifically the Mount Aukum area.
With wineries springing up throughout the foothills, he sought to develop the tasty fruit he’d known in France. The elevation and temperature variations of the area were just what he wanted.
In 1999 he found the perfect 10 acres and planted vines.
The would-be vintner already knew the potential hazards. The question is often debated whether the man owns the vineyard or vice versa.
French oak barrels cost $1,100 each (useful life, five years — and you’ll need about 600 of them,) stainless tanks cost $20 thousand apiece (start with eight units.)
Powdery mildew is a continual threat. Weather can be a friend or assassin. Roots, wending their way through underground tiers of boulders, become dinner for subterranean villages of gophers.
Grapes require fences, irrigation, nourishment, engineered drainage, pruning and constant protection from deer, raccoons and bears. And that’s before harvesting.
“The vineyard isn’t a day job,” said Prod’hon, “it’s the only job.”
The warehouse executive walked away from his logistics career in order to cultivate the vines.
While they developed, he helped out at Granite Springs Winery in Somerset, during the critical grape crushing time.
Then came the call from the cousins at Mt. Aukum Winery, requesting him to join the winemaking there. The rest is history.
For the vintner and his wife Terrie, a practicing CPA with offices in Placerville and El Dorado Hills, the three years of ownership have been, well, fruitful if modest.
Michel makes wine, Terrie manages the numbers.
They point out Mt. Aukum Winery is a diminutive producer by choice, not to be confused with the strapping, mid-size wine estates in the region.
“I’m the principle employee,” Prod’hon informed. “I get a ton of seasonal help from family, including my brother-in-law Bill Dishman, and tasting room manager Tashia Rynearson. There’s Austin Hillendahl, the all-around go-to guy, plus an unbelievable part-time staff, but for me, for now, it’s best to stay small.”
He nods at the crowd of tasters admiring a line of gleaming stainless steel holding tanks in the barrel room at Mount Aukum Winery.
“We’re fine with 3,000 cases (per year). Art isn’t mass produced,” he said.
From the tasting room half a mile above sea level, the surrounding foothills resemble the terroir of southern France. Hillsides tumble and winding valleys rise to become the Sierra Nevada. Perched between two dark summits, the snow-clad Crystal Peaks, crown jewels of the range, stare back. Postcards have nothing on Mt. Aukum’s vistas.
“My friends call it Mt. Awesome,” said visitor Mary Hart, nursing a spunky sangiovese in the tasting room. She has been a wine club member from 2005. “I come here for the spectacular view as much as for the great wine.”
She points toward the hazy San Francisco Bay.
“Sometimes you can actually see Mt. Diablo,” Hart said.
Author and management consultant Yvonne Kohano (Kochanowski) likes the taste of the house specialty malbec.
“Simply genius blending work. Michel has secret French recipes, no question,” she said.
Swaths of this crumpled mountainside are planted in grapes well suited for the soil and temperature extremes. The rows of vines twist and turn with precision, tightly tethered to the irregular topography.
They fruit heartily in the daytime sun and pump natural sugars in the cold nights.
“That’s the secret,” Michel said, squinting at the sloping field. “It’s why new tasters become regulars.”
That, and the constant product innovations.
“Michel isn’t afraid to experiment,” noted Terrie. “That’s how we came up with best sellers BDX Bordeaux and Vertigo Super Tuscan. Sometimes our wine club members help in developing new blends. That’s where” she tapped a bottle, “Apogee came from.”
Apogee is a blend of Rhône syrah and petite sirah bound together with a Bordeaux cabernet franc and merlot.
Since 2003 the winery’s appeal has broadened, evidenced by the tour lines and packed tasting room. Modest weddings and receptions are welcome. Music and catering can turn impromptu wine-tastings into major events.
“I guess we’re no longer the county’s best kept secret,” joked the affable winemaker.
Standing at the railing, he looks across the panorama of history. A while ago there were no commercial wineries in the foothills. These days he can identify more than a few of the 250 wineries nestled in the surrounding foothills.
“We’re all good neighbors,” Michel said with pride.
He seems content with his work-in-progress.
“We call it ’2615′,” he grinned, referring to the exact elevation of his tasting room front door. “Perfect for our fruit.”
“Wine with altitude,” added Terrie. “Elevation matters.”
An increasing number of commercial accounts agree. Raley’s, Bel Air, Safeway and a handful of fine restaurants carry the Mount Aukum brand.
Despite the predominant zins, Rhônes and petite sirahs, the mountain’s abundance of micro-climates yield smatterings of other wines from other growers as well, usually 160 cases at a time.
“Not enough for shipping commercially,” noted Terrie, “but usually just right for the wine club members. Tasting room visitors are always quite pleased.”
Fair Oaks resident Gary Archibald, a regular customer and well-known wine aficionado, shakes his head in disbelief.
“It’s simply amazing he produces zin this balanced.” Archibald is in several wine clubs locally and on the coast. “Successful wineries almost always, unfortunately, become impersonal. But not here. The Prod’hons are down to earth friendly. Michel has a rare blending talent. It’s really remarkable he can make a better cab (cabernet sauvignon) than the Napa wineries. It’s not overbearing and it gets even better over time.”
In the coming years the Mount Aukum winemaker will nudge his product even closer to the French model, still tasty and sweet, but lower in alcohol. His table wines currently hover around 15 percent alcohol by weight, while dessert wines can be half again as much.
The Prod’hons perform nearly every phase of the vine-to-bottle journey of the fruit, including operating a bottling/labeling room filled with high-tech equipment.
“Many smaller wineries outsource that procedure to mobile bottler,” Terrie said.
Terrie nodded toward the thin, steep road leading to the estate entrance. “Try getting a truck around that corner.”
Like good wine, the Prod’hon operation develops with time. In the merry-go-round of who’s up and who’s down in the scene, Michel and Terrie already have a coveted brass ring — recognition as serious foothill vintners.
“He’s really in his wheelhouse with the zin and Rhônes,” wrote Ken Hopzalleran, a Reno restaurant critic. “Consistently creative blends. (Some) very fruity, slightly sweet. Others well balanced. Big structure, balanced tannins. Definitely a product of that mountain.”
“There is a full complexity of nature right there,” he said, reflecting on the terroir behind the high- quality zinfandels and Rhônes bearing the Mount Aukum label. “And we use every bit of it.”
Terroir refers to the unique combination of natural factors associated with any particular vineyard, including soil, underlying rock, altitude, slope of hill or terrain, orientation toward the sun, and microclimate (typical rain, winds, humidity and temperature variations.)
Outside the tasting room the mountain breezes pick up in the advancing hour, pushing temperatures to near freezing.
Inside, Michel, while enjoying time with the guests, is somehow simultaneously monitoring the vines, the tanks, barrels and racks. In the world of wine, everything matters, nothing is left to chance.
Terrie raises her glass. She takes a moment to savor the finish, or aftertaste of her favorite zin. Ah, yes. “Living proof,” she nodded, smiling at the winemaker, “excellent wine is still an art.”
Mount Aukum Winery is located at 6781 Tower Road in Mt. Aukum. To contact the winery call 530-620-1675, fax 530-620-1676 or e-mail email@example.com. Tasting room hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.