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Gold Medal Wine Club
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Santa Barbara, California 93111
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Madroñ,a Winery - Sierra Foothills, El Dorad

Madrona Key to Success of El Dorado County Wines

Who says you can’t find great wines outside of Napa and Sonoma counties? For years now wine enthusiasts have been traveling to places like Mendocino, Santa Barbara, and Santa Cruz counties to discover California’s secret wine spots. Many still have not yet found one of the newer areas emerging from the shadows of Napa and Sonoma—that of the Sierra Foothills, and more specifically, El Dorado county. Consider this—in the most recent California State Fair wine competition, the thirteen wineries located in El Dorado county (accounting for just 2% of all wineries in California) took home an amazing 10% of all Gold Medals awarded. And that’s no easy task. The California State Fair is the oldest, and one of the most prestigious wine competitions in the country and well known for being stingy with their Gold Medals. Out of 1,800+ wines entered, only 115 Golds were awarded. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that winery-for-winery, El Dorado county clearly outperformed the rest of the state.

A large part of El Dorado county’s recent success is due to this month’s featured Madroña Winery which walked away with four of those hard-to-get Gold Medals, including one for their Select Harvest Riesling that finished in the top four of all the 1,800+ wines entered. And it doesn’t stop there. In the nine competitions entered in 1995, Madroña Winery captured a whopping thirty-five medals. And their Gewurtztraminer was honored as one of the top 25 white wines in the world for 1995 by Bon Appetit magazine. Quite an accomplishment for a tiny 10,000-case winery located in a grape growing area that’s not supposed to turn out wine this good!

As with most so-called overnight successes, Madroña Winery owners Dick and Leslie Bush & Family have in fact, been hard at work perfecting their craft for many years. They started from scratch in 1972, purchasing 52 acres of land in the Sierra
foothills. “Foothill is a bit of a misnomer though because at a 3,000 foot elevation, Madroña vineyard is thought to be the highest in the country. “We started out looking for land simply to build a house. But the more we looked and learned about the area, we saw an opportunity for grape growing,” says Dick. “We had absolutely no agricultural background when we started,” he continues. “And certainly had no visions of starting a winery either!”

The Bushes carved out 32 acres of vineyard land over the next two years, planting Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel and Riesling. They later added Gewurtztraminer and Cabernet Franc, to round out their cool-climate varietal mix. They named their winery, Madroña (pronounced ma-drone-ya), after the huge tree bearing the same name, situated smack dab in the middle of the vineyard.

By 1976 they were able to begin selling their harvest to other wineries. “After a couple of years, we realized we didn’t like being at the mercy of other wineries to make a living,” says Dick. So in 1978 the Bushes started using their grapes to make their own wines. The first two years they made a couple of thousand cases of Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel at another facility until their own winery building was completed. Dick was able to craft these first wines by hiring a winemaking consultant, taking wine courses at U.C. Davis, and a lot of on-the-job, learn-as-you-go training. The winemaking task turned into a family affair as two of his sons and daughter-in-law all pitched in to help throughout the next decade.

It wasn’t until 1993 that Hugh Chappelle came to Madroña to become their first non-family, full-time winemaker. Hugh gained experience in all aspects of winemaking at various wineries such as, Piper Sonoma, Stag’s Leap and Chalk Hill. One of his first wines at Madroña was the much ballyhooed 1993 Gewurtztraminer that brought in universal praise from throughout the wine industry. He also put his touch on all the wines that were heavily medaled in the 1995 competitions, including the Gold Medal 1991 Cabernet Sauvignon featured this month. “When I started here my initial goal was to soften the red wines—without sacrificing ageability,” says Hugh. “And the whites were already so good, all I really had to do was fine-tune them a bit,” he admits. Whatever he did, since his arrival at Madroña, the winery has taken a big leap forward.

Madroña recently bought another 245 acres nearby to expand their varietal mix and wine offerings for the future. To date, twenty acres have been planted to varietals such as, Syrah, Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne. We also want to try our hand at some Italian grapes like Sangiovese and Barbera,” says Dick’s son, Paul.

Currently, Madroña is producing about a dozen or so different wines. Half are produced in such small quantities that they are available only at the winery’s tasting room. The largest percentage of the 10,000 case production is devoted to Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel. Even so, just one to two thousand cases of each wine is made yearly.

We hope you enjoy what will probably be your first El Dorado-county-grown Cabernet Sauvignon—a Gold Medal winner in perhaps the toughest of all wine competitions. “Everything came together with this wine,” proclaims Dick Bush. “It’s a very soft wine, blended with a fairly high percentage of Cabernet Franc. It’s great now and will age nicely at least for another five to seven years.

Dick Bush - founder of Madrona Winery speaks out

‘It just seemed like a good idea at the time,” explains Dick Bush about why he started Madroña Winery. ‘We had a perishable commodity on our hands and we were at the mercy of other wineries to hopefully buy all of our crop within a very narrow window of time each year,” he adds. So Dick and Leslie Bush took control of their own destiny and began producing their own label in 1978.

Dick Bush underscores the fact that he had absolutely no idea he would end up being a grape farmer, let alone a winemaker and winery owner. Most of Dick’s life was spent growing up in the Sierra foothills area of northern California. His father was an engineer for the Navy in their hometown of Vallejo. But as a young boy, Dick’s interest was in the physical sciences more than engineering. His primary attraction was to the field of geology.

While attending college at Stanford University, he became aware of the field of metallurgy and ultimately earned his degree in that study. His focus on metallurgy continued into graduate school and his expertise turned from extractive metallurgy (the process of getting the metals out of raw materials) to physical metallurgy (dealing with the properties of metals after extraction, such as with blending or heat treating). He then followed up grad school with a Ph.D. in Material Science. ‘Up until the time I attended college, the metallurgy field had a fairly narrow scope and limited opportunities,” he says. ‘But with the advent of ceramics being used as components in manufacturing, all of a sudden that whole area of study broadened.”

Out of college in 1961 Dick was immediately recruited by Ford Motor Co. to work at their headquarters in Detroit. He stayed there for almost seven years until an opportunity arose to come back to northern California. Back home again, he teamed up with his brother-in-law who had started a consulting firm specializing in hydrologic studies.

Knowing he and his family wanted to stay in California, Dick began looking for property to build a home. As he searched for land in the familiar Sierra foothills, he figured it was logical to buy enough property to do something else with besides just building a house. That something turned out to be grapes.

Today, Dick and his wife, Leslie, who is a retired school teacher, live on the 52 acre property where the vineyards are located. Leslie manages the administrative duties for the winery. Son, Paul, is the manager of the winery and runs the day-to-day operations. Their other son, David, and daughters, Carolyn and Diane are pursuing other interests but have all at one time or another contributed to the family success story.