El Dorado AVA
Embracing their mountain terroir to produce a wide range of distinctive, estate-grown wines
For years now, wine enthusiasts have been looking beyond the popular wine country destinations of Napa Valley and Sonoma in the hopes of discovering California’s secret wine spots and up-and-coming producers. However, many have not yet found one of the lesser publicized areas that has emerged from the shadows of Napa and Sonoma that of the Sierra Foothills and, more specifically, El Dorado County. The Gold Rush of 1849 encouraged thousands of fortune seekers to settle in the Sierra Foothills, including entrepreneurs to supply the miners with the goods they valued back east and in the old country. By 1895, almost 100 wineries were operating in the Mother Lode area, more than Napa and Sonoma combined.
A large part of El Dorado County’s success is due to this month’s featured Madroña Vineyards. Owners Dick and Leslie Bush and family have 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 Vineyards is thought to be one of 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 and certainly had no vision 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 Gewurztraminer 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 fruit 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 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 (Paul and David) and a daughter-in-law all pitched in to help throughout the next decade.
In the mid-1990s, Madroña bought another two properties nearby their estate vineyard in order to expand the varietal mix and wine offerings for the future. These two vineyards, named Enye and Sumu-Kaw, are located in the Pleasant Valley and range over similar high elevations. The sites are planted to a range of varietals including Syrah, Viognier, Marsanne, Roussanne, Barbera, and Nebbiolo – just to name a few. Overall, Madroña now farms more than twenty-five different varietals!
From the 70-acres of family owned vineyards, Madroña produces almost thirty different wines. Most of the production is devoted to Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Zinfandel, but all of the wines are made in small quantities and many are only available at the winery’s tasting room.
In 2002, Dick’s son Paul took over responsibility for the winemaking and vineyard management duties. Even though Paul’s formal education was in economics at U.C. Davis, he grew up on the vineyards and has worked in the winery since he was a little boy. His philosophy of winemaking is to showcase the characteristics and fruit of the region, as well as making wines that complement a variety of different foods. His wife, Maggie, now serves as Madroña’s chief financial officer and the two of them work very hard to continue the tradition of family, friends, and community so well set by Paul’s parents. They live and breathe Madroña and are deeply committed to the winery’s future.
About the Vineyard
The foothills of the Sierra Nevada have a history steeped in the winemaking heritage of the early settlers who first discovered this unique place. In search of gold and fortune, they set up thriving communities, planting grapes for some of the first wines made in California. Today, El Dorado County holds true to its agricultural and pioneering heritage offering visitors an authentic, unhurried wine tasting experience unlike any other. Located just about an hour from Sacramento or South Lake Tahoe, El Dorado’s wineries beckon visitors with a wide diversity of award-winning wines and idyllic vineyards of snow-capped mountains and oak-studded foothills.
El Dorado is home to more than 2,000 acres of vines, approximately 50 wineries, and it produces some of California’s most sophisticated wines. The county was designated an official AVA in 1983.
Situated at 3,000 feet, Madroña consists of three family-owned vineyards – their estate vineyard, located in Apple Hill, and their Enyé and Sumu-Kaw vineyards, located in nearby Pleasant Valley. These three unique vineyard sites are planted with nearly 30 varietals, carefully selected for their unique winemaking characteristics and blending qualities.
Paul Bush - Vineyard Manager, Winemaker, Family Man
Paul grew up with the cycles of winery life, spending school vacations pruning vines and washing barrels at the winery. Today, Paul is both vineyard manager and winemaker for Madroña, balancing his days among the vines and barrels. His passion and enthusiasm for grape growing and winemaking are unmistakable and perhaps best expressed in his hands, stained rich burgundy from his grapes and calloused from hard work in the vineyard. Paul and his wife Maggie live near the winery with daughters Hanna and Tessa. Both are active in the community, having served on numerous boards, including the El Dorado County Winery Association and the Apple Hill Growers Association.
The Bush Family
"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 our entire crop within a very narrow window of time each year.” 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 (the study of the physical and chemical behavior of metal) 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 prime vineyards and a superb winery.
Today, Madroña Vineyards is a passion that has been passed on through generations, beginning with Dick and Leslie Bush, and ending with their grandchildren from sons Paul and David. The Madroña family is dedicated to continuing the tradition of artisanal craftsmanship, care of the land and love of family and friends so well set by Dick and Leslie.
A visit to the winery reveals the Bush family's respect of the land and commitment to sustainable farming. Madroña is 100% solar powered and maintains a permanent native cover crop between vineyard rows. This care and commitment to vineyard management is the cornerstone of Madroña's grape growing philosophy and results in grapes that are of the highest quality, the perfect fruit from which to make their award-winning El Dorado wines.