Sierra Foothills AVA
Showcasing unique characteristics and varietals with a spirit of exploration and discovery
It is called Rucksack Cellars in honor of the backpack owner Paul Bush wore when he hiked around Africa some years ago. By the way, backpack is an American term, while rucksack is universal in nature.
“We thought it would be nice to remember our explorations over the years,” informed Maggie Bush, co-owner and CEO of Rucksack Cellars. “We are aware that our customers and visitors are also on explorations of a sort when they visit us, so we thought the name fit our needs quite nicely.”
Rucksack Cellars began life back in 2013, when a 21-acre parcel of land in Apple Hill (just east of Placerville in Northern California) became available. The farm had been underutilized for more than five decades and was perfect for what the Bushes wanted to accomplish. All farming could be seen from US HWY 50 (the route that anyone must utilize from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe) and the couple took great pains to lay out the rows of vines in near picture-perfect splendor.
The intention was to develop a destination winery site where nature and wine could bond in true harmony. To that end, Rucksack Cellars is a place no visitor to the Sierra Foothills should ever miss.
Rucksack Cellars released its first wines (around 2,800 cases) in 2015 and was greeted with excellent initial success. It has adhered to its original business plan and will produce a similar amount of cases during the current year.
“Our experiences in our other winery (Madroña Vineyards) led us to believe there was a need for a niche winery somewhere in Apple Hill. We wanted to make small amounts of specific wines that would showcase the entire Sierra Foothills AVA. The feedback from our first customers was even better than we could have imagined,” Maggie Bush added.
The winery is only open from May through October (when the weather is absolutely spectacular) and the public is invited to taste for free. It is possible to see Mt. Diablo in the distance with only the beauty and sylvan grandeur of trees and bushes to accentuate the scene.
Some 5 ½ acres have already been planted and Rucksack Cellars expects to sell its first estate wines sometime next year.
The labels for Rucksack Cellars are a story in themselves. Since the name Rucksack embodies the ideas of travel and discovery, it inspires people to look outside the box. Non-iconic images of the surrounding countryside (taken by Maggie Bush and her friends) form the backdrop to allow the viewer to get out into the world. A passport stamp and a luggage tag subtly reinforce the winery’s theme. Also, a written postcard is faintly portrayed across the background.
Maggie and Paul Bush have given a great deal of thought to their embryonic project and Rucksack Cellars seems well on its way to a bountiful reward. In a sense, the Bushes are giving back their concept of nature and wine in a setting that will be talked about by anyone who is lucky enough to visit.
We are delighted to introduce the fine wines of Rucksack Cellars to our Gold Series members. Enjoy!
Paul Bush - Winemaker
Even though he holds a degree from heralded UC Davis, winemaker Paul Bush is unique in that his degree is in international macroeconomics and not in the popularized enology study field that has propelled UC Davis into the elite universities of America.
Paul Bush feels he has been in the wine business for most of his 49 years. “I literally grew up in the wine industry,” he related, “and the funny thing is that I never wanted to be a winemaker.”
When Bush’s wife Maggie took over the reins of the business, Bush felt compelled to do what was best for the family. “It was time that the winemaking was pulled into the family,” Bush continued. “And, I was the logical person to step into the job.”
While Bush admitted he preferred growing grapes to actually crushing and making wine, he is imaginative about the results. “Since I am self-taught in the art of winemaking, I was sure to have a prominent winemaker right there with me. Hugh (Chappelle) was and is a great Sonoma County winemaker and had a lengthy resume when he first joined our team. Hugh has continued to consult for us for many years.”
More about Paul Bush
While Paul Bush attributes most of the success and organization of Rucksack Cellars to his wife Maggie, a few minutes conversation with the wonderfully optimistic Californian definitely proves the fledgling Sierra Foothills operation is more than a one woman show.
Paul Bush started early in the wine industry and soon learned that the toil and sweat were no easy means to an end. In his teens, he worked for his family’s winery operation, Madroña Vineyards, and learned the business from the ground up.
“I quickly found out there was a lot of work attached to little return,” he recently conceded. “But the lifestyle it offered and the great quality of existence that was attached to the hard work more than made up for the return.”
Once the decision to begin Rucksack Cellars was made, Paul Bush soon realized he was in a perfect position to develop a wine paradigm that he had harbored for some time. The Rucksack Cellars location in the vast expanse of the Sierra Foothills offered an abundance of choices for grapes, soils, climates and practically everything important to an assiduous winemaker.
“There are so many possibilities available in the AVA (Sierra Foothills) that it practically blows one’s mind,” he remarked. “From cold to warm climates, from great soils to some of the rockiest in all of California, the AVA provides a plethora of opportunities to bring out the great terroirs that populate the entire area. My goal is to source fruit that showcases the unique characteristics of our diverse appellation.”
Bush also uses the word ‘typicity’ to explain his winery’s goal. “Typicity encompasses the character of a variety of grape regardless of where it is grown. Terroir relates to the characters of the region and includes soils and climates without regard to the varietal. My excitement comes from the fact that I am able to showcase a Zinfandel from El Dorado that is completely different from one grown in Calaveras. They are completely dissimilar wines from the same grape and that makes for a wonderful taste experience,” he added.
Paul Bush also pointed out that the extensive traveling he and wife Maggie did in Europe (and in particular around Cahors in southwestern France) made the idea of advancing the travel aspect to their newly-formed venture that was Rucksack Cellars.
“In France, we found wines that described the place to the proverbial ‘t’. We wanted to do the same thing here in Apple Hill (considered the agri-tourism destination of California) and provide a meeting of nature and taste in the minds and palates of our customers and friends. That’s why we taste outdoors at Rucksack Cellars; it’s all part of the sensory experience,” he explained.
Bush is a most contented man in that he is in the process of realizing a long time dream. With the planting of additional vineyards that will allow Rucksack Cellars their own estate bottlings, he foresees additional opportunities (and challenges) ahead for the small winery.
“With over 100 wineries in the AVA, we would like to be the one everyone remembers,” he finalized. “I intend to see that that happens.”
About the Region
The Sierra Foothills Appellation is a huge area that encompasses several hundred miles along California’s eastern border and includes a whopping 2,600,000 acres. A total of six sub appellations exist that points out the area’s unique mix of climates, soils and other influencing factors.
As you would expect, practically every recognizable varietal can be found within the confines of the Sierra Foothills AVA and each varietal tends to mirror the unique differences that part of Northern California has to offer.
Vineyards can be found at ground level along the very base of the foothills (around 1,500 feet) and also up to 3,500 feet in the higher elevations, making the vines among the highest in California. Soils are mostly volcanic in nature and tend to provide an excellent home for the wide assortment of varietals.
As you would also expect from so large an area, the climate also varies widely. Using the UC Davis scale of 1 – 5 (1 being the coldest and 5 the warmest) the region has climates that vary between 2 and 4 that provide excellent growing conditions in a number of areas. Top varietals (in acres planted) are Zinfandel (2,400+), Cabernet Sauvignon (650), Syrah (620), Chardonnay (300), Merlot and Barbera (around 250 acres each).
Yields tend to be toward the low side, particularly at the higher elevations. Vineyards have existed in the Sierra Foothills since the time James Marshall discovered gold in the American River and fueled the oft-romanticized California Gold Rush. It has been reported that some Old Vine Zinfandel from the area still produces usable fruit.