On Wine: Putting the Foothills on the Map


The Sierra Foothills wine world is changing fast as new vineyards, new talent and millions in investment dollars take root. Would you believe the winemaker likely to affect the area the most in the next decade moved there to get away from it all?
     Marco Cappelli is the region’s go-to guy, a blue-chip consultant who spins gold for his many winery clients. He forged his reputation as the founding winemaker of Swanson Vineyards of Napa Valley, a position he held for 17 vintages. But five years ago, he moved to El Dorado County and began to work with local vintners. With his hands in about a dozen projects, Cappelli is integral to the region’s evolution, much as his mentor, André Tchelistcheff, made his mark on an emerging Napa Valley.
     But if it sounds like he’s ridden in on a white horse to clean up Hangtown, nothing could be further from the truth. Cappelli took the road to El Dorado to get away from his high-profile career in Napa.
     “The foothills have everything I’ve wanted in the wine business. It took me a long time to find it,” says Cappelli, citing the history, beauty and geography of the region.
     He bought Herbert Vineyard in Fair Play, renowned for its Zinfandel and Syrah, and drew satisfaction from digging fence posts and pruning vines. “I naively thought I could make a living growing grapes on my 12 acres, live a modest agricultural life and take my naps every afternoon,” he says. But grape prices and yields were both lower than he expected. Luckily, he was still consulting for Swanson. More clients followed as word got out that he was available.
     “In just four years, he has taken our winery to notoriety,” says winery owner Paul Toogood of Fair Play. Toogood Estate Winery’s Bordeaux blend, the 2006 Foreplay, was voted best wine in El Dorado out of 600 entries at the El Dorado County Fair.
     Cappelli doesn’t wield a magic grape stake, but he does have 25 years of experience working in Europe and Australia as well as California, and he was mentored by the greats. He has an uncanny feel for the vineyard and for picking times, Toogood says, and “probably one of the best blending palates of anybody I’ve met in 35 years.”
     So, is he a demanding artiste in the cellar?
     “He’s the best example of what it means to be a gentleman. He’s raised the bar for the rest of the male gender,” says Toogood. Cappelli at work is “kind and wise,” he notes, adding that the winemaker bonds with workers and visitors by speaking with them in French, Italian or Spanish as well as his own modulated English.
     Cappelli insists he is just one cog in a large machine. When pressed, he admits that one benefit he brings the Sierra Foothills is media coverage. “I can offer credibility on the outside, since writers may take a chance on the area because of my Napa Valley experience,” he says. He has received visits from Tim Fish of Wine Spectator and Steve Heimoff of Wine Enthusiast. Both influential wine magazines gave scores in the 90s to several of Cappelli’s clients.
     Paul Bush, the second-generation owner of Madroña Vineyards, doesn’t know Cappelli but welcomes his commitment to the area. “When someone of his caliber says, ‘I’m willing to show people how great the fruit from El Dorado County is and stake my reputation on it,’ . . . that can only help the rest of us,” says Bush.

Marco Cappelli serves as winemaker or consultant for more than 70 different wines, including Bray, Deaver, Fenton Herriott, Indian Rock, Miraflores, Sierra Moon, Sierra Starr, Swanson, Toogood and True Vine.

Elaine’s picks of the month

2007 Miraflores Viognier El Dorado (mirafloreswinery.com, $18)—With floral aromas dripping with apricot and pear, this full-bodied white wine has a soft texture, nice acidity and some nuttiness on the mid-palate.

2005 Miraflores Zinfandel El Dorado (mirafloreswinery.com, $22)—Made of grapes from the Miraflores estate and from winemaker Marco Cappelli’s Herbert Vineyard, this Zin surprises with its lively balance and elegant texture. Concentrated plum, raspberry and fig flavors, with baking spices and orange peel. Fresh acidity and a long finish further distinguish this Foothills Zin.