A new prospect
Jan./Feb. 2011 California Country magazine
Story by Steve Adler
Photos by Matt Salvo
Couple stakes their claim on grapes instead of gold
It was the hunger for gold that drew prospectors to Georgetown more than 160 years ago. Now it is the thirst for fine wine that has brought a new kind of pioneer to this community known during the Gold Rush as the "Pride of the Mountains."
Georgetown traces its roots to the summer of 1849, when a company of sailors led by George Philips gave it the name "Growlersburg" because of the heavy, gold-laden quartz rocks that "growled" in their pockets. It is said that the miners took out a fortune in gold from a stream a short distance from the present town site, nestled alongside the El Dorado National Forest in the Sierra Nevada foothills about 50 miles east of Sacramento.
There are still a few miners around, looking for that elusive new Mother Lode. But most of the community's 389 households earn their income through more contemporary pursuits.
Alexandra and John Duarte are modern-day pioneers, planting a 110-acre vineyard in a remote area of the Sierra Nevada near the historic Gold Rush community of Georgetown. The couple’s flavorful mountain wines are created from winegrape varieties including cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot, tempranillo, malbec, grenache, syrah and petite sirah.
Two people prospecting for a new kind of gold in this historic area are John and Alexandra Duarte. President of family-owned Duarte Nursery in Stanislaus County, John has diversified his agricultural pursuits by planting winegrape vineyards. The latest venture is in Georgetown, where the couple's 110-acre vineyard just completed its sixth harvest. Cabernet sauvignon is the vineyard's emphasis, but other red-grape varieties grown there include petit verdot, tempranillo, malbec, grenache, syrah and petite sirah, which he describes as an exceptionally challenging variety to grow.
Winegrapes have long been grown in the Sierra foothills, such as in Amador County 35 miles to the south. But establishing vineyards in the area known as the Georgetown Divide is something new. At 2,500 feet in elevation, the Duartes' high-mountain vineyard was created from forestland situated between two steep canyons carved by the south and middle forks of the American River.
When the Duartes started checking out property to purchase in the Sierra, they had in mind a 20- to 40-acre site upon which they could build a summer cabin and have horses. But when John saw the rich soil at the Georgetown site, he said he realized its potential for producing great mountain wines.
"We heard about this 388-acre parcel and decided to take a look," the third-generation California farmer recalled. "When we were driving up to the site, I saw the rich, red clay loam soil. It was very clear to me at that point that this would be an exceptional vineyard site."
After receiving the necessary permits, the Duartes planted their vines in 2002. The vines cover about a third of the site, with the remainder left in its natural state.
The fruit is harvested by hand and transformed into intensely flavored wines such as Gaudacious Petite Sirah, which the Duartes describe as a “giant, lush, mouth-filling titan.”
This new treasure of the Sierra grows in deep-purple clusters on the grapevines, which are then hand harvested and turned into mountain wines that the couple describe as "consistently flavorful, structured and intense." Their wines can be found in some Modesto-area restaurants and markets or purchased online (duartegeorgetown.com). Labels include Duarte Georgetown Cabernet Sauvignon, Georgetown Divide Violent Sky and Gaudacious Petite Sirah.
The creation of Duarte-Georgetown Vineyard was something special for both John and Alexandra.
"John is the one with the real passion for wine and I have always loved mountains," said Alexandra, who grew up in the Blue Mountains of Australia (think "The Man from Snowy River") and is an accomplished equestrian. "So this is something that John and I get to do together and we can move forward at our own pace."
The Duartes are strong advocates for maintaining California's farming and ranching tradition and are adept at speaking out on behalf of agriculture. In the 1990s, they were both winners of the California Farm Bureau Young Farmers and Ranchers State Discussion Meet, which features young agriculturalists in spirited debates about issues of importance to farmers and ranchers—from water conservation to food safety.
"John had won the Discussion Meet just before I met him. He loved the program and told me that I should try it," Alexandra said. "It was just amazing. It taught me a lot about agriculture very quickly and I met all sorts of amazing people."
She recalls how she would be speaking to bankers in Sacramento one day and then talking to another group in Fresno.
"We still host a lot of events for Young Farmers and Ranchers and we certainly make an effort to help out whenever asked, hosting meetings, pouring wine, entertaining visiting dignitaries," she said.
The Duartes have been married for 16 years and have four children—Victoria, 12, Isaac, 10, Cassandra, 8, and Elizabeth, 5. Alexandra recalls that when she came to California from Australia nearly two decades ago, it was her intention to stay a year or two and then go back to Australia and get a job.
"But that never did happen," she added with a smile.
Steve Adler is a reporter for California Country. He can be reached at 800- 698-FARM or email@example.com.
California wine 101
- California is the No. 4 wine producer in the world, after the countries of France, Italy and Spain.
- California produces approximately 90 percent of all wine made in America and two-thirds of all wine sold in the United States.
- In 2009, there were 2,972 bonded wineries and 4,600 winegrape growers throughout California.
- The California wine business pumps more than $60 billion into the state's economy.
- More than 20 million people visit California wine country each year. (Check www.discovercaliforniawine.com for wineries near you.)
- Approximately 2.8 pounds of grapes are used to make one bottle of wine.
- One vine produces enough grapes for four to six bottles of wine.
- One barrel of wine equals approximately 20 (12-bottle) cases and 1,200 glasses.
Source: Wine Institute