From Soil to Sip: Madroña’s 50-Year Journey in Winemaking in El Dorado County

By Published On: February 6, 2023

For more than 50 years, the Bush family has been making wine in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. The family, who originally was not into farming, moved back to Placerville, California in 1967.  Situated in El Dorado County, they purchased a property in Camino, where they were advised by local officials to grow grapes.

With the help of books on California flora and fauna, the Bushs found that the property had similar agricultural characteristics to other higher elevation grape growing regions like Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino. The family, initially, decided to plant 32 acres with all grapes and have not looked back. The name ‘Madroña’ holds significance to the winery as it pays tribute to a majestic Madrone tree on the property. With a 13-foot-circumference trunk, the tree was one of the reasons the family decided the land was ideal for growing grapes.

Fall in the vineyards. Credit: Madroña Vineyards

Growing up in the family business, Paul Bush and his siblings learned the ropes of the trade, working in the vineyards and handling various tasks, from labeling bottles to managing vineyards. Despite his upbringing, Paul never expected to end up in the wine industry himself. “It’ll be a cold day in hell before you find me back in the wine industry,” Paul told his college roommate. But fate had different plans for the young economist. In 1999, he married Maggie, who brought her expertise in accounting and tax planning to the table, and together, they took over the reins of the family business.  The two have been able to steer Madroña Vineyards to new heights.  In 2002, Paul took over winemaking, determined to showcase the terroir of the vineyards in each bottle.

At Madroña Vineyards, the art of winemaking is a complex dance between the soil, elevation, climate and the vines themselves.  The vineyard sits at between 2,800 to 3,000 feet on decomposed volcanic soils.  “At this elevation, our temperatures are moderate during the summer with highs usually in the mid-80’s and breezes out of the west,” said Paul.  “At night, our breezes change and come out of the east, providing a cool downslope breeze out of the alpine regions of the Sierra Nevada.”  The combination of moderate temperatures, cool breezes, and long hours of sunlight creates a constant growth cycle for the vines during the summer.

What sets El Dorado County apart is its elevation. The growing year cycle is delayed compared to other regions of California, giving the vines a longer time to mature and develop character and complexity. The summer heat that pushes other regions scrambling to pick grapes before their overripe  does not impact El Dorado in the same way, allowing the grapes to reach phenolic maturity in September and October when the daylight is shorter and the temperatures are cooler.

Paul adopts a hands-off approach when it comes to winemaking, unless the wines require guidance. He strongly believes a balanced wine is the epitome of quality, which can be enjoyed with food, have aging potential, and be intriguing to taste.  Though blending may be necessary to achieve the desired balance, Paul’s aim is always to showcase the essence of the vineyard.

Paul, Leslie and Maggie Bush celebrating their 50th. Credit: Madroña Vineyards

Madroña makes a Cabernet Franc that was initially grafted over to the vineyard in 1983 and driven by the desire to create “true” Bordeaux blends in California.  However, they soon discovered the variety was fickle and prone to developing a pyrazine character if grown in the wrong conditions. Fortunately, their efforts paid off and the Bush family fell in love with the complexity and boldness of the grape. According to Paul, maintaining the unique character of Cabernet Franc is of utmost importance in the winemaking process. He carefully balances the use of new oak to soften the tannins, while emphasizing the versatility of Cabernet Franc as a food pairing wine.  The high elevation vineyard location contributes to the wine’s cool climate reflection with structure, density, elegance, and depth.

 They also have a long history with Gewürztraminer, having planted the grape variety due to the success of Riesling in their vineyards as it would thrive in the cooler conditions. The goal of the wine is to showcase its intense varietal character. The wine’s rich and unctuous texture is balanced by a hint of bitterness, which is a natural varietal character.  Paul notes that Gewürztraminer is the perfect match for spicy food– with jerked chicken being the memorable pairing.

The Bush family also makes a New-World Port wine, which is a blend of seven Portuguese varieties that are grown in the Sumu Kaw Vineyards out in Pleasant Valley. The focus is to achieve balance, especially with the high alcohol and residual sugar content typical of Port-style wines. “When fortifying–also fortify on the low side–just enough to stop the fermentation. It’s easier to add a little more brandy than try to take the alcohol out,” said Paul.

Madroña considers itself a “Community Winery” and offers wine at reasonable price points ranging from $14-$38. El Dorado County is unique in that most of the wineries are family-owned and operated, which allows for the production of passionate, distinctive wines.  As part of ‘The El Dorado 8” (a group of 8 wineries that taste together) helps to further that sense of local comraderie, with wineries sharing information on successes and struggles in the industry. Overcoming challenges such as smoke and frosts due to climate change, requires flexibility and creative thinking for mitigation solutions.  This recent harvest produced high-quality wines, despite being hit by three frosts that resulted in a significant loss of 60-70% of the crop. 

 As they are gearing up for their 50th anniversary this year, the Bush family will be celebrating the winery’s rich history by showcasing its vintage collection and releasing rare and limited edition wines.  Madroña is also hosting a series of themed dinners, including Cabernet Sauvignon, 80’s theme, Nebbiolos and Cab Francs.  “Making a truly great Cabernet Franc or an invigoratingly bright Riesling that both my wife and I enjoy is the point. That’s what helps me sleep at night!,” said Paul.

The wines featured in the Wine Recommendations section were provided by the winery for the purpose of review. The selection and tasting of these wines were independently conducted. No compensation or incentives were provided for inclusion in the story. As always, the top priority is to provide readers with informative and unbiased reporting.

Wine Recommendations

2018 Cabernet Franc- exudes bold dark stone fruit aromatics with flavors of highly concentrated blackberry, tart cherry, and black pepper with an acidic backbone and long finish.

Out in the vineyards. Credit: Madroña Vineyards

2018 Cabernet Sauvignon- boasts a rich maroon hue, with nuanced flavors of black currant, blueberry, and black cherry, accented by a subtle touch of spice. The addition of Cabernet Franc adds a layer of aromatic complexity, while Merlot lends a smoothness to the tannins. A delightful high-elevation expression with a lingering finish.  

2019 Syrah- luscious black fruit, seasoned with a hint of pepper and a touch of spice. The tannins are harmoniously woven into the wine’s composition, contributing to a well-balanced depth and intensity.

2020 Gewürztraminer- breathtakingly crisp and refreshing elixir, capturing the essence of Alsace in each sip. Its floral bouquet yields to the seductive tastes of honey, apple, vanilla, and ripe peaches, culminating in a tantalizing symphony of flavor. The high elevation terroir adds an invigorating breeze to this already exceptional offering.

2022 Riesling- lush tropical scents and a flavor profile marked by tangy lemon, luscious honey, and juicy peach. The wine presents a harmonious blend of richness and crispness, striking a delicate balance between succulent fruit and bright acidity. 

About the Author: Joe Campbell

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Located out of the Sierra Foothills of California, Joe Campbell provides color commentary as well as insight within the wine industry both from the lifestyle consumer and business segments of the industry. He can be reached via email at : .