Holly’s Hill Vineyards: A Touch of Rhone in the Heart of El Dorado

By Published On: February 3, 2022

The origin story of Holly’s Hill Vineyards can best be explained through a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape that  Tom and Holly Cooper shared on their honeymoon- it was love at first sight.  Located in El Dorado’s Pleasant Valley, nestled in the Sierra Foothills, the vineyard originally started out as a ranch the family used as a retreat and a place to raise cattle.  

Josh and Carrie Bendick

The Coopers began looking for property to grow grapes and when Tom’s mother wanted to sell the ranch, they realized this would be the perfect site to plant a vineyard. Holly also wanted to live on a hill and the ranch checked that box as well giving rise to the name of the business. In 1998, the Coopers planted their first grapes. Rhone varieties made sense based on the location and the couple’s overall passion for the varieties.  They hired Ron Mansfield as the vineyard manager, a Rhone pioneer, to help get the vineyard off the ground and running.  

Years later their daughter, Carrie, would get into the wine industry. Her interest in wine slowly built upon itself. Early on, neighbor and owner of Sierra Vista Winery (at the time), John MacCready advised her to talk to winemakers and ask questions about getting into the cellar to learn how the operation worked, which gave her a hands-on education with varied responsibilities and multiple decision points in a wine’s life and the cyclical nature of the process. 

After working at another local winery, and meeting her now husband, Josh Bendick, who was also in the wine industry; they eventually joined the family business.  Both Carrie and Josh are heavily involved in all facets of the operation from sales to winemaking. In fact, they see themselves as co-winemakers, which often leads to customers asking how do you split out the work? “I like to tell people that if they like the wine, I made it,” joked Josh. “If they don’t, Carrie did it.  But seriously, Carrie is the better scientist and I have more patience for fixing the bottling line and moving wine.  I feel we make a good team.  She keeps us organized and I don’t mind getting my hands dirty and throwing out my back.”

A lot of their winemaking style inspiration comes from visits to Europe.  They tried a ten year old Roussanne with Paul Avril and his son at Clos des Papes that knocked their socks off. While in Tuscany, they received advice on perseverance that it would be an uphill challenge during the early years.   They are ultimately focused on minimal winemaking intervention with the goal of having customers taste the fruit and not be overwhelmed by oak or anything else. 

A flagship of their wine offerings are their red and white Rhone blends called “The Patriarche.”   For the Patriarche Blanc it starts with Roussanne as the dominant grape with the addition of Viognier, Grenache Blanc and possibly some Picpoul depending on the vintage.  One of the key characteristics they are looking for when making this blend is an orange creamsicle flavor. Years ago they stumbled across that flavor profile and look to replicate it year after year to get that composition right. 

For the Patriarche red blend, Mourvedre is always the dominant variety followed by Syrah, which provides the tannins and the fruits to make this wine age worthy followed by Grenache Noir and/or Counoise. “We started out making this wine with a co-fermented field blend.  We then adjust the blend with lots that are fermented separately just prior to bottling.  Each year the percentages are different but always using the same four varieties to give us the best wine possible with Châteauneuf-du-Pape in mind,” said Josh.

Based on customer feedback, they also bottle the Counoise on its own.   Less popular than other Rhone varieties like Syrah and Grenache, this wine is ready to drink now with pretty red fruits and often a raspberry syrup quality to it.  “It’s like a white wine in that we expect people to drink it the year we bottle it so that it still has all those fresh fruits and youthful aromatics,” said Josh.  

The property is made up of two vineyards separated by a county road. The original ranch property makes up 15 acres, wrapping around a hill giving you a 360 degree exposure while the tasting room side is 10 acres and was planted just two years after the original.  “Although we are at a high elevation, the fact that we are at the top of a hill helps to keep the temperatures warm. Cool air settles into the canyons keeping us largely frost free.  During storms, though, everything gets mixed up sometimes bringing us snow,” said Josh.

El Dorado as a wine region continues to be an off the beaten path wine adventure with crazy, fun roads to drive and spectacular views.  Unlike Napa Valley or the Russian River, there is not necessarily one variety the region can hang its hat on as the diversity allows for the opportunity to make many types of different wines.

“Twenty years ago there was a quality issue with many wineries, but I don’t see that anymore. The wines are serious even though you can enter a tasting room and have a down to earth experience with the winery owners and winemakers themselves,” said Josh. “There is lots of potential for growth here too as the barrier to entry is lower than in other growing areas.  Our wineries are tiny compared to other regions so there isn’t the money to get the word out, but that’s also a plus because our customers like the fact that they are in on the secret.”

Wine Recommendations

2020 Mourvedre Classique- a lighter bodied style with flavors of black cherry, blueberry, with a little mocha followed up by a nice smooth finish. This wine is ready to drink now and just an excellent representation of what the region offers.

2020 Patriarche Red blend- a composition of 41% Mourvedre, 38% Syrah, 11% Grenache and 10% Counoise. Flavors of raspberry, black pepper and plum while showcasing a great tannin structure.

2020 Counoise- earthy cherry red in color with flavors of blueberry and strawberry. Soft tannins, bright acidity followed by a smooth finish.

2020 Viognier- nicely balanced with flavors of pineapple, mandarin and honeysuckle. A crisp, clean wine with a long finish.

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 : joe@winebulletin.net .