Napa man commutes to El Dorado County to create a winery — step by step
...Elena has been working with grapes one way or another since 1975 when he came to Napa from Tonala, Oaxaca. After 23 years working for other companies, in 2001 he opened his own installation and vineyard management company.
In addition to doing vineyard management, Elena said, “I like real estate.” He’d already bought and sold land in El Dorado County, when he found this site in 2004, just off Highway 49, between Placerville and Auburn, and not far from Coloma, where James Marshall first discovered gold in 1848. The 2,000-foot peak looks down, far below on forests and fields and the American Canyon River.
The property was nothing but a cliff when he first saw it, Elena said. “We were crawling under bushes to see it.”
His brother, José Efrain Poncé, helped him with the rough clearing, and it was Poncé who advised him not to just turn this property around, but to plant grapes and make wine and build a wine cave that would be protection from the hot foothill sun.
“He was camping up here,” Elena recalled. “He said it was so high and peaceful, he thought he could speak with the gods.”
When Poncé died in an accident later that year, Elena decided to take his brother’s advice. “He had a heart of gold and he was a smart guy,” Elena said.
“I did it step by step,” he said. “It took years to open the doors. We did everything from scratch.”
He made the 2 1/2 hour commute mostly on weekends, leaving his home in Napa at 3:30 in the morning. Workers from his company pitched in to help. “I told them the only way we could make it is to do it all ourselves,” he said. “Plant the grapes, harvest, make the wine and sell it. When we don’t have work in the fields, we come here. I keep them busy.”
All the vineyard work has to be done by hand on the steep, 37 percent grade hillside, he said. “We can’t use tractors.”
He financed it all himself as well. “The banks don’t loan money to working-class people,” he said, so he used savings and credit cards to get the project going.
After navigating the bureaucratic challenge of permits and rezoning, he was ready to plant — and drew on his years of experience in figuring out what might thrive in the rocky, dry, hot site.
“My idea was to do what grows well in this country,” he said. “I knew that cab, merlot and chardonnay wouldn’t do well. And I like to experiment with new varietals. I like to play with wines.”
He planted 2 1/2 acres of aglianico, an Italian varietal that needs heat. He also planted dolcetto, syrah, montepulciano and petit verdot. “Three Italian, one American and one French varietals,” he said. “For wines made by a Oaxacan winemaker. I think I’m the first Mexican to open a winery in this country. These are global wines.”
One advantage of the site, he said, is he has no problem with pests. “There is no need to use chemicals.” And after the grapes were established, he began dry farming them. “After three years, we don’t water,” he said.
The even greater challenge was building the winery. Elena spent the years 2005 to 2008 getting permits. He designed the building, as well as the expansive outdoor plaza. He planted olive trees and built gazebos where visitors could take in the spectacular view. He even got Wi-Fi service for the remote site.
He hit a roadblock, however, when engineers told him it would be impossible to build a cave. “Here it was, Jose Wine Caves — but no cave,” he said.
In 2008 he ...
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