Boeger Winery Father-Daughter Interview
1) What inspired you to be a winemaker?
There were multiple factors that played a role in my becoming a winemaker. Probably the most significant was spending a lot of time at the winery and vineyard founded by my grandfather Anton Nichelini in Napa Co. in 1890. When I was growing up my cousin, Jim Nichelini, ran the winery and I spent time helping during harvest as well as winter pruning. This experience laid the groundwork for my initial love of growing grapes and making wine.
Secondly, I attended UC Davis and became friends with a graduate enology student, Joe Rossi, whose father also owned a winery in Oakdale and who encouraged me to take introductory classes in winemaking with the renowned professors Maynard Amerine and Vernon Singleton and later, viticulture classes with Jim Cook and Harold Olmo now famous for their work in grapevine breeding leading to new varieties adapted to the warm California climate. In these classes I learned both the art and the science of winemaking and viticultural practices. Also in these classes I had the opportunity to know Justin Meyer, founder of Silver Oak winery in Oakville and from whom I gave the name to my son, Justin Boeger. UC Davis at the time was laying the foundation for a revival and expansion of the wine industry of California experienced in the late 60's and early '70's with a vibrant set of young winemakers, many of them women such as Mayann Graff and Zelma Long who set out to transform the California winemaking scene and bring it to a new and higher level of quality, reputation and distinction.
Concurrently, having the Nichelini property as a resource, I cleared overgrown ground on the site of our abandoned old family vineyard established in 1884 and planted new vines to learn the reality and ground up experience of actually developing a vineyard.
And lastly, on the Boeger side of the family, I had the the fortune of working summers during High School with my cousin, George Boeger, on his apricot ranch in San Jose. Driving tractor, forklift and trucks during harvest, learning from the ground up what was truly involved in the basics of farming. I learned that it was hard work, needed to be done in a timely manner, that equipment needed to be maintained and repaired, and the crop needed to picked when it was ready, not when you were ready. I also had the privilege of working four years with Mexican-American workers, speaking and improving my Spanish daily, and trying to keep up with their tireless work ethic. This experience served me well when we bought our Placerville pear ranch which employed a similar group of skilled workers, some of whom are still working here to this day. We would have been lost without them.
2) What drew you to El Dorado County and this property in particular?
After graduating from UCD in 1968 I took a job with the California Crop and Livestock Service doing statistical analysis on California fruit and nut crops, but in particular doing the annual Grape Crush report and grape acreage survey. This was an exciting time of expansion of the winegrape industry and I was not immune to its lure. Realizing I didn't want to make a career of government work, I began to explore the possibilities of starting my own vineyard and winery. My father-in-law, Dr. George Babbin, expressed interest in investing in vineyard land, and with his encouragement I began a search for land. The first opportunity was an offer from my cousins, Joe and Jim Nichelini, to be a partner their vineyard in Napa County originally planted by their parents in 1929. But after analyzing the proposal, I decided not to accept mainly because I wanted to do something on my own and not be involved in a partnership arrangement. So I began to look elsewhere, first in Sonoma and Napa Counties, but land prices were even then relatively high and no one seemed interested in encouraging a new vineyard enterprise. I then recalled a newspaper article in the Sacramento Bee extolling the potential of winegrape growing in El Dorado Co. It was authored by the Agricultural Commissioner Ed Delfino and the Farm Advisor, Dick Bethell and detailed how they had planted six experimental vineyards throughout the County and had wine made from them at UC Davis and the results were both encouraging and positive. So with this bit of information I made a trip to El Dorado to meet with both of them.
It was a propitious meeting and a portent of the future. They took me around the county showing me potential properties and meeting with local farmers who might want to sell some land. They were enthusiastic and encouraging and vowed to continue to help in my search. In a short time, with Ed Delfino's help, we found a pear farmer, Elmo Fossati, who might be willing to sell his orchard. The beauty of his ranch was that it had been in the same family for five generations and was the site of a gold-rush era vineyard and winery from the 1860's -1920's and the original winery and distillery buildings still remained, although the vineyards had been converted to pear orchards. The other main drawing point was that it was on Carson Road, the major thoroughfare for the newly formed Apple Hill Growers Association with thousands of tourists and potential customers driving by in the Fall. Elmo was asking $132,000 but after much negotiation we settled on a price of $110,000, but only if I would get on the caterpillar and spray the orchard. It was late February and the orchard needed its dormant spray and Elmo didn't want to do it--he was tired of running the orchard and wanted to retire. So Sue and I took the skis off the rack (we were going skiing, but stopped to see Elmo for some final negotiation) and I jumped on the tractor. Such was the auspicious beginning of Boeger Winery.