LEXI: What were those first couple of years on the property like? Describe the people and work that went into getting the winery started.
GREG: The first few years were challenging and demanding, but in retrospect not stressful. We had both left our jobs and were working for ourselves. Well, technically we were working for Sue's father Dr. Babbin, being 10% owners in the B&B ranch making $500/month farming pears and planting vineyards. But all the decisions were ours; Dr. Babbin gave us free rein to develop the business as we saw fit. It wasn't until 1981 that we became 50% owners and subsequently majority owners.
Initially we were essentially pear farmers but clearing and planting 10 acres of vacant land to vineyard. Part of the orchard was 3 acres of peaches that was more demanding than any other aspect of the operation. Elmo had a list of customers that would purchase the peaches but only on the same day they were picked. So up at 5:00am every day to pick and pack fresh peaches for eager, but discriminating customers. After one summer of this abuse, Sue decided that the peach orchard had to go and it became the site of our first vineyard, Merlot, planted in 1973. There was another 5 acres of Empress plums that were picked and sold to Blue Anchor packing in Loomis, but were quite profitable and easier to handle than the peaches, so we continued to farm them until 1990.
One unique experience of the plum operation was that Sue would sometimes drive to Loomis in our old '46 Dodge flatbed with 262 lug boxes of plums strapped on the bed. On her first trip she was pregnant with Justin at the time and took our cousin, Karen Boeger, along for company. The packing house was run by traditional Japanese men who were very deferential to her in her delicate situation, offering to unload and retie the boxes onto the flatbed. Noticing her extended condition the foreman asked Sue "What have you got there--a picker or a packer"? In packing house parlance women were "packers" and men were "pickers". To add to the drama, on the way home going up the steep grade called Buffalo Hill she thought the engine was overheating and saw what she thought was a red-hot burning hood on the truck, abruptly pulled off the side of the road and they both scrambled away some distance from the truck thinking it was going to explode. After a few minutes and passers-by looking wonderingly at them, they cautiously edged back to the truck to see what was happening and they embarrassingly noticed that in fact the hood was not in flame- that it only was the oxidized rusted paint on the hood shimmering in the sun that made it look like it was overheating. They sheepishly got back into the truck and made their way back to the ranch, not telling anyone about the experience until some weeks later.
One of the first responsibilities of planting a vineyard was to first establish a deer fence around the perimeter to protect the young vines from marauding bands off deer who love young tender grape shoots. To help achieve this my old friend, Bill Wagner, whom I've known since kindergarten offered to help. Coincidentally he was working in Sacramento as a planner for SACOG (Sacramento Area Council of Governments) and offered to assist in this project on the weekends. Every weekend he and his wife, Pam, would come up and stay at the ranch, work all day on the fence line and have a sumptuous repast in the evenings. To assist in this endeavor we had the assistance of a long-time employee of Elmo, Ed Fairover, who was a 5th generation Chilean whose forefathers came to Placerville in the Gold Rush. Ed was a big man and incredibly strong- he could drive stakes or dig post holes all day long without tiring. He was not very conversational, but congenial and never shied from a daunting job. My father, being an engineer and welder, had built a movable platform mounted on the back of our Caterpillar that could be raised or lowered for pounding in 10' T posts. From this platform Ed would pound in the posts as Bill held them in place and I moved the Cat forward for the next post. We did this all summer, ultimately encircling over fifty acres of potential vineyard. After installing the posts we then returned to attach the vineyard wire in 4' rolls to the T posts. For this my dad also had built a movable spool attachment to raise or lower the roll of wire to whatever level we needed. With the deer fence installed we now could proceed with planting the grapes.
Initially the planting crew was myself, Bill Wagner, John Babbin, Ed Fairover, and Joe Brubaker. Joe was an art student at the local college and rented the old family home above the tasting room. Never having enough money for rent, he worked it off doing labor on the ranch. And lacking that, he would give us his early paintings and wood sculptures to make up any deficiencies. Now that he is a nationally recognized artist his early works are valuable and make a prominent part of our winery art display.
The most onerous part of planting the vineyard, after clearing and laying out the design, was to dig the holes for each vine. To do this, our neighbor and Christmas tree grower, Mel Irving, loaned us his backpack augers which was essentially a 2-cycle engine strapped on your back with a flexible cable with handlebars and an auger on the end. After your partner starting the engine for you, one proceeds to the planting peg for each vine, revs the engine, and drives the auger beside the stake. Sounds simple, but it didn't account for the rocky ground that we encountered. Every time the auger hit a rock it would bind the cable and force the handle bars into your thigh. After a few hours your leg was a beaten, red pulp and to add insult to injury, your back was drenched and burning with gasoline leaking from the fuel tank. To accommodate this agony we would trade off the augers frequently, but after five acres we decided there must be an easier way.
The planting happened to coincide with pear harvest in 1973 for which was traditionally handled by the extended Garcia family: Humberto Garcia, foreman, brother Javier, and uncles, nephews, brothers and neighbors from their home ranch in Jalisco- about ten men in total. We noticed how well-managed they had the pear harvest. It was an enlightening work experience to head out to the orchards in a cool morning mist and hear Mexican folk songs being sung as the sun came up. This was a diligent and skilled crew, who were not only hard-working but happy and cohesive as a team- why not see if they might like to help plant the grapes? They gladly obliged, but after trying the backpack augers, they decided a hand auger and shovel was a better way to go. It was simply amazing to watch this crew, what had taken us three weeks to do, they did in a week and they seemed no worse the wear for it. They would wrap up each day with a barbecue, beer, music and singing! From then on we had a reliable planting crew and this is how it has continued to this day- with the same family.
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.