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Gold Hill: A great place to chill

Award-winning wine right around the corner
By: Tim Menicutch Telegraph Editor
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There's no need to wrestle with the wretched, westbound I-80-corridor traffic for a weekend trip to the traditional wine country. In fact, a short trip up scenic Highway 49 to Gold Hill Vineyards on the outskirts of historic Coloma might even make a local wine connoisseur forever forgo the trying trek to Napa. Founded in 1980 by Hank Battjes, a former electrical engineer in the Bay Area, Gold Hill is turning out award-winning wines like clockwork. We've got the best Cabernet Sauvignon around, Battjes, who spends most of his days overseeing the 50-acre parcel by scurrying about in his golf cart. Most people didn't think you could make a good Cab up here. But we get gold medals in Orange County nearly every year. Battjes, 70, hasn't pinpointed the exact reason for the success of his wines, but he offers some theories. The vineyard has uniform, well-drained soil, said Battjes, who made his first bottle of wine in 1973 in his basement in Palo Alto. And we always let the grapes stay on the vine long enough to ripen. Gold Hill wines have captured seven California State Fair medals since 2002. Twice a Gold Hill wine has earned a double-gold medal “ the '03 Merlot at the Amador Fair and the '03 Cabernet Sauvignon at the El Dorado County Fair. We've tasted wines all over California and this is the best, said Jason Norris, 31, of Camino who was visiting the Gold Hill tasting room on a recent Sunday afternoon. I like these wines better than the Napa wines. Just up the hill and a mere stone's throw away from Gold Hill Vineyard is David Girard Vineyard, which planted its grapes in 1998 and started selling wine in April of 2005. People from the area used to go to Napa all the time, said Mari Wells, 30, winemaker at David Girard. But now they realize they just have to go in their own backyard to find good wine. David Girard Vineyard, which will host a wine-tasting class Saturday from noon to 1:30 p.m., specializes in Rhone-style wines and was awarded 88 points in the September issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine for its 2004 Syrah. Karen Zuschlag, a wine-tasting room steward for Gold Hill, said the most popular pours lately have been the '02 Red, the '05 Cabernet Sauvignon, the '05 Merlot and the '04 Barbera. The Barbera and the Red are moving really well, Battjes said. And we sell a lot of Chardonnay in the stores. Battjes said the Gold Hill Vineyard is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. I've always wanted to grow 50 acres of grapes and make a living doing it, he said. And it doesn't even matter that it took 20 years to start making money at it.