When Paul Bush was a child, his parents planted a vineyard in the Sierra foothills. Even though he grew up caretaking grapevines and working in the wine business, he never planned to stick with it.
"My parents started growing grapes here in 1973. They pioneered high-elevation grape growing in El Dorado County," he says. "My sister and I worked in the vineyards in the summertime, doing whatever needed to be done. If there was labeling to do, we'd be behind the hot-glue machine. I remember telling my college roommate that I would never follow in the family business."
Today, Bush and his wife Maggie own and operate not only Madroña Vineyards—the winery that Bush's parents started—but also neighboring Rucksack Cellars.
"I kept getting drawn back to the wine industry, and in 2002, I became Madroña's winemaker," he says. "There is only one thing crazier than owning a winery, and that's owning two wineries, so my wife and I started Rucksack. I make the wine at both places, and they're entirely different styles. Rucksack gives me the chance to play around and experiment a little bit."
Bush, a Placerville-Camino resident for most of his 54 years, belongs to the Apple Hill Growers Association, a group of more than 50 farmers who produce a variety of crops.
"What sets our region apart is our diversity of agriculture. These are family owned and operated farms," he says. "For visitors, it's an opportunity to get wonderful fruit, vegetables, and wine that's grown locally. And you can meet the people who put their sweat and tears into it. You actually get to talk to the farmers."
Bush says the best way to explore Apple Hill is to check out the map or download the app, then go visit the farms that strike your fancy.
"Every farm does something different. Rainbow Orchards kicks off their season with U-pick blueberries in mid-June. During apple season in the fall, they make the most incredible apple-cider donuts. You order six of them, they plop them in oil right in front of you, and they come out super-hot. It's like heaven in a donut shape," he says. "Smokey Ridge Ranch has wonderful fruit and they also have chestnuts, which very few farms have. I really love the caramel apples at High Hill Ranch, and we buy a lot of our organic vegetables from 24 Carrot Farm."
Visitors can also stop and sip at local vineyards, including Madroña and Rucksack. "Our wine is purely reflective of the vineyards it's grown on. We embrace the fact that we're in El Dorado County. Our wine reflects our high-elevation vineyards at 3,000 feet, volcanic soils, high acids, and low pH. All these things set our wine apart. Nobody else can make wine like we do here in El Dorado," he says.
Bush also recommends spending an afternoon on Main Street in downtown Placerville. "It's fun to peruse around all the different shops. There's a really eclectic mix because Placerville is a real town where the local farmers shop right alongside the tourists. We have a great used book store (The Bookery), a toy store (T.W. Bonkers), a bike shop (Hangtown Cyclery), a shop filled with home decor and Christmas ornaments (Tree House), even a shop that sells wind chimes (Lighthouse)."
Bush suggests visitors cap off their shopping and strolling with cocktails at The Independent. "They make a basil martini that has a beautiful, complex set of flavors," he says. "It's really well balanced, not sweet, just perfect. You don't have to be a cocktail lover to enjoy it."
FIVE MORE FAVORITES
Cheese shop: Dedrick's Main Street Cheese in downtown Placerville is a gem. Not only is she our local cheesemonger with an amazing selection of cheeses from all over the world, but her staff is incredibly knowledgeable about the cheeses they carry. If you tell them what you like, they can suggest different cheeses for you to try. We're blessed and lucky to have such an amazing cheese shop in our small town. Dedrick's also sells crackers, baguettes, jams, spreads, olive oils, and other pantry items, so it's a one-stop shop. Right now my favorite is Red Witch, which is a cheddary type of cheese. It has a nice intensity without being over the top.
Local gem: Anybody who is traveling through Placerville should make a stop at Placerville Hardware. You have to go there even if you don't need any hardware. It's just a cool experience. It's the oldest hardware store west of the Mississippi, open since 1854. It's been owned by the same family for the last 50-odd years. If they don't have something, it doesn't exist. We've walked in there looking for pieces for our old tractors, and they pull out a drawer with 10 of them. They have a ton of kitchen stuff as well as hardware.
Burgers: My family loves to go to The Forester, which is just up the street from us in Camino. They serve bison burgers as well as beef burgers. They're half-pound burgers with incredible flavor. Luckily they have recyclable take-home containers because I can eat only half a burger at a time. You really need to get their onion rings and dip them in ranch dressing. They're solid onion rings every single time—really, really good.
Hike the foothills: Cronan Ranch is on Highway 49 in Pilot Hill, and it's beautiful for hiking, especially in spring and fall. You can walk all the way down to the American River. It's a place where you start hiking and you can't see a building or house—you won't see any signs of civilization for hours. It's the undulating Sierra foothills with beautiful grasslands and heritage oaks. In the springtime, the wildflowers are outstanding—the grasslands are covered in lupines, fiddlenecks, California poppies, and other colorful flowers.
Family bike trip: One of our all-time favorite family activities is riding bikes from Placerville to Smith Flat. It's paved all the way and not very difficult. We've done this with our kids when they were all different ages. You start from Placerville so you go uphill on the way there and downhill on the way back. We always stop to have lunch at the Smith Flat House, which is this beautiful building from the 1800s. Their outdoor dining is underneath a pergola, and the atmosphere is just beautiful. Their chef is wonderfully talented and uses all local produce. You get to have a great bike ride and a really delicious lunch.