It’s fall, and many Renoites will be making their annual pilgrimage to Apple Hill, the ag region on the western side of the Sierra Nevada dotted with apple orchards, pumpkin patches, and vineyards. About 122 miles southwest of Reno, Apple Hill — in California’s El Dorado County — can be done in a long day trip, but we really enjoyed our long weekend with family at a rental house on Busby Cellars winery.
Busby Cellars is in Somerset, Calif., about 12 miles south of Apple Hill, in a region known as Fair Play, home to more than two dozen wineries. Busby Cellars may be one of the smaller wineries: it’s on a 34-acre property planted with rows of zinfandel, petite sirah, grenache, tempranillo, malbec, petit verdot, mouvedre, and viognier grapes, anchored by an old barn dating back to the early 20th century.
Winemaker Elliot Graham, who owns Busby Cellars with his wife, Sherrie, was in the middle of a viognier grape harvest when we visited in late September, but took the time to let us watch a grape crush and answer all our random questions: how do you know when to pick the grapes? (a device called a refractometer tells you the grape’s sugar content); how many pounds of grapes are in a row? (I don’t know); who picks all these grapes? (we hired eight people to help this year). There’s a small tasting room here and tastings are from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Friday through Sunday.
The three-bedroom, two-bath rental house on Busby Cellars was lovely, and accommodated our group of seven with the help of a king-sized air mattress in one of the closets. A wide wooden porch, which runs the length of the western side of the house, overlooks the vineyards and is a great place to watch the sun set. For more on lodging in the Fair Play region, visit FairPlayCalifornia.com.
This woodsy, hilly region includes about 50 farms that grow apples and other produce; many have bake shops, crafts fairs, walking trails, and other amenities. Details on each farm can be found on the Apple Hill website, AppleHill.com, along with a map and info on lodging and other activities.
Our recent visit was on a Friday — general consensus is that the region is easier to navigate during the weekdays, before the weekend crowds descend.
We visited Rainbow Orchards, where we sampled apple cider (delicious); High Hill Ranch, home of a craft fair with 75 vendors; and Abel’s Apple Acres, which has a gift shop with a nice selection of cookbooks. We tasted wine at Fenton Herriott Vineyards (I ended up with a bottle of Jane’s Way Lot 4, a crisp white blend) and checked out organic produce at the nearby 24 Carrot Farm.
In years past, we’ve picked apples at several of the farms, but this year, we were told by a few farmers that a frost earlier this season had affected the crops. We didn’t see any “you pick” opportunities on this trip. Already-picked apples, however, are still for sale.
Placerville, a historical Gold Rush town about eight miles west of Apple Hill on U.S. 50, has fun shops and restaurants. We caught the tail end of the Placerville Certified Farmers’ Market at the corner of Main Street and Cedar Ravine on Saturday, and ate grilled sandwiches at Main Street Melters. We ran into friends at Jeff Runquist Wines, a vineyard in nearby Amador County; and found plenty of photo ops on the grounds of Saluti Cellars in El Dorado County.