“Nice people with great wine” – Doug Noble
After the recent “Bring out the Barrel” wine tasting event put on by the El Dorado Winery Association, a number of people commented that the winery that they enjoyed the most was one of El Dorado County’s smallest, Illuminare Winery.
The winery’s tasting room featuring the great wines is in Camino.
It wasn’t just the wine or the food that was prepared to pair with the wine, there were additional comments that the people at the tasting room, especially the owners, Aaron and Cherie Hill, were delightful hosts and, as one person mentioned, “The proprietors are just nice people.”
What would bring a couple from Alaska to El Dorado County? Was it the wine or the weather or maybe it was just time for a change?
In the case of the Hills, it was a bit of each.
“Cherie and I were both born in Alaska,” said Aaron during a recent interview at the tasting room. “My parents moved there around the 1950s and all 10 of us kids were born there.
“My sister moved to Folsom and we would come down to visit her. She liked to go wine tasting, so when we visited she would take us to the wineries in El Dorado County. We liked wine, but there is no real wine presence in Alaska. It is not really wine country,” Aaron said.
After some serious thought Aaron and Cherie felt a change was due.
“In the late 1990s we decided to move to this area. The time was right for a change and although Alaska is beautiful, those long winters can get to you,” Aaron said.
With many options on the horizon the couple set out to explore a new life.
“I went to Sierra College and then transferred to the University of California, Davis, majoring in soil and water. I took some wine classes, but didn’t really get into the program,” Aaron said.
A friendship with a winemaker became the deciding factor in the next career move.
“In 2000, Cherie and I, along with Brian Marston, the winemaker at Argonaut Winery, and his wife, jointly decided to create a new winery, Illuminare. El Dorado County has a lot of good, high quality wine grapes available at good prices and he was a good winemaker. Unfortunately Brian unexpectedly died and we ended up sole owners of the winery,” Aaron continued.
The new circumstances dictated a new avenue to take.
“I started working at a number of wineries to get knowledge and experience and finally was hired by Windwalker Vineyards in Fair Play, where I worked for winemaker Dominick Mantei. You have to use your mouth and hands to make wine, you can’t make it by reading a book alone, and it is even better if you can get experience while getting paid.
“I worked there for seven and a half years, but about a year ago I quit to devote full time to the winery which was getting very busy. I work harder now than I ever did, but I like being able to call my own shots. Fortunately for our family, Cherie has a full time job.
Aaron spends most of his time with the grapes and Cherie finds time on the weekends to help at the tasting room.
“Our first wines were made with grapes from Argonaut, which is located in Amador county, near Ione. Now all but two of our wines are made with El Dorado County grapes. The exceptions are our the pinotage and sangiovese. The pinotage comes from Amador county, the sangiovese from Placer county,” Aaron said.
He has worked many hours to produce a beautiful pinotage.
“We are one of the few local wineries that produce pinotage. It is South Africa’s signature variety and a cross between two grape varieties, pinot noir and cinsault. I like it because it is big, bold and different. More and more people are trying it and really liking it.
“I like big, dry, fruity red wines. That is what the people who come to our tasting room want,” Aaron said.
Besides big he likes a vintage with a distinct personality.
“I also like the wines younger and fresher, so I barrel age them for 16 to 22 months. I also sterile filter them so that I can sleep at night, not worrying about my wine going bad in the bottle. I do the filtering very carefully so that it has a minimum effect on the wine. I have to stand here and pour it, so I can’t afford to bottle anything I don’t like,” he said,” the winemaker said.
Illuminare Winery makes a number of red wines: pinotage, mourvedre, sangiovese, zinfandel, tempranillo, malbec and barbera. The winery also bottles one white — a chardonnay, two red blends — Seeing Red and Momentum, and a dessert wine — called Night Masque.
Of the 2,800 cases of wine made each year, about 160 of them are petite verdot, one of the lesser known Bordeaux varieties.
“We get the grapes from Safari Vineyards in Pilot Hill. It gets a lot riper here than in France,” added Aaron. “It is a real ‘steam roller’ with a unique flavor. It transcends everything I make and sells out almost immediately.”
To meet Aaron and Cherie Hill and enjoy the hospitality stop by the Illuminare Winery tasting room at 2300 Carson Road in Camino. The tasting room hours are Friday through Sunday, from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m.
For more information call 530-647-1884 or visit illuminarewinery.com.