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Apple blossom time in El Dorado County; around Placerville, it's time to visit wineries, an iris farm.

Apple Hill spells autumn to most people. Come September and October, these orchards east of Sacramento are laden with ripe Romes and Gravensteins and Granny Smiths, and tourists by the thousands crowd the two-lane roads there.

We like autumn in Apple Hill just fine. But right now the hill and nearby portions of El Dorado County are putting on a show just as worthy of attention-a feast for the eyes if not the stomach. From late March through April, apple trees push out white blossoms that make them resemble a bevy of brides parading over dewy green bills.

You can also enjoy spring's visual bounty (which also includes peach, pear, and cherry blossoms) without contending with the crowds that arrive after Labor Day. Most apple growers have closed their retail operations for the season, but you can still picnic and hike on the ranches. Make a day of it and sample the region's gold rush history-and some of the Cabernets and Merlots that signal El Dorado County's growing importance as a wine center.

Fifty miles east of Sacramento on US. Highway 50, the area makes a good day trip from that city or from the Bay Area. We've devised two 60-mile routes. Both start in Apple Hill; one leads northwest from there, the second south. On the southern route, you'll find a different kind of blooming attraction: irises.

There's blossoms on them thar hills Apple Hill begins just east of Placerville and stretches 10 miles on the north side of US. Highway 50 to the town of Camino. Take the Schnell School Road, Carson Road, or Cedar Grove exit; orchards line Carson and N. Canyon roads, Larsen Drive, and other byways. The routes are well marked with Apple Hill signs. Orchards have a long history here. After James Marshall discovered gold in Coloma in 1848, some entrepreneurs determined that growing fruit and vegetables for miners was a surer road to riches than panning for gold in a cold stream. Marshall himself switched to farming when the rush he started failed to reward him. Pears were the preferred crop for much of this century, but by the 1960s most growers had turned to apples. The Apple Hill Growers association now has 45 members. Last year's apple crop has already been sold. But two of the ranches should be open at least part of this month: Boa Vista Orchard, at 2954 Carson Road, usually sells apple butter, dried apples, frozen apple pies, and other goodies into April, but call 622-5522 to make sure. And on April 20 and 21, Pat Scheuner of Grandpa's Cellar sponsors Apple Blossom Open House, with free samples of apple recipes she's testing for sale next fall. You'll find Grandpa's at 2360 Cable Road; call (916) 644-2153.

For a list of growers and their facilities, write to or call Apple Hill Growers, Box 494, Camino 95709; 622-9595.

A new generation of wineries

Apples aren't the only agricultural attraction on Apple Hill. In the 1870s, ItalianSwiss winemakers began planting vineyards on the slopes. Prohibition ended their operations, but in the 1970s a new crop of pioneer winemakers settled here, and El Dorado County has now earned its own appellation. First of the new vintners was Greg Boeger; he says the region's high elevations (1,200 to 3,500 feet) and cool nights preserve the grapes' acidity and bring out more intense flavor.

The tasting room at Boeger Winery (2 on our map) takes up the ground floor of one of the original wineries, a handsome fieldstone building dating to 1872. The winery, at 1709 Carson Road, Placerville, is open from 10 to 5 daily (622-8094). Three other small wineries on the hill are open weekends or by appointment this time of year: Lava Cap Winery (3), 2221 Fruitridge Road, open 11 to 5 weekends (621-0175); Madroha Vineyard (4), High Hill Road, open 11 to 5 weekends (6445948); and Eldorado Vineyards (5), 3551 Carson Road, open 11 to 4 weekends (644-2854).

Another winery lies north of Placerville on the way to Coloma: Gold Hill Vineyards (1), on Vineyard Lane off Cold Springs Road, open 11 to 5 weekends (626-6522). From there, continue 4 miles north to James Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park.

Just north of the visitor center, you might want to stop to admire the venerable pear orchard. Ex-slave Nancy Gooch and her son, Andrew Monroe, planted these trees in the 19th century; their farm made them important citizens in the Coloma area. You'll see exhibits about the Monroes in the visitor center, open 10:30 to 4:30 daily. For information about the park, call 622-3470.

Days of wine and irises in Fair Play For more wineries, head for the Somerset/Fair Play area, about a half-hour south of Apple Hill. From Camino, take Snows and Pleasant Valley roads south to Mount Aukum Road; it descends steeply to the Consumnes River. Sierra Vista Winery (6) is at the end of Leisure Lane, which is off Pleasant Valley Road. It has a spectacular view of the foothills and is open for tasting from 11 to 5 weekends; 622-7221.

Another cluster of wineries lies a few miles south, along Fairplay and Perry Creek roads (all are open from 11 to 5 weekends and are in area code 209): Windwalker Vineyards (7), 7360 Perry Creek Road, 245-4054; Granite Springs Winery (8), 6060 Granite Springs Road, 245-6395; Gerwer Winery 10), 8221 Stoney Creek Road, 245-3467; and Latchum Vineyards (11), Omo Ranch Road, 245-6834.

Also in the cluster, Fitzpatrick Winery (9), 7740 Fairplay Road, is open 11 to 5 weekends; 245-3248. It's housed in a baronial log mansion that doubles as a bedand-breakfast (open daily), with rooms from $79 to $99.

This part of the county lacks the apple blossoms found farther north. But you can stroll past blooms of very different colors at Bluebird Haven Iris Garden, 6940 Fairplay Road. For owner Mary Hess, iris mania began when a favorite aunt gave her a few bulbs. Today her 2-acre garden is bright with 1,800 varieties, 700 of them for sale. From April 20 to May 31 -peak bloom is the first two weeks of May-the garden is open 10 to 5 Tuesdays through Sundays. Otherwise, call (916) 622-4904 for an appointment.

For more information on El Dorado County, including accommodations in the area and attractions in Placerville itself, try the chamber of commerce, open 8 to 5 weekdays. It's at 542 Main St., Placerville 95667; 621-5885. El
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Date:Apr 1, 1991
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