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MEET THE INDUSTRIOUS VINTNERS PIONEERING A BETTER TOMORROW
“I did it step by step. It took years to open the doors. We did everything from scratch.” - Alfonso Elena, Owner & Winemaker, José Wine Caves
Located high above Gold Rush country, José Wine Caves holds breathtaking panoramic views and is one of the first established wineries in El Dorado Country. Oaxacan winemaker Alfonso Elena is the first Mexican-American wine producer in the area. The perfect views and delicious wines emit tranquil positivity, and provide much needed relaxation. This beautiful winery, which today brings so much joy to its’ visitors, surprisingly began with the tragic sudden loss of a beloved brother.
Alfonso and his brother José arrive in Napa Valley in 1975 from Tonala, Oaxaca, Mexico. After 23 years working for other companies, in 2001 he opened his own installation and vineyard management company and even began purchasing land.
The property was nothing but a cliff when Alfonso Elena decided to buy the land in 2004 as an investment with no intention of turning it into a winery. Not far from Coloma, where James Marshall first discovered gold in 1848, between Placerville and Auburn, the 2,000-foot peak looks down, far below on forests and fields and the American Canyon River.
Alfonso’s brother, José Efrain Poncé, helped him clear the rough property, and it was Poncé who had the idea to plant vineyards and turn the property into a winery with a wine cave that would be protection from the hot foothill sun. When José died in a car accident while helping him with the property, Alfonso decided to turn his brother’s idea into reality.
When they weren’t working their normal jobs in the fields, Alfonso and his team would make the 2 1/2 hour commute from Napa to Garden Valley mostly on weekends, leaving Napa at 3:30 in the morning to build the winery.
José Wine Caves is truly a hand-made labor of love. All the vineyard work has to be done by hand on the steep, 37 percent grade hillside, where tractors cannot be used. Alfonso financed the project all himself as well, using savings and credit cards since the banks wouldn’t loan money to him, a working-class man. After three years of navigating the challenges of permits and rezoning, he could finally plant the grapes, and in 2007, the name José Wine Caves was approved. He designed the building, as well as the expansive outdoor plaza. He planted olive trees and built gazebos where visitors could take in the spectacular view.
Alfonso worked with the hot, dry, rocky land to plant varietals that would thrive, knowing that the traditional Cabernet, Chardonnay, and Merlots would not fair well. He planted 2 1/2 acres of Aglianico, an Italian varietal that needs heat. He also planted Dolcetto, Syrah, Montepulciano and Petit Verdot. After three years, Alfonso began dry farming.
In 2008 he made his first Zinfandel, with grapes he’d bought from vineyards farther south in El Dorado. He first tried winemaking 1987, using second-crop grapes that no one wanted. He won first place at the Napa County Fair, and began following advice from other winemakers. To his dismay, Alfonso discovered he must march to the beat of his own drum, because the following year he won third place. Alfonso’s method to winemaking begins at the source - good, clean grapes make good wine.
The label itself of course pays tribute to José. It shows a door opening into a stone wall, with two clusters of grapes growing from a vine over the entrance. Wine flows from one cluster into a glass held by a hand reaching out from an unseen person. A stone has José’s birth year marked on it. The hand represents his brother, and Alfonso has plans to add his own hand and birth year when he passes away.
Finally the tasting room opened early in 2013 and Alfonso plans to grow to a maximum production of 5,000 cases. When engineers told him it would be impossible to build a cave, Alfonso searched and finally found a way to build caves into the mountain, connecting the winery to the mountaintop, proving that when there is a will, there is a way.
“I’m having fun and I’m not afraid to lose,” Elena said. “I’m just passing through this earth. I do what I want and the rest comes by itself. But of course, Mother Nature is the one who calls the shots.”
José loved this particular place where he felt at peace and felt as if he could “speak to God.” He was a gregarious man that worked hard and played hard. Humble and down to earth, he enjoyed food, music, dancing, people, and most importantly good wine. Despite their feeling a great loss, Alfonso and his family have found a way to honor José, his life, his passions, and to keep his spirit alive. Today, their mission is for people to walk in to the winery as strangers and leave as family, for people to enjoy the majestic scenery, create beautiful memories, and to enjoy the wines made with great joy and passion.