Winemaker Marco Cappelli gave up “the bright lights of Napa Valley” for the serenity of the Sierra Foothills 20 years ago. He was ready for a change after 17 years as winemaker at Swanson Vineyards, and wanted to build something to call his own.
Now, two decades later, he is taking on a new challenge: Cappelli Wine, a winery and tasting room in the California Gold Country town of Placerville. The concept is fairly unique in the U.S. “Our business model comes from Europe,” Cappelli says. “In Italy, France and Spain, many towns have wine shops featuring local wines that are delicious and very reasonably priced, and the bottles are filled on demand.”
What does Cappelli mean by reasonably priced? About $12 to $16 a bottle—wines to drink every day. “I really wanted to show American consumers that wine is food,” Cappelli says. “It should be considered a staple like bread.” He’s not talking cheap supermarket dreck, but wines that are handcrafted from local vineyards, made in small batches and show a distinctive sense of place.
If any region can pull off that combo of quality and value, it’s Sierra Foothills. Napa and Sonoma are too high-priced to try such an experiment, but the math still works in El Dorado and Amador counties, where family-owned vineyards produce wines of character at a good price.
Cappelli, in a way, is circling back to a lesson he learned from his mentor, the late André Tchelistcheff. “Napa makes wines to be the life of the party, but André didn’t believe in the hype. He liked the little wines,” Cappelli, 62, says.
That was one of the reasons Cappelli was drawn to the Sierra Foothills in the first place. He liked the wines, the terroir and the slower pace. He bought the 14-acre Herbert Vineyard in 2003 and the following year packed up and moved to the mountains. He enjoyed working his own vineyard, but to pay the bills he consulted as a winemaker and built quite a business.
While Cappelli envisioned the simple life as a gentleman farmer with his wife, Belinda, and their kids, it didn’t all work out as he'd hoped. “Of the 21 vintages, I might have been in the black for four or five,” he says. The turning point came in 2021, when the Caldor wildfire came within a few hundred yards of his vineyard. “It was a real nail-biter.”
He sold the vineyard a few months after the fire and moved the family to a house in Placerville, where he also bought a building along the town’s historic Main Street. “We have spent the last 18 months getting permits and remodeling the structure into a bonded winery with a tasting room,” Cappelli says.
Cappelli makes most of the wines himself, from vineyards within an hour's drive of Placerville, but he also buys a small amount of bulk wine from the wineries for which he consults. The wines are produced in 2- to 5-barrel volumes and are unfined and unfiltered, then racked into 15-gallon kegs.
In the newly opened tasting room, customers can taste a revolving list of a half-dozen wines on tap. The current selection includes a 2021 Rhône-style red blend, a 2021 Sierra Foothills Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, plus a non-vintage sweet Angelica, something that Cappelli specializes in.
Wines are sold in 750ml bottles and filled to order, dosed with protective nitrogen and then sealed with bar-top corks. “We encourage people to drink the wine within a month or two,” he says. As an incentive, return customers get a $2 refund for returning and refilling a bottle. It’s a way to build a local following and a gesture toward sustainability.
“I’m never going to get rich on this,” Cappelli concedes. “I’d make much more money if I went back to Napa and consulted, but that’s not where I want to be.”
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