Ever since discovering the wines of El Dorado County, I have been drawn to the region. One winery that came up on my radar after a media tour in 2013 is Illuminare Winery. What struck me about Illuminare’s wines were their rich balance, elegance and consistency. There is an opulent quality to every varietal and blend that is produced from this boutique winery.
After meeting the demure soft-spoken owner/winemaker Aaron Hill you would not expect the bold fruit forward style of wine that he achieves so expertly. He strives to utilize maximum extraction with less oak. Aaron with his wife Cherie moved from Alaska to California in 1999. Aaron completed the fire academy but jobs were scarce in Anchorage so after working for a time with Alaska Airlines, he and Cherie decided to make a change. Aaron decided to go back to school, Sierra College to study Electrical Engineering. During this time, he discovered a love for the wine of El Dorado County. Connecting with wine industry people he begin helping out in any capacity at various area wineries. He soon graduated to cellar rat.
Aaron credits Arnie Gilpin, the prior owner of Windwalker Vineyard as being his mentor. Through his association with Windwalker it became apparent to Aaron and his wife that producing wine was their destiny, opening the doors to their own winery in 2000.
Aaron’s style of winemaking elevates his wines to a level that is above what is typically seen in the Sierra Foothills. Buying his grapes from area vineyards especially those located in a warmer portion of the region brings out the rich black fruit, body and bold flavors his wines are known for.
When deciding on a name for the winery Aaron and Cherie wanted something that reflected their Alaskan roots. The Aurora Borealis lights up the Alaskan sky and during the summer months there is the midnight sun so it was befitting to find a name that represents these phenomenons. Illuminare is Italian and its meaning is to light or illuminate.
Each bottle of Illuminare is adorned with a burning candle that lights up the exceptional wine that is within. The back label reads, “Every bottle tells a story – A story of the history of the vines and the ground from which they grow. The unique conditions of climate and the hands that made this wine. The bottle tells our story – Aaron and Cherie Hill.” Sipping the wine you do discover that there is an emphasis on sharing the history of wine in the Sierra Foothills where the vines are grown. At the same time the elevation in this region enhances each grape that goes into Illuminare wine, and Aaron’s handcrafted wines show his ability to create a marvelous wine. These are all aspects of what enlightens Illuminare wines.
I have now sampled four different wines from Illuminare and am impressed with each. My introduction to Illuminare was with the 2011 Zinfandel Thaddeous Vineyard. The elevation of this vineyard at 2000 plus feet and the ten-year old vines play a part in the delivery of this Zinfandel. It is also the 8% Petite Sirah added that gives the wine a wonderful deep purple color and is the backbone to its structure. The wine is big with ripe fruit, jammy and fruit forward. There are some underlying hints of spice.
I then experienced the 2011 Momentum, a blend of Petite Sirah, Zinfandel, Petite Verdot and Merlot. This again is wonderfully consistent and balanced fruit forward wine.
Being different and challenging himself with different varietals, Aaron produces a Petite Verdot. I originally sampled this wine at a party hosted by the winemakers of El Dorado Winery Association. I have since revisited this elegant wine that showcases the virtues of a grape varietal that is typically used in blends. The wine is softer in texture and is not quite as bold as many of the wines from Illuminare. The wine does exhibit a smooth velvety quality. At first the flavors of almond and blueberries were quite apparent. These opened up to cherry and stewed fruit with hints of nutmeg, allspice and cocoa. The wine was earthy yet elegant.
Not many wineries in California can make a Pinotage. Illuminare is one of the few that make this varietal in such a way that it stands out as an extraordinary example of what can be done with Pinotage. Pintoage is known as a South African grape that was created from Pinot Noir and Cinsaut. This wine has a wonderful French/Spanish quality to it. It is medium bodied with earthy aromas and flavors of cranberry and cherry with hints of allspice and vanilla.
Illuminare’s focus is on red wines, which include Zinfandel, Petite Verdot, Barbera, Sangiovese, Syrah, Pinotage, Cabernet Sauvignon varietals. Their flagship wine is called Seeing Red, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Mouvédre.
Those excited about fruit forward red wines and want to find their own story within each bottle will be enlightened when they taste the various varietals that Illuminare has to offer.
3500 Carson Road
Camino, CA 95709
Winery: (530) 306-3873,
Hours: Friday – Sunday 11:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. or by appointment
If you would like to follow more of Cori Solomon’s articles, she would love you to subscribe to her column by clicking Subscribe to Author link below.