Gold Country Treasure: Explore the Sierra Foothills on This Fall Wine-Tasting Drive

By Finnegan, Lora J. | Sunset, November 2003 | Go to article overview

Gold Country Treasure: Explore the Sierra Foothills on This Fall Wine-Tasting Drive


Finnegan, Lora J., Sunset


You can't really call Amador County a new wine region. After all, vines were planted here, in the Sierra Nevada foothills, when Abe Lincoln was president--some of those graybeard Zinfandel vines from the 1860s are still producing--and only Prohibition has interrupted the flow of wine. But in recent years, Amador's wine country has really grown up. Of some 20 wineries dotting the oak-studded hills, at least a half-dozen have opened in the last 10 years, and all are helping to shape a new image for Gold Country wines.

Zinfandel is still king here--of Amador's 2,823 acres of vineyards, 65 percent are planted with that varietal. But even as big Zin remains dominant, many wineries--both newcomers and veterans--are trying out varietals that have never before been seriously tested here.

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In Sutter Creek, Susan Carter of Susan's Place Wine Bar & Eatery has watched Amador County winemaking mature. "Since these wineries are all small, they can afford to be adventurous and willing to experiment. They're trying Rhone and Tuscan varietals--Barbera, Sangiovese, Syrah--and have been gaining a good reputation lately," she notes.

You can sample local winemaking styles in the bar at Susan's Place, tasting vintages from most of the wineries in the Sierra foothills area. But it's much more fun to tour this emerging wine country on a day's drive. November is a fine time to visit: The days are crisp, the season's first rains usually start to green up the hills, and the harvest-season crowds are gone.

Wine country roving

To get a firsthand look at what the wineries are up to, take a drive around Plymouth, 15 miles south of Placerville, where wineries bunch up like grapes. The rolling hills don't get a lot of rain (an average of 38 inches annually), but the soil--a mixture of sand and clay--retains moisture well enough that many vineyards aren't irrigated, producing small yields of intensely flavored grapes.

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Start your roaming a couple miles northeast of Plymouth on the main drag through the area, Shenandoah Road. One old standby not to be missed--and an appropriate first stop--is 1 Sobon Estate, a historic landmark on Shenandoah Road. Founded in 1856, it ranks among California's oldest wineries, and its museum is worth touring for a peek at early Amador agriculture and winemaking.

Next, take a short detour up Steiner Road to 2 Dobra Zemlja, established in 1995. Strains of jazz, blues, or classical music greet you as you enter the small cave that serves as tasting room and barrel storage facility. Owner Milan Matulich calls his winemaking style "the peasant's way"--handpicked, handcrafted, and unfiltered.

For contrast, get back on Shenandoah Road and stop by one of the county's newest wineries, 3 Villa Toscano Winery. It has a grand Tuscanstyle tasting room, fountains, a gift shop, and a small bistro serving sandwiches, pizza, and pasta.

Take a side jog onto Shenandoah School Road to stop at 4 Montevina Winery. It was the county's first post Prohibition winery and remains its largest and most modern, with a new $12 million production facility. You can spend hours tasting your way through the winery's Italian portfolio, including hard-to-find varietals like Aglianico, Freisa, and Teroldego.

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Return back on Shenandoah Road to newcomer 5 Nine Gables Winery, where owner Jerry Notestine claims the quality of Amador's wine comes, in part, from what's not here. …

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