by Steven Van Yoder
Magazine Issue: U.S. Vol. 3.3
An Escape from Urban Chaos
As I follow the winding two-lane road south, the skyscrapers of Sacramento fade from my rearview mirror. The ground has turned from concrete gray to ruddy red. Strip malls have given way to fields of tall grass. The rolling hills are an immense palette of greens and browns. Lonely fences stretch into the horizon. Clusters of lazy cattle lumber homeward for feed. I’ve entered a different element.I’m headed for a long, oozingly slow weekend, far from deadlines, fax machines and urban chaos. And this is where I’ll get it: Amador County, the heart of California gold country.
It’s the little things in Amador — an abandoned gold mine standing like an enourmous skeleton on the horizon, a tombstone bearing the name of an anonymous soul buried before the civil war, a resurected 19th century winery producing world-class wines — that welcome you here. Little things that take you a world away from your modern concerns. You soon discover that Amador, a short drive from the modern world, may lack cosmopolitan diversions, but it amply compensates with outdoor pursuits and leisurely retreats.
And then there are the vineyards. Although many come to Amador for history, the great outdoors, the rugged beauty of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, rushing rivers and winding mountain roads, a few come for Amador’s secret treasure — its little talked about award-winning wines from the Shenandoah Valley.
If you want a taste of Amador, here’s your recipe: take expansively rugged panoramas, mix in the scenic backroads of the Sierras, and throw in endless mountain vistas. Mix well with exquisite lodgings, add an event or an activity, garnish with rich history and serve with your favorite wine. This is Amador — sure to satisfy your spirit, imagination and palate.
The Birth of Amador
The roots of Amador County, California’s oldest wine region, run deep into the earth once broken by picks and shovels of the Gold Rush. As the father of the California wine industry, Amador is older than Napa and Sonoma, has the oldest winery in the state (dating back to 1856) and has vines more than 130 years old.
Before the vines, though, there was gold. It started on that fateful morning of January 24, 1848, in Coloma, when James Marshall was foraging around a stream that ran beside Captain John Sutter’s flour mill. Marshall noticed a glimmer in the stream. He thrust his hands into the icy waters of the American River. Gold!
Though Marshall and Sutter tried to keep it a secret, word of the strike spread quickly. The world rushed in, turning a rural land of Indians and trappers into an international mix of wide-eyed fortune seekers. In less than a year, the slopes of the Sierras were dotted with ramshackle towns, constructed virtually overnight, with names like Fiddletown, Humbug, Whiskey Diggings and Jackass Flats.
With abundant riches and a longing for home, many European immigrants tried their hand at growing wine grapes. And, as it was soon discovered, grapes thrived in the foothills of the Sierras. By 1880, Amador County had more than 3,000 acres of grapevines, and thrived as a wine-producing region well into the 20th century. But the advent of Prohibition sent Amador into a nosedive, closing all but one of its wineries.
This set back lasted until the 1970s, when Amador was “rediscovered” by Bob Trinchero of Sutter Home Winery. Trinchero began purchasing grapes from Amador grower Bob Deaver, of Deaver Vineyards. The dry-farmed Deaver vines dated back to 1890 or earlier. Due to the lack of irrigation, the wine’s skin-to-juice ratio was high, producing a concentration was almost black. Impressed, Trinchero bought 20 tons of Deaver’s grapes, and the wine he introduced to the world became a sensation.
During the 1970s, many high-profile producers from Napa and Sonoma won acclaim for their “old-vine” zinfandels made from Amador grapes. More wineries followed, tripling Amador grapevine acreage over the next two decades. Shenandoah, Santino, Story, Karly, Amador Foothill and other wineries sprang up in the foothills, helping Amador shed its status as a backwater wine region. Trinchero himself returned to Amador in 1988 to establish Montevina Winery — the first post-Prohibition winery in Shenandoah Valley — and immediately began experimenting with other varietals, including barbera and sauvignon blanc.
Touring Amador’s Golden Highway
Gold country stretches more than 300 miles along the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains — a towering range of roaring rivers, lush forests and abundant relics from the past. There’s no better way to start touring Amador than along Route 49, which cuts north to south for hundreds of miles through the “Mother Lode” — a name attributed to Mexican miners who called it La Veta Madre because of the mythical vein of solid gold said to run continually for more than 120 miles.
For accomodations, stay in one of the historic hotels along Route 49. Use mornings to explore the area. Everything from rafting, horseback riding or skiing is doable. After lunch, head for the wineries clustered around Plymouth a few miles to the north. Distances are short in Amador and you can cover a lot of ground in a day. Taste, tour, and stock up on your favorite wines before retreating back to your hotel for dinner.
Jackson is a 15-minute ride from most wineries and is Amador’s county seat. City planners have preserved remnants of the Gold Rush, so there’s plenty to invoke the spirit of the Old West. Historic Main Street cuts off of Route 49, providing a few blocks of well-preserved buildings and a scene out of the 1860s, when the town was rebuilt after a devastating fire. The town has an abundance of comfortable accommodations, some good restaurants — most notably the Upstairs Restaurant, which serves a progressive menu, including Stuffed Pork Loin with Bing Cherries and Port Cardamom Sauce, and Bourbon Painted Catfish.
A few wineries sit just east of Jackson. Argonaut Winery, which produces estate grown barbera and syrah, and Clos Du Lac Cellars, a French country winery with a wide variety of wines. To the west is Sutter Ridge, which produces chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel, and Stoneridge Winery, a small family operation producing some super-concentrated Zins.
Just north of Jackson is Sutter Creek, the self-proclaimed “Nicest Little Town in the Mother Lode.” Sutter Creek was named for Captain John Sutter and achieved permanency as an important supply center to the quartz mines ringing the town. Leland Stanford, a local merchant and prospector, is from the area. He later became a railroad king, U.S. senator, governor of California and founder of Stanford University.
Main Street is about three blocks of antique shops, boutiques, restaurants and historic bed-and-breakfasts. There isn’t much going on in the way of nightlife, but there are comfortable accommodations in which to escape the world. Zinfandels Restaurant, serving plenty of locals wines and inspired dishes like Risotto with Rock Shrimp, Mushrooms, Leeks, Spinach, Toasted Pecans and Brie, makes a relaxing end to a day of tasting. There are several historic structures worth looking at in the morning, all clearly marked on a walking tour map available at the Bubble Gum Book Store.
Two miles north of Sutter Creek, tucked in a fold of the foothills, is Amador City. Founded in 1854 by Jose Maria Amador, a ranchero from the San Ramon Valley, it was the site of the first quartz discovery. Amador City’s block-long Main Street has a multitude of quaint shops, decent restaurants and renovated historic lodgings, including the Imperial Hotel, which still accepts guests.
Continuing north, Drytown, founded in 1848, is Amador County’s oldest community. Don’t let the name fool you — Drytown supported 26 saloons in its prime. Brick buildings dating from 1851 still attest to the boom. Legend has it that $80,000 in gold bullion is stashed somewhere under the Old Well Motel’s swimming pool — buried there by bandits after a payroll holdup.
Into the Valley
Heading northeast on Shenandoah Road, stop at Young’s Vineyard, a family-run winery with a lot of commitment. Steve Young, an transplant from the south, fell in love with Amador while visiting and stumbled across a “for sale” sign on an old winery. He bought the property the same day and took to learning the wine business. “Everybody helped us get started,” Young says. “We came in through the back door and received nothing but support from the winemaking community.”
Just up the road is perhaps Amador’s most enterprising wine producer, Montevina Winery. This is a great place to taste and learn about wine while enjoying a picnic lunch. Launched by Amador elder statesman Bob Trinchero, Montevina is a cutting-edge winery with an ambitious commitment to Cal-Ital varietals like barbera, sangiovese and the little-known refosco. “We revel in being able to do this kind of experimentation,” says winemaker Jeff Myers. “It’s been a tremendous opportunity for all of us at ontevina to turn these experiments into marketable wines.”
When you reach Domaine De La Terre Rouge/Easton, you’re immediately greeted by a sign announcing that you’ve entered “The Rhone Zone.” The winery and its proprietor Bill Easton are commited to Rhone varietals like syrah, grenache, marsanne and viognier — all of which thrive in the Sierra Foothills. Other wineries in the neighborhood include TKC Vineyards, Karly, Vino Nocetto (producing a fantastic sangiovese) and Story Winery, which makes an outstanding old-vine zinfandel.
The Renwood/Santino Winery is a somewhat new entity. It was founded in 1992 when a group of investors, lead by Robert Smerling, bought Amador’s long-standing Santino Winery. Smerling immediately went about making his vision a reality — bringing a modern attitude to the age-old promise of Amador terroir. Renwood/Santino produces a grand portfolio of wines composed of Italian varietals, Rhone-style wines and six zinfandels, including a single vineyard Grandpere Zinfandel made from 129-year-old vines. “We try to make wines without too much intervention,” says winemaker Gordon Binz, formerly of Ridge Vineyards. “We pay attention to pure grape qualities in our wines — making unfiltered, unblended zinfandels that showcase the fruit and the vineyard.”
Across the street is Shenandoah Vineyards, the creation of Leon Sobon. As one of Amador’s most successful and ambitious vintners, Sobon was lured to Amador in 1977, after switching careers from research scientist to vintner. Sobon was immediately won over by Amador zinfandel. Shenandoah makes zinfandel, lots of it, and in combination with its sister winery Sobon Estate produces almost every grape varietal known. Sobon Estate is a reincarnation of the old D’Agostini property, Amador’s only remaining pre-Prohibition winery.
Only minutes away, and sometimes within site of each other, are more wineries worth a visit: Deaver Vineyards, which shares a lush landscape with the Amador Harvest Inn; Charles Spinetta Winery, a three-generation family-run winery offering barbera, chardonnay and three styles of zinfandel; Story Winery, with a view of the Cosumnes River Canyon, producing old vine zinfandel, mission and chenin blanc; and Amador Foothill Winery, committed to single-vineyard zinfandels, sangiovese and other varietals.
In the end, when your nerves are less frayed, your perspective a little clearer and your trunk full of Amador wine, you’ll start that drive back toward modern civilization. The ruddy earth will fade back to concrete, the rolling fields will give way to manicured lawns, and with the blink of an eye you’ll be back among fax machines, e-mail, tall buildings and knarled traffic jams. But relax, pop a cork, pour a heady Amador zinfandel and sit back. Because now you know you can get a taste of Amador whenever, and wherever, you are.