By Laura Ness
Red-stained hills, ample reminders of mining days of yore, seasonal views of snowcapped Sierra peaks and gnarly head-trained vines: these are what set the Amador Foothills, and in particular, the Shenandoah Valley, apart from any other wine country in California. Welcome to the new gold that just happens to be liquid.
Here, old vine Zin dominates, although Italian varietals like Barbera and Sangiovese are slowly taking root. There’s also a fair amount of Syrah and Petite Sirah, and you’ll find Rhone whites and red Grenache and Syrah-based blends here and there. Mourvedre, although not plentiful, can be absolutely stunning.
Lodging in Sutter Creek, or for the Adventurous, Volcano
For an overnight adventure that includes two days of amazing winetasting, book a room at the charming Grey Gables in Sutter Creek or, if you are adventurous, a room at the Volcano Union Inn in the adorable high-altitude town of Volcano, once home to 5,000 during the mining boom, now about 110 residents. Both places offer exceptional cuisine and are highly attentive to guest needs.
Day One: Start with a Multi-Label Tasting
Begin your Amador wine adventure with a visit to Amador 360, a multi label winetasting bar just outside Plymouth. Go for the Cedar Creek Viognier, and all the Fiddletown Cellars wines that are open. They’re well-crafted, and the 2011 Barbera is probably the best winemaker Joe Shebl has yet made. Try the Los Portales wines, too, Iberian varietals made by Joe for his friend Isy Borjon, whose father was a bull rider in Mexico before coming to California to work the fields.
Zins and Barbera Shine at Story Winery
Next, I’d go to Story so you can see the gorgeous 120-year-old Mission vines, and drink in the breathtaking views. Old vines march up and down these hills, with younger ones attempting to keep up. Their Zinfandels, mostly from old vines, are all simply yummy, and very well priced. Loved their Barbera, too. And they have an adorable rescue cat, Kiki, who likes to greet visitors.
Food and Wine Pairing and Lunch at Renwood
Then I’d head to Renwood Winery, where you can arrange in advance a seated food and wine pairing, and I highly recommend it. Tasting room and wine club manager, Jennifer Hunt, has put together a superb set of six food pairings to complement the excellent wines. The pairings are presented on a gorgeous black walnut table, in a room stunningly decorated with paintings by a sublime local artist, Chris Duccini (ducciniart.com).
Or you can simply go to the well lit modern bar and taste. Purchase a snack or lunch from their onsite deli, crammed with cheeses, meats and premade sandwiches, and there is plentiful covered outdoor seating.
Dillian, Where the Wine is like Drinking Silk
Next stop should be Dillian, where blooming lilacs welcome you to an old farmhouse that has been turned into a spacious and uncluttered tasting room. Here, tapestries adorn the walls and you can see the lovely estate vineyards, planted in 1972, own-rotted and dry-farmed, through the windows. Young winemaker and fourth-generation farmer, Thomas Dillian, crafts some of the cleanest wines I’ve ever tasted. Some might consider them light in color and body, but they are not bereft of taste. Instead, they are like drinking silk instead of linen.
The citrus and gooseberry-packed 2013 Dillian Sauvignon Blanc is entirely refreshing, and the 2011 Tre Fratelli Zin, named for Tom’s father and his two uncles, is among the most intriguing in the entire region. It’s filled with raspberry jam and peach melba deliciousness, ringing like a trumpet with great acidity and strident purpose.
Those who love classic Amador Zin will revel in the Hangtree Zin, bold, big and tannic, built for substance. The 2011 “Sorella,” a blend of Zin and Syrah, is easy to drink and more like a heavy rosé while the 2011 Primitivo is stout, with aggressive oak and strawberry-pomegranate goodness.
World-Class Dinner at Taste! In Plymouth
Now it’s time for dinner, and you must go to Taste! in Plymouth, where reservations are required: it’s world-class food is known for hundreds of miles around.
Day Two Begins with Whites, Sparklings and Old Vine Zinfandel
Fortified by another amazing breakfast at the Volcano Union Inn, where they bake everything from scratch, begin your second day’s wine adventure with a stop at BellaGrace (lots of whites and sparkling), followed by a visit to Scott Harvey’s tasting room in Sutter Creek, where old vine Zin will tickle your tastebuds.
Next a Visit to Old Mexico with Vibrant Wines at Borjón
Then, it’s on to Borjón, where the lineup will blow you away with its depth and breadth, and the tasting room is like stepping into old Mexico. There’s an enormous tequila showcase (not open for tasting), along with bull riding regalia and exquisite saddles that exhibit an attention to detail and polish that are equally apparent in the wines.
Vibrant and well made, begin with the strawberry-watermelon rosé of Zin and Barbera, move on to the succulent cherry pie Sangiovese, then the heart-stoppingly good 2012 Barbera “Seleccion,” stylishly stuffed with ripe strawberries, blood orange and lavender. But don’t stop there, because the 2012 Primitivo Reposado is like a super smooth dark cherry cigar with wallops of pepper, while the Petite Sirah Reposado, an intense bullwhip of dark leather and blackberries, will snap your tastebuds to attention.
The Los Portales line is available for purchase here, too. Choose from four different flights, including Barbera, zin, Reposado and Coleccion. You’ll just have to come back again.
Award Winning Barbera at Runquist
Don’t leave the area without stopping at Jeff Runquist Wines, where UC Davis-trained winemaker, Jeff, puts together one heck of a robust lineup, using fruit from vineyards he cherry picks with the hand of a master. Among the best wines here is his 2012 Cooper Vineyards Barbera, which won Best of Show at the 2014 Jerry Mead competition.
Well-Priced Wines and Reserve-Seated Tastings at Cooper Vineyards
Finally, a visit to Cooper Vineyards is a must. Here, you can reserve seated tastings with your own snacks and enjoy a flight of some of the most consistently flavorful, delicious and well-priced wines. Winemaker Michael Roser, who hails from Chicago, is a professionally trained chef and passionate Dead Head who loves to make interesting wines as well as music.
The 2012 Carignane Rosé is fabulous, and the 2012 Roussanne, simply sensational: a cream cheese-filled baked pear pastry. The brilliance and baking spice of the grippy 2011 Mourvedre will linger long, as will the cherry, fig and white pepper playfulness of the signature 2011 Estate Barbera. Finish up with a Dicembre late harvest Petite Sirah, a wine that almost didn’t get made, but thank goodness for cellar miracles.
Dinner Options in Sutter Creek and Volcano
If you’re staying in Sutter Creek, eat at Susan’s Place (reservations required) and sit outdoors in the garden. If staying at the Volcano Union Inn, where they’ll put out a glorious snack tray each afternoon, The Pub here will blow you away by the depth of it’s classy cuisine. The same couple that owns Taste! runs and operates this place, so you can expect utterly fantastic food, from the wild mushroom bruschetta to the balistically luscious lamb burger to the precisely prepared fresh fish dishes. The duck wings (the size of a typical chicken drumstick) are not to be missed. Even the salads are divine. Desserts rock, too, and corkage is $10. What’s not to love?!
Truffle Potato Chips? Yes! For the Ride Home
If you are a freak for truffles like I am, a stop at the Amador Vintage Market in downtown Plymouth will lead you to locally homemade truffle potato chips that will absolutely blow your mind. My friend Julie described them as “orgasmic.” Combined with the 2012 Cooper Vineyards Roussanne, I would have to agree. Buy two bags but hide one immediately. One bag is enough to put six adults into a truffle-induced stupor.
For more information on visiting the Amador County Wine Country, visit. A great time to visit is in June, when Amador host’s the Barbera Festival every year on the second Saturday of June. This year’s event, on June 14, will be at Cooper Ranch, 21365 Shenandoah Road in Plymouth. Tickets are $40 and can be purchased here.