Some of the state’s oldest vineyards and finest wineries are not in the Napa Valley, but up in the hills, near the place where gold was first found.
By Nancy Zeravich
Most of us know something about the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in the Sierra Nevada foothills on January 24, 1848, but we may not be aware that many of the immigrants who came to mine northern California’s rich ore also brought with them gold of their own in the form of wine grape rootstock. By the end of the 19th century, El Dorado, Calaveras, and Amador counties had more than 100 wineries, with more acreage devoted to the growing of grapes than anywhere else in California.
The mines continued to extract ore until they were shut down in 1942 by the War Production Board. And wine production was pretty well put to rest by Prohibition in 1920. But the sleeping industry began to reawaken throughout California in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and has been alive and flourishing ever since.
Although the three-county Sierra Foothills area explored here accounts for a mere 1 percent of the state’s wine production today, it is the quality and not the quantity of wine that attracts aficionados to this part of the world.
The region stretches from Angels Camp in the south to Coloma in the north. State Route 49, the historic “49er Trail,” is the north-south access linking the three counties together. East-west routes vary, depending on your approach.
Altitudes in the Foothills range from 900 to 3,600 feet above sea level. The area’s many microclimates, as well as the variety of soils and sun exposures, produce some of California’s most robust reds. The most popular of these wines are made with Zinfandel grapes, which grow in almost 70 percent of the region.
Zinfandel is a finicky plant and unusually difficult to grow, because the fruit ripens unevenly, even on the same vine. Most of the finest Zinfandel wines are produced from old-vine stock, often planted on hills or mountainsides, so it is no surprise that gold and silver medals are regularly awarded for outstanding Zinfandels from the Sierra Foothills region. Of course, that is what will make your tour through this region all the more fun. Taste the gold and decide for yourself which labels deserve the praise.
All of the 60-plus wineries in this region are family-owned and -operated, so you can count on meeting the farmers and the winemakers in a friendly, unpretentious atmosphere. Most of the wineries are open seven days a week, but check individual listings under each county’s wine organization to be certain. There is no charge for tasting, and, almost better yet, very little traffic on the roads to the wineries or lines at the tasting rooms.
Plan your wine-tasting outings for the spring, summer, or fall. Since more people travel in the summer and the temperatures are higher, you might want to choose the spring, when the rolling hills are green, the Sierra Nevada peaks are still capped with snow, and an abundance of wildflowers fill the fields and roadsides. Whenever you go, remember to plan picnics at one of the many wineries that have scenic sites set aside for this purpose. Also, take time out to visit the small towns along the way that still cling to their Gold Rush heritage.
Calaveras County, the southernmost leg of this journey, is best reached via State Route 4 from Stockton to Angels Camp. It’s approximately an hour’s drive. Main Street Angels Camp is right out of a Western movie set. When Mark Twain visited there in 1865, he heard a tale that he would subsequently use to write his first successful short story. “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” made him famous and forever associated the town with frogs. Every year people from all over the world come to participate in the Jumping Frog Jubilee, a festival that takes place May 19 through 22 in 2006. The Calaveras County Fair is held at the same time and includes the judging of Calaveras wines. This event is so longstanding that the first wine gold medal was awarded back in 1872.
Space doesn’t allow for details about all 16 wineries in the county, but the Calaveras Wine Association (866-806-9463; www.calaveraswines.org) tells you everything you need to know.
I do suggest you include a trip to Ironstone Vineyards, located just outside the town of Murphys. (Murphys is 10 miles northeast of Angels Camp via State Route 4.) This winery features lovely gardens, a lakeside park, a gourmet delicatessen, a jewelry store, and a museum that features a 44-pound crystalline gold leaf specimen.
Ironstone hosts special events throughout the year. The winery’s Spring Obsession Weekend, held March 4 and 5 this year, celebrates the coming of spring. More than 300,000 tulips and daffodils cover the grounds, punctuating every corner of one’s vision. Artists are on hand to talk about their work, and chefs compete with recipes that best pair with Ironstone’s award-wining Obsession Symphony wine. Here’s a chance to taste an unusual white wine. Visit the winery’s Web site at www.ironstonevineyards.com for more information.
The town of Murphys was established in 1848 as a trading post, but today it is a gentrified place just oozing with charm. They’ve made it too easy. You can visit the tasting rooms of Stevenot, Twisted Oak, Milliaire, Domaine Becquet, and Broll Mountain without ever leaving Main Street, thus giving you an opportunity to nosh, shop, or go to a spa between tastings. You may want to visit Stevenot’s actual winery for its atmosphere and picnic area under the grape arbor. It’s just out of town off Sheep Ranch Road. I recommend taking a towed vehicle, not a motorhome, for this drive.
Should you travel to Calaveras County in June, you may want to participate in PassPort Weekend, typically held over Father’s Day weekend. All of the wineries are open and for a certain price that’s good for all three days, a commemorative wine glass will be your passport to enjoy gourmet goodies, live music, and discounted prices for wine. You may order tickets online at the Calaveras Wine Web site or by phone.
From Calaveras County, travel north on State Route 49 into Amador County, approximately 100 miles east of San Francisco and 45 miles from Sacramento. You also may reach this area from Lake Tahoe via scenic State Route 88. More than 30 wineries are tucked into the beautiful rolling hills of Shenandoah Valley just north of Plymouth. Most of the wineries in the valley offer lovely scenic spots for picnics. Story Winery’s deck overlooks the Cosumnes River Canyon.
There are two appellations (wine-growing regions) in Amador County: Shenandoah Valley and Fiddletown. Zinfandels in the former tend to be fuller, riper, and earthier than the more fruity Zins of Fiddletown. Although a majority of the acreage is devoted to Zinfandel grapes, classic Rhone and Italian varietals such as Syrah, Barbera, and Sangiovese are winning critical acclaim. Some land is now devoted to whites such as Chardonnay and Viognier as well.
The first Zinfandels were planted here in 1868 at Sobon Estate (www.sobonwine.com), the former D’Agostini Winery. In 1989 the historic property was purchased by the Sobon family, who gave it their name. Examples of early agriculture and winemaking can be seen at the Shenandoah Valley Museum on the grounds.
Vines from the 1800s are still producing fine Zins at, among other locations, Deaver Vineyards (www.deavervineyard.com) and Renwood Winery (www.renwood.com). Renwood received high scores in Wine Spectator’s recent tasting report for some of its 2001 and 2002 Zinfandels.
Flowers are abundant in winery gardens and at the Amador Flower Farm down the road from Deaver, where more than 800 varieties of daylilies and four acres of demonstration gardens are open all year. From mid-March through mid-April, you must see the masses of blooms at Daffodil Hill, just north of the tiny hamlet of Volcano.
The Shenandoah Valley reminds many of southern Tuscany, in Italy, and the Villa Toscano Winery (www.villatoscano.com), surrounded by ponds and gardens, reflects that. Stop at the gift shop for some nice Italian pottery.
Art and wine go together at the Charles Spinetta Winery (www.charlesspinettawinery.com). Wildlife artwork, both prints and originals, is for sale along with some very good wine. You may want to start a collection of the winery label series by Joe Garcia and Sherrie Russell Meline. Shenandoah Vineyards (www.shenandoahvineyards.com) has an extensive contemporary art, photography, and ceramics gallery in its barrel room.
For information about Amador County vintners, call (209) 267-2297 or visit www.amadorwine.com.
Take a break from wine tasting and stroll the charming Gold Rush towns of Jackson, Sutter Creek, and Amador City. Covered sidewalks, historic brick buildings, one-of-a-kind shops, galleries, and restaurants are unusual and uncommercialized. Other than fast-food outlets, no chain stores can be found in the Foothills region.
While touring the area, don’t miss the Fair Play region in El Dorado County, 12 miles north and east of Plymouth on County Route E16. Fair Play, established in 1853, was a prosperous mining town, but by the 1880s when hydraulic mining was restricted, the economy switched to agriculture. In 1967 an experimental vineyard was planted on property now owned by Charles B. Mitchell Vineyards. In 2001 Fair Play was established as an American Viticulture Area.
Today 10 family-owned wineries within three miles of each other are growing what they like to call “wines with an altitude.” With elevations of 2,500 feet, Fair Play is higher and cooler than any area in the Sierra Foothills, and the wines reflect this difference. Here you will find Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Viognier, in addition to the reds found throughout the Foothills.
Charles B. Mitchell (www.charlesbmitchell.com) offers more than tastings. You can participate in regular barrel tastings, buy futures, or bottle your own wine for just $5.99 at selected times of the year. They even offer escorted tours to the wine regions of France. A new bistro is adjacent to the property.
The Fitzpatrick Winery & Lodge (www.fitzpatrickwinery.com) tasting room is located in a handcrafted log lodge perched on a hill overlooking its vineyards. All of its wines and ports come from organically grown grapes. The adjoining shop displays the family’s Celtic roots in a large assortment of gifts and clothing. Pub grub is available on weekends.
For more information about this small, tasty region, visit www.fairplaywine.com.
Return to Plymouth, and continue north on State Route 49 to visit the wineries with the El Dorado appellation. From snowcapped mountains to steep, undulating hillsides and gorges dug out by the American River, the scenery is spectacular. Placerville is the largest town in the area, and you’re sure to see its abundance of Gold Rush history. The town boasts a museum, restaurants, and antiques and specialty shops. RV parking is available at the Bank of America on Sacramento and Pacific streets.
Most of the wineries in this area are off of U.S. 50 east of Placerville. In April, you’ll be treated to pear and apple orchards in bloom in nearby Apple Hill.
Boeger Winery (www.boegerwinery.com) dates back to 1872, and in 1972 it was the first in the county to begin producing grapes again. Be sure to see the original homestead and cellar.
Holly’s Hill (www.hollyshill.com is a family winery overlooking the Consumnes Valley near Placerville.
Outside of Camino is one of California’s highest-elevation vineyards. Madrona Vineyards has a great Web site with recipes and some down-home humor from Paul Bush, owner and grower. See www.madronavineyards.com.
All of the wineries, including those in Fair Play, participate in the Passport Weekends, April 1 and 2 and April 8 and 9, 2006. Tickets are available through the El Dorado Winery Association, online or by phone www.eldoradowines.rog, 800-306-3956.
Whether you explore the Sierra Foothill wineries in one trip or several, in the spring, summer, or fall, you will be rewarded with your own cache of gold “” the wines that please your palate. And, because the yields are small, many of your new favorites are rarely found outside the area.
Gold Country Visitors Association
P.O. Box 637
Angels Camp, CA 95222
Calaveras Visitors Bureau
P.O. Box 637
1192 S. Main St.
Angels Camp, CA 95222
Amador County Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau
125 Peek St.
Jackson, CA 95642
El Dorado County Visitors Authority
c/o Chamber of Commerce
542 Main St.
Placerville, CA 95667
Angels Camp RV & Camping Resort
3069 State Route 49
Angels Camp, CA 95222
Far Horizons 49er Village RV Resort, C2504
18265 State Route 49
Plymouth, CA 95669-9754
4655 Rock Barn Road
Shingle Springs, CA 95682