Whenever I write about the Sierra Foothills, I always call Bill Easton because he’ll tell you what he thinks, not what you want to hear. In these salad days of online news media, the rule seems to be “decide the story first, then fill in the blanks.” Chalk it up to my nights covering mayhem and BS at a daily newspaper, but I like being thrown a curve ball. That’s when you learn something.
Easton took umbrage—and he’s an umbrage taker from way back—when I said the Foothills were like the Finger Lakes and Long Island wine regions in New York, well-regarded by those in the know but largely undiscovered by the wine masses. He asked: Why compare? “Bordeaux may be like Napa may be like Barossa Valley may be like Stellenbosch.” Easton said. “It is what it is.”
Fair enough. It’s not like Sierra Foothills can’t stand on its own.
After all, it’s one of the oldest winegrowing regions in California, with vineyards first planted in the 1850s to quench the potent thirst of immigrant prospectors during the Gold Rush. One of the largest American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) in America, Sierra Foothills spans 2.6 million acres in the mountains east of the San Francisco Bay.
While you could fit 27 Russian River Valley AVAs inside it (damn, comparing again), only about 5,700 acres are planted to wine grapes, less than half of Russian River’s roughly 15,000. Often the wines are identified on the bottle by sub-AVAs, such as Fiddletown or Fairplay, or county designations like Amador.
If you’ve tasted a Sierra Foothills wine, chances are it was made from Zinfandel, which accounts for nearly half the vineyards. Beyond that, you’ll find just about every grape variety, whether red or white, with Syrah showing the most promise in the past decade.
You’ll also find more than 100 wineries, hidden in the mountainous pockets at altitudes of 2,000 or 3,000 feet. Some are bunched closely around cities like Plymouth, while others sit alone at the end of a harrowing drive. As long as you like a ride in the country—and Gold Country is beautiful—a day trip from Sacramento or San Francisco is doable.
The region can broil on summer days but the mountain nights get chilly. “On a single ridge top you can have 360 degrees of exposure, from cooler northeast to warmer southwest, and hundreds of feet in elevation shift,” said winemaker Marco Cappelli, who fled Napa a few years back to start again in the Sierra Foothills.
The soils are shallow and malnourished, varying from decomposed granite to finely crushed volcanic rock, which means the vines have to fight for survival. Stressed vines make intense wines and that can be the case for Sierra Foothills.
When it comes to Zin, I rely on a handful of wineries—Easton, Four Vines, Miraflores and Cedarville—and there are other labels that rise to the occasion with some consistency, including C.G. Di Arie, Sobon Estate and sister wineries Montevina and Terra d'Oro.
While Easton’s Zinfandels are good values, particularly Amador County 2009 and Fiddletown Rinaldi Vineyard Old Vine 2008 they are built to age. Easton’s Zins were among the best wines in my recent 1991 and 2001 Zinfandel retrospective tasting.
I predict the Zins of Miraflores, which so far only has a handful of vintages under its belt, though they have rated very good to outstanding, will be in the same league for consistent quality and ageability.
Beyond that shallow top layer of quality producers, however, things get dicey. There’s plenty of room for improvement in the Foothills, where there are still too many overripe reds and enough downright funky wines to draw a convention of natural wine lovers. Vintage variability remains an issue, perhaps because the wineries are small and lack the capital to make great wine in challenging vintages. Distribution, too, remains limited. Most wines from the region are sold out the winery door or at retailers and restaurants in the area.
But new blood and money is coming into the region, and that’s always a good sign. After years of struggle, Renwood, one of the region’s few nationally known labels, has new Argentinean owners with deep pockets. Also, star winemakers in Napa are producing impressive Rhône-style wines from the foothills under their own brands, like Andy Erickson (who formerly worked for Screaming Eagle) and his wife under the Favia label and Helen Keplinger (who has taken over at Bryant Family) and her husband under the Keplinger label.
“More and more winemakers are coming up here, and with them comes creativity, enthusiasm, know-how and, most importantly, realized potential,” Cappelli said.
And who could take umbrage with that?
Have you tried wines from Sierra Foothills? If so, what are your favorite subregions and wineries?