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The Ups and Downs of the Sierra Foothills

Veterans of this unsung wine region are being joined by a new generation of winemakers
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Aug 10, 2011 11:00am ET

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?

Dry Creek Vineyard
Healdsburg —  August 10, 2011 2:15pm ET
Hi Tim - when I think of wineries in the Sierra Foothills I always turn to Cedarville in Fair Play. Jonathan and his wife are producing some of the most riveting wines in the area. Their Grenache is outstanding. Awesome winery and great people to boot!
Steve Walker
Raleigh, NC —  August 10, 2011 4:46pm ET
Tim,

Sierra Vista Winery in Placerville has some wonderful wines. I love their grenache, and their specialty is Rhone style wines. Give them a try; I don't think you'll be disappointed!
Richard Lee
Napa —  August 10, 2011 4:52pm ET
Sorry Tim,
The wines of the FL area are not in the same league as the Sierra Foothills. The Foothills are not the SF Giants of wine area's, but they aren't the Houston Astro's like the FL area is.
Jamie Sherman
Sacramento —  August 10, 2011 5:17pm ET
"Too many overripe reds and enough downright funky wines" hit the nail on the head. That combined with a stubborn reliance on overripe zinfandel has sort of put me off on the area. I used to come back from trips saying "wouldn't Rhone grapes work better?" I've heard things are changing a bit though: more Syrah and Grenache, better farming techniques with more focus on quality not quantity, and improved wine making. Maybe I should give it another shot. One last observation. Seems to me the growing season is rather short and has lots of temperature peaks and valleys during the growing season. How do you think the climate influences wine up there?
Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  August 10, 2011 5:58pm ET
Thanks for the comments everyone. I barely touched on the region.

Richard, I have to respectfully disagree. I think Finger Lakes wines are equally impressive, especially the whites. Both too are dramatically beautiful regions.

Jamie, I wish I could disagree with you. I still taste many overwrought or overripe wines from the region.
Richard Lee
Napa —  August 10, 2011 6:27pm ET
Tim,
Unfortunately, probably because of blog size, you highlighted just Zinfandel. That whole area has many great Syrahs (I'm sure Bill could run you thru an extensive tasting of his sister winery Terre Rouge's Syrahs. They easily will age for 8-15 years) Petite Sirahs, Barbera's, Grenache and Sangiovese. The Cab's have made great improvements and excellent examples can be had for under $30.00. Btw, Jamie, how long have you lived in Sacramento? Rarely will you see a short growing season.
Jamie Sherman
Sacramento —  August 11, 2011 1:07am ET
Mr. Lee, Sacramento is not the Foothills. With elevations 1500 ft and greater they experience 4 seasons including snow in the winter. Unlike other AVA's, cold weather or even snow can come early or stay late effectively shortening the growing season especially in higher elevations. This is why as a resident of Sacramento, I know that I can drive up and ski in April/May then drive home and drink wine comfortably on my porch wearing shorts and a t-shirt.
John Rider
Mission Viejo, CA —  August 11, 2011 1:47am ET
Tim, if you haven’t tried Scott Harvey’s wines then you have missed the foothills. Scott started at Santino wines back in the late 70’s then went on to start his own label. He still uses grapes from vines planted in 1864 and makes an incredible old vine Zin. He’s based out of napa now but still uses the local grapes and has a tasting room in Sutter Creek.
Richard Hirth
Michigan —  August 11, 2011 8:36am ET
Second the rec on Terre Rouge's Syrahs. I've had several bottles of the 2002 Pyramid Block. Outstanding!

I've also enjoyed some of Karly's Zins.
Heitor Almeida
NY —  August 11, 2011 11:05am ET
Casa Nuestra in Napa makes a terrific Verdelho from grapes grown at the Sierra.

I have recently had an aged Zin from Easton that was fantastic. Macchia is another good source for Amador Zin.
Jeremiah Morehouse
Sacramento CA —  August 11, 2011 1:56pm ET
Being a wine buyer and sommelier in Sacramento I see a lot of foothills wines. It's all about style, I prefer foothills zins to Lodi, but still find syrah is the best thing out of the mountains.
The constant battle is offering local wines that people want but also work with food pairings.
I carry Miraflores as well as Boeger and feel for larger more well known properties they have quality. Also Fleur des Lys I feel is good for Rhone stuff
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento, CA —  August 11, 2011 2:39pm ET
I love the foothills -- and you do not have to look hard to find a large number of really good wines; esp rhones (red and white), old vine zins, Barberas and some Spanish and Portuguese varietals. Miraflores, Hollys Hill, Cedarville, Skinner, DTR/Easton, CDG Aire, Cooper, Prospect 772, Madrona come to mind when I think of high quality local producers. Favia and 4 Vines also make stunning wines the with foothills grapes
Gavin Mchugh
Nor Cal —  August 13, 2011 1:49am ET
After Having lived in the foothills for 12 years at an elevation 1,500 feet, and commuting into Sacramento for work 5 days a week, I can't say the climate and growing season between where we lived and Sacramento was that different. I would agree that at 3,000 feet the season and weather might be slightly different, but not dramatically so. As Tim pointed out, what makes the area most noteworthy for producing wines is the unique soil conditions. As someone who has done their share of shovel work in the area, he is certainly right on that point.

Some of our favorites are Dobra, Perry Creek, Youngs, Lava Cap, Mt. Vernon and Cedarville.
Gavin Mchugh
Nor Cal —  August 13, 2011 1:49am ET
After Having lived in the foothills for 12 years at an elevation 1,500 feet, and commuting into Sacramento for work 5 days a week, I can't say the climate and growing season between where we lived and Sacramento was that different. I would agree that at 3,000 feet the season and weather might be slightly different, but not dramatically so. As Tim pointed out, what makes the area most noteworthy for producing wines is the unique soil conditions. As someone who has done their share of shovel work in the area, he is certainly right on that point.

Some of our favorites are Dobra, Perry Creek, Youngs, Lava Cap, Mt. Vernon and Cedarville.
Susan Aventi
Las Vegas NV —  August 15, 2011 2:44pm ET
Those old vine zinfandels deserve some respect!
A day tasting wine in Murphys is so much fun, I haven’t ventured much further lately.
I like Zucca and Newsome/Harlow.
Thanks for mentioning all the others. Good to know. As I too am from the Sierra Foothills, I will be looking for them on a trip home soon.
Joe Dekeyser
Waukesha, WI —  August 16, 2011 7:30pm ET
Although she doesn't live there one of my new favorites, Helen Keplinger, sources a fair number of grapes from Foothills vineyards. I have come to an appreciation that there are more than a few "Bill Easton's" out that direction. I get the sense and feel that maybe even the majority are marching to their own drummer.
Darrel Foster
Manteca, CA USA —  August 18, 2011 11:00am ET
I agree with Jeremiah about Fleur des Lys, they make some great wines, never released too soon, small production place in the Fair Play neck of the woods. We are fans of the Sangiovese at Vino Noceto (next door to Easton/Terra Rouge). New comer Runquist is doing some incredible stuff with Barbera, Zin, Petite Sirah. If you don't have any Dillian red wines in your collection you are missing out as well. Karly makes a great affordable zin or 3 and their Mourvedre is a great wine as well as their Syrah. If you haven't been in the last year or two and recall over ripe reds, it's time to try again, the Plymouth and Fair Play areas have made great strides in the last few years, you can easily spend a day in either area but if you must they can be combined into a day trip you just have plan where you want to go and stay on track. Lots of newbies on the path to try out as well. Personally, I love foothill wines and they fit my budget.

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