Sierra Nevada Foothills

Winemaking traditions and ancient vines flourish in California’s Gold Country
Tim Fish

When the roads in a wine region have names such as Grizzly Flat and Buzzards Gulch, there's a very good chance you'll have an unfussy—and entirely genuine—adventure. In that way, the Sierra Foothills area of Northern California does not disappoint.

It's rather like Napa or Sonoma 50 years ago, except you don't leave the tasting room with a jug of hearty red. That's the appeal of the foothills, located in historic Gold Country, about a two-hour drive northeast of San Francisco. The area is still unpolished and eccentric in character, but the wines offer an authentic sense of place. And while many of them are of ordinary quality, there is a small but influential group of wineries that are raising the bar. "Even though a lot of wineries have been here a long time, these are still the early days up here," says Jonathan Lachs, owner and winemaker of Cedarville Vineyard.

Indeed, people have been growing grapes and making wine in the Sierra Foothills since the Gold Rush days; D'Agostini Winery (now Sobon Estate) was founded in 1856, near several early gold-mining boomtowns. Many of the fortune seekers had European backgrounds and a taste for wine. They planted vineyards, but when the gold petered out and the mines began closing, the wine industry fell dormant. "This was basically a wide-open area, with prostitution, gambling and bootlegging all the way until about 1959," says Bill Easton, winemaker at Terre Rouge-Easton winery.

It wasn't until the 1970s that the local wine industry began to experience a revival, and the Sierra Foothills AVA was approved. It's the third largest in California, encompassing about 2.6 million sparsely planted acres and including a number of subappellations, most prominently Shenandoah Valley, Amador, El Dorado and Fair Play.

From the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, the countryside rises gently, at first thinly covered with scrub oak in Amador County before ascending higher into El Dorado County, where the landscapes become more dramatic and are thickly covered with mountain pines. It's a rustic and remote region, laced with crooked and narrow roads that decorate the hills like roller coaster tracks.

This sort of terrain means diverse terroirs. Vineyards are planted with a variety of exposures and from elevations that generally range from 1,000 feet to 3,000 feet. Soils tend to be shallow and differ dramatically in composition from region to region, from sandy clay loam to decomposed granite and volcanic soils. Water can be scarce, and yields tend to be naturally low.

"One of the things that's misunderstood about the Sierra Foothills is the climate," says Easton, who has been making wine in the region since 1985. "People think it's a hot region, and it's really not. I generally don't get budbreak until two or three weeks after Napa and don't harvest my Zinfandel until early October."

Daytime temperatures average about 94 degrees F in July and August, dropping into the low 60s at night, which is generally a bit warmer than Napa. That means the region is fairly ideal for Zinfandel—and there are many 100-plus-year-old vines to prove that. There are also Rhône varieties such as Syrah and Viognier, and Italian vines such as Barbera and Pinot Grigio.

The region's diversity and potential is what drew winemaker Marco Cappelli to the foothills, to manage his own small vineyard and consult for area wineries, after 17 years at Swanson Vineyards in Napa Valley. "When farmed properly, the grape quality from this area is as good as that of any other county in California, Napa included," Cappelli says.

"When farmed properly" is the key phrase in the Sierra Foothills equation. Producers such as Cedarville, Terre Rouge-Easton, Miraflores and C.G. Di Arie are raising the quality standard—limiting crop size, maximizing sun exposure in the vineyards, sorting out underripe and raisined grapes, and managing tannins in the winery. The wines of the area typically have considerable weight, good acidity and structure, and appealing mineral qualities, but the reds have a tendency to be overly earthy, hard and tannic, and the whites too tart and simple. In many ways, there's little reason for the established wineries of the region to push the envelope on quality: Most produce small amounts of wine and have limited or no national distribution, selling much of their product through a mailing list or out the door.

But ironically, that is part of the appeal of visiting the foothills—the intimacy and sense of discovery. "[My wife] Susan and I meet the majority of our customers," says Lachs.

Those requiring a first-rate hotel should consider making their visit here a day trip from Sacramento, the state capital and a thriving food-and-wine community, less than an hour's drive away. For those interested in the complete foothills experience, there are many charming bed and breakfasts in the area, while Château du Sureau, overlooking the town of Oakhurst, a gateway to nearby Yosemite National Park, provides a welcome bit of sophistication in an otherwise rustic region.

Staying in the foothills ensures plenty of time to explore quaint villages, such as Placerville and Amador City, and historic Sutter Creek retains much of its Gold Rush appeal, with old-fashioned storefronts housing mercantiles, eclectic shops, bars and restaurants. Columbia, a meticulously preserved mining town, is now a state historic park with Gold Rush-era buildings that line the streets and still serve as hotels, saloons, and even a theater.

Good restaurants are still limited in number, but enough places provide satisfaction. For a picnic lunch, consider packing some of the many gourmet fixings at Andrae's in Amador City. Most wineries have pleasant picnic grounds; just buy a bottle and settle in for an hour or two.

Wine lists accompanying dinner menus are generally devoted to local producers, but the prices are a bargain and most restaurants charge only a modest corkage fee. Gold Vine Grill in Somerset is a good choice, but Taste in Plymouth is a real discovery, rivaling many places in Sonoma and Napa.

That's the Sierra Foothills for you: a bit unsophisticated, but surprising at times. If you're prepared to rough it a little, it's easy to take a shine to the place.

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