More than 150 years ago, miners came to California's Sierra Foothills searching for gold. They're long gone, but their legacy includes some of the oldest grapevines in the state. That historic imprint is still felt in Amador County, where small towns look untouched by time, and thick, gnarled old grapevines are a common sight.
Though the region boasts old-fashioned charm and a sense of time travel, today there's a fresh energy to wine and tourism in Amador. New producers and tasting rooms are popping up, while historic hotels are undertaking renovations. Even better, new-release wines are showing the region's potential. "There's a sense of taking things to the next level," explains Ann Kraemer, a viticulture star in Amador, whose precision farming at Shake Ridge Ranch has brought attention to the area.
Located about a two-hour drive from San Francisco, Amador County has recently become a desirable destination for day-tripping wine lovers, especially those near Sacramento or folks taking a detour on their way to and from Lake Tahoe. Tasting rooms are inviting and low-key, and often waive tasting fees. The rolling landscape is broken up by grazing cattle and sheep, evergreens mixed with oak trees, and bright red soil that peeks out of the hills and rocks.
Amador has a huge diversity of soils and is as warm as Napa, to the west, though the higher elevation means breezier days and cooler nights. Known for Zinfandel—which still accounts for about two-thirds of the county's 3,700 acres of vines—Amador also has plenty of Italian-inspired wines, including Barbera and Sangiovese. Most exciting are the up-and-coming Rhône-style wines, particularly Syrah and Grenache, which rival the best made anywhere in California.
Some of the first producers to demonstrate the potential of the area, like Domaine de la Terre Rouge, are still around and still showing the way. Other old-timers, such as Terra d'Oro and Renwood, have new owners who have made substantial investments. There's also revitalized energy from outside producers such as Napa's Keplinger, Favia and Turley, and relatively new names such as Andis and Baiocchi. Even though parts of Amador look like they've slept through the past century, and locals still talk about active gold claims, the wine industry is anything but sleepy.
Keep in mind that—as in most wine regions—hours of operation can be highly seasonal. Most venues are open on the weekends, but Monday to Wednesday can be pretty quiet in Amador. The closest town to wine country action, Sutter Creek, is a charming hub that looks like the set of an old Western, where storefronts are now hotels, antiques shops, galleries and boutiques. Plymouth and Amador City are so small, you'll drive through before you realize they're there. Most of the businesses are along Highway 49, as is the county seat of Jackson. Make sure to meander the Main Streets of "old" Highway 49 through Amador City and Sutter Creek, steering clear of the bypass that avoids these towns. Your GPS will know what to do.
18590 Highway 49, Plymouth
Telephone (209) 245-6600
Open Daily, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Cost Tastings $5
Amador 360 is a one-stop tasting room, visitors center, wineshop and shipping hub. The relaxed tasting area, with local artwork, looks like a living room dropped in the middle of a wineshop. You'll find Amador wines made by producers based elsewhere as well as wines from nearby wineries which haven't a local tasting room, including Forlorn Hope, Fiddletown Cellars and Tallulah. Amador 360 has also created a unique shipping co-op. Wines bought in area tasting rooms can be dropped off here to be shipped to you, or, for a fee, they will collect the wines for you; either option alleviates concerns about bottles cooking in your car's trunk.
11000 Shenandoah Road, Plymouth
Telephone (209) 245-6177
Open Daily, 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Cost Tastings $5
Opened in 2010, Andis is one of the newest producers in Amador, with one of the most striking tasting rooms. What looks like rippling metal from afar is actually a stunning design of woven whitewashed barrel staves. Inside, the tasting room has an airy feel, with big windows to take in the panoramic view of rolling vineyards. It is dog-, child- and picnic-friendly, and the patio outside features comfy Adirondack chairs. They offer a diverse lineup of reds and whites, including Zinfandel, Barbera, Petite Sirah, Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc. Wines are served on tap, and a stylish, resealable carafe can be purchased and refilled.
BAIOCCHI FAMILY VINEYARDS
82 Main St., Sutter Creek
Telephone (209) 267-5523
Open Thursday to Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Cost Tastings $5
Greg and Sharon Baiocchi make wine from their steep 12-acre vineyard in nearby Fair Play, but their tasting room is in downtown Sutter Creek; nine tasting rooms have opened in the past few years up and down the town's Main Street. Founded in 2005, Baiocchi's focus is on Rhône-inspired red blends—some of the most exciting in the area—like the Del Maggio blend of Grenache and Syrah, or the Sprezzatura, with Syrah and Tempranillo. The tasting room, set in a cottage, features a charming garden in back. The wooden bar is made of planks reclaimed from a bowling alley.
DOMAINE DE LA TERRE ROUGE / EASTON WINES
10801 Dickson Road, Plymouth
Telephone (209) 245-3117
Open Thursday to Monday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Cost Tastings free
Bill Easton is one of the pioneers of Amador's modern winemaking era, founding his winery in 1984, and his wines still lead the pack in terms of quality. The large tasting room showcases a broad range of wines under two labels. Domaine de la Terre Rouge, named after the distinctive red soils found in Amador, produces wines made from Rhône varietals, such as Syrah, Grenache, Viognier and Marsanne, grown at higher elevations. The Easton label is made up of non-Rhône wines, including Zinfandel, Barbera and Sauvignon Blanc. Tastings here go beyond the basics: They often pour older vintages from their library, and have been known to serve wines in ascending order, moving up the mountain based on the elevation of the vineyards. Large, inviting grounds and plenty of picnic tables encourage you to linger.
12225 Steiner Road, Plymouth
Telephone (209) 245-6979
Open Sunday to Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Thursday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Cost Tastings free
Founded in 1993, Renwood quickly became one of the largest producers in the area, specializing in Zinfandel, Syrah and Barbera. The original owners filed for bankruptcy in 2009, but the brand was resurrected in 2011 when an Argentine investment group purchased it. A recent renovation has turned Renwood into one of the most modern tasting rooms in Amador; the spare-no-expense reimagining of the tasting room emphasizes comfort in a contemporary space. Fashionable lighting elements include the tasting bar countertop, which is illuminated from within. Larger groups will be drawn to the covered patio and its comfortable couches and fire pits. There is a sophisticated cheese and deli selection, and tours are available by appointment.
TERRA D'ORO WINERY / MONTEVINA
20680 Shenandoah School Road, Plymouth
Telephone (209) 245-6942
Open Daily, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Cost Tastings free
This winery has a long history in Amador. Montevina was the first in the Sierra foothills to produce wines after Prohibition ended. Terra d'Oro ("land of gold" in Italian) wines debuted in 1973, at first under the Montevina label, but the brands later split. The Trinchero family, owners of Sutter Home, purchased both labels and the winery in 1988, after making wine with Amador grapes since the 1960s. One of the largest wineries around, the property has a very welcoming tasting room in a recently renovated, modern barn setting overlooking a large, peaceful picnic area. Their portfolio is primarily Zinfandel-based, but they also make Barbera, Moscato and Pinot Grigio.
TURLEY WINE CELLARS
10851 Shenandoah Road, Plymouth
Telephone (209) 245-3938
Open Thursday to Monday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Cost Tastings $10
Zinfandel powerhouse Turley Wine Cellars purchased the old Karly facility in 2012, and opened the doors to this tasting room soon after. The focus here is primarily on Zinfandels from Amador and beyond, and a few selections are available for sale only at the tasting room. Inside are a simple zinc tasting bar and a friendly staff; outside are picnic
tables and a bocce ball court.
51 Hanford St., Sutter Creek
Telephone (209) 267-8190
Open Thursday to Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.
Cost Tastings free
Respected viticulturist Ann Kraemer drew a lot of attention to the Sierra Foothills when she planted her 46-acre Shake Ridge Ranch in 2003, bringing 30 years of growing experience to the area. Her vineyard has been the source of exciting bottlings from Keplinger, Favia and others. Kraemer and her family make wines from the same vineyard—focusing on reds such as Tempranillo, Syrah, Barbera and Zinfandel—under the Yorba label, which you can sample in their tasting room in Sutter Creek. There's usually a family member pouring behind the counter.
AMADOR VINTAGE MARKET
9393 Main St., Plymouth
Telephone (209) 245-3663
Open Wednesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
You can't go wrong with the deli items here, made by Beth Sogaard. Particularly good are the salads and sandwiches, such as the Miner's Reuben, which features pastrami on house bread with butter pickles, or the Amador Turkey Cobb, with smoked turkey, bacon, avocado and Gorgonzola—quite an improvement over a typical club sandwich. While your order is being made, browse the shelves for teas, imported food items, coffee and local wines. The fresh baked goods, house-made hummus and truffled potato chips are all tasty.
14141 Old Highway 49, Amador City
Telephone (209) 267-1352
Open Thursday to Sunday, 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.
It would be easy to plan a picnic around the provisions you'll find in the packed shelves and display cases at Andrae's, particularly the breads—among them a walnut-blue cheese loaf, lemon-rosemary sourdough, and polenta-pepita loaf, in which a light touch of herbes de Provence runs throughout. A selection of gourmet sandwiches provides another avenue for enjoying the fresh bread. The croissants (both savory and sweet), cakes, tarts, pies and cookies are top-notch. Don't miss the Nibby cookie, made with Belgian dark chocolate, cocoa nibs, hazelnuts and oats. The store stocks cheeses, charcuterie and other food items, as well as kitchenware and more than 20 types of gourmet salt. Locals like to gather over cups of coffee or tea at the few tables out front.
LUCY'S SPICE BOX
Telephone (209) 418-8455 or (209) 296-2208
Corkage Not permitted
Lucy Spangler-Gore developed a reputation as a chef who knows how to make wine-friendly food, most recently in her popular downtown Napa spot Café Lucy. Since moving to Amador County, she has started a new venture, a community-supported commercial kitchen that she operates out of a 40-foot shipping container in the town of Volcano, about 10 miles east of Amador City. Her menu changes weekly: To sample it, sign up on her website and order your dinner by Wednesday evening, and then pick it up either Thursday at the Yorba tasting room or at Amador 360 on Friday. You can take it to-go, but chances are her aromatic food will make you want to sit down at either place and enjoy it with the locals over a glass of wine. The menus come with suggested wine pairings and feature regional ingredients. Gore's cuisine runs toward comfort food with an international spin, as in her French lentil croquettes with an herb aioli and tabbouleh salad, or a seafood stew with swordfish, salmon and cod served over orzo pasta. Though the setup is unusual, Gore's food is worth seeking out.
SUSAN'S PLACE WINE BAR AND EATERY
15 Eureka St., Sutter Creek
Telephone (209) 267-0945
Open Lunch and dinner, Thursday to Sunday
Susan's is tucked away just off of Main Street, in a hidden garden with ample courtyard seating. The restaurant offers a quiet and relaxing setting, where the menu features some Mediterranean touches, like the "Greek-style" meatloaf with sun-dried tomatoes, and the pulled pork tossed with artichoke hearts and black olives. The lobster melt is popular, as are the fresh, generous salads. There's a small list of a few dozen local wines, all priced at $40 or less, and the modest corkage makes it easy to bring a bottle.
9402 Main St., Plymouth
Telephone (209) 245-3463
Open Lunch, Saturday and Sunday; dinner, Thursday to Monday
Award of Excellence
Located in the sleepy town of Plymouth, Taste is the quintessential wine country restaurant—blending warm, sophisticated and friendly service with innovative cuisine that pairs wonderfully with wine. The signature starter is deceptively simple—a "mushroom cigar" contains a variety of fungi and goat cheese, wrapped in crunchy phyllo drizzled with truffle oil. There are some clever twists on familiar flavors—a succulent duck confit is paired with strawberries and a duck fat pound cake. Pork loin is accompanied by a fresh chickpea and Brie fritter, with a beet-hazelnut relish and carrot juice vinaigrette. The extensive wine list finds a balance between local offerings, such as the Yorba Zinfandel Amador County Shake Ridge Vineyards 2007 ($45), and bottlings from Spain, France, Italy and South America, such as the Catena Zapata Malbec Mendoza 2011 ($44). Owners Mark and Tracey Berkner also manage the Union Inn Pub—known for its juicy lamb burgers, crispy duck wings and fried chicken—in nearby Volcano.
THE HANFORD HOUSE
61 Hanford St., Sutter Creek
Telephone (209) 267-0747
A recent renovation has given this two-story red-brick country manor—built in the 1920s—a stunning makeover. The revamped inn feels clean, spacious and contemporary, with splashes of colorful art and a few historical accents, such as the repurposing of antique doors as headboards. There are 10 rooms, all with private baths, and some offer fireplaces. Amenities such as heated bathroom floors and spa showers and the freshly baked scones delivered to your door in the morning are all welcome touches. Hanford House is situated just a short walk from downtown Sutter Creek's restaurants, shops and tasting rooms. With the renovation came the addition of a restaurant called Elements, where complimentary breakfast for guests is served. There's an international feel to the menu—one plate tops black rice with pork, a sunny egg and pickled onions, while another pairs crispy corn tortillas with eggs, beans, tomatillo sauce and pico de gallo. There are plans for Elements to offer lunch and dinner, possibly by the end of this year.
53 Main St., Sutter Creek
Telephone (209) 267-0242
New owners and a new management team recently took over Hotel Sutter, transforming it into a more modern, energetic hotel and restaurant compound at the center of town. With the update, all rooms have a private bath, and the decor mixes exposed brick walls, wrought-iron beds and the original, 1858 wood floors with contemporary jewel tones and handmade quilts. A restaurant, bar and balcony all open up to Sutter Creek's Main Street, giving guests a chance to soak in the small-town charms while dining on dishes from the revamped menu. The Cellar, a basement bar with a speakeasy vibe, features late-night dining and cocktails, adding live music on the weekends.
14202 Old Highway 49, Amador City
Telephone (209) 267-9172
Walking into the Imperial Hotel, with its historic furnishings, is like stepping back in time. Each room has a unique personality and period decor that's quirky and eclectic. There are tall ceilings, big windows and comfortable, private baths in each room, with the occasional creaky floorboard. The most popular rooms have balconies that overlook the quiet town's main drag—barely more than a curve in the road. Guests can mingle in the saloon or parlor, or enjoy a meal in the Imperial Hotel Restaurant, where seasonal American cuisine is served in a quaint dining room.
THE NATIONAL HOTEL
2 Water St., Jackson
Telephone (209) 223-0500
American history buffs will get a kick out of the town of Jackson, a short drive from the vineyards and wineries. The Amador County seat was founded by prospecting miners in the mid-1800s, and the National Hotel, at the foot of historic Main Street, has been in nonstop operation since 1863, making it the longest continuously running hotel in California. Visitors could be forgiven for wondering if they've stumbled onto an elaborate movie set. A recent renovation freshened up and polished the original art and antiques, plush carpeting and pressed-copper ceilings. In-suite bathrooms have heated floors and air conditioning, and every room has a unique mix of restored furniture and high quality linens. This hotel is dripping with ambience, from the player grand piano in the lobby to the period costumes worn by the staff. On the ground floor, there is a bar as well as Stanley's Steakhouse (named after hotel owner Stanley Lukowicz), which has also been given a breath of fresh air under the direction of chef Dan Moore.