One of my favorite California wine regions is also one of my least-visited.
Roughly 45 minutes east of Sacramento, which is only about two hours from San Francisco (and about one hour west of Lake Tahoe), is the beautiful, bucolic Sierra Foothills wine region, particularly Amador County.
It contains only a few dozen mostly small, family-owned wineries, but for more than 100 years it’s been known for some of California’s best zinfandel, made mostly in a hearty, robust style.
Today many other grapes, mostly heat-loving Mediterranean varieties, are grown, including several grapes native to Italy.
Though it’s about as far from the ocean as it can be and still be in California, its soil and climate share some similarities with California’s more famous wine regions.
Daytime temperatures are much like those of northern Napa Valley, which can easily reach 100 degrees. Then, in late afternoon, cool breezes filter into the vineyards, dropping temperatures 30-35 degrees. This is very much like parts of California’s Central Coast. Of course, instead of the Pacific Ocean’s “coastal effect”, these breezes drop down from the peaks of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
Vines love this abrupt change in temperature, which also preserves the natural acidity of the grapes.
The area’s rolling foothills are also reminiscent of other California wine regions, especially considering their volcanic soil, which provides both minerals and the vital drainage that keep the vines’ roots from “drowning”. All in all it seems a place just made for wine-growing.
And it has been for a long time. Some of California’s oldest vineyards are here, planted in the 18th century by European immigrants during the 1850s gold rush days.
Visiting Amador County is easy, being only about a hundred miles east of San Francisco and leaving behind you the large crowds of tourists found in many other wine regions. Here you can oftentimes meet winemakers and grape growers, and in a more relaxed, casual atmosphere. The city of Plymouth is a good place to start, being something of a gateway to the region’s famed Shenandoah Valley. Amador’s other notable appellation is higher elevation Fiddletown.
Wineries from other parts of California source grapes from the Sierra Foothills. One, in Napa Valley, is Lot 205 Winery, which makes a very good dry red zinfandel from these vineyards. Medium full-bodied, with deep color and a robust style, flavors of black raspberry and black cherry balanced by accents of oak. And the best part is, it sells for only around $12 a bottle.
Lot 205 Winery’s Zinfandel is made primarily from Amador County grapes. 9% Syrah from Paso Robles adds a measure of depth and complexity.
• Bruce Cochran has traveled to every major wine region on four continents. A 30-year veteran of the wine trade, he taught continuing education wine classes for 26 years at colleges throughout Arkansas. www.brucecochran.com