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Category Archives: Wineries

Lesser Known AVAs: Sierra Foothills

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I know what you’re thinking: “I’ve heard of the Sierra Foothills AVA. I wouldn’t call it ‘lesser known.'” Yes, I know. Nevertheless, too often the big, East Coast wine and food magazines, websites, and blogs overlook this region when reviewing wines, making their “Top 100” lists, and generally writing about wine and wine country. Tourists often overlook the Sierra Foothills when planning Northern California wine country travel, favoring the more famous Napa and Sonoma regions, and recently, Lodi. *

The wineries of the Sierra Foothills AVA and it’s five sub-appellations produce some outstanding wines. Most of these are small, independent producers. As an under-recognized wine region, it is not as commercialized as Napa/Sonoma, and therefore is generally less expensive to visit. Many wineries still offer free tasting, and few charge more than $5, which is refunded with a wine purchase.

AVA County Map

From pastoral, rolling hills; to hilltop vistas; to lush, forested hideaways, the Sierra Foothills AVA spans eight counties and more than 2,600,000 acres. [1] With hot, dry summers, grapes of nearly all varieties thrive here, but for my palate, and in my humble opinion, Italian and Spanish varietals are the best. Albariño to Zinfandel, Sierra Foothills wineries produce exciting, delicious wines.

Rolling Hills  VCW_D_GC_T8_HelwigWinery_Flippen-1280x642Fitzpatrick View

Wine history somewhat parallels gold rush history here. In 1848, Gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill, in GoldPanning1889-locEl Dorado County, in the heart of what is now the Sierra Foothills AVA. This created the famed Gold Rush that brought prospectors westward in droves. In addition to the miners, many entrepreneurs came west, sensing the opportunity to prosper by selling supplies to the “forty-niners” (a reference to 1849, when the Gold Rush really got going.) Among these entrepreneurs were many European immigrants, who brought grape vines with them. [2] Zinfandel thrived in the region, and is still the largest planted varietal, [3] with many vines more than 100 years old. Modern day winemakers produce some stunning Zinfandel wines, ranging from dry and spicy, to big and jammy.

historic vineyard old vinesWhile the wines produced in the Sierra Foothills have Old World heritage, these are definitely New World wines. More fruit-driven and less acidic than their European ancestors, these wines are easily drinkable on their own, yet pair famously with food.

Stay tuned. Over the next weeks and months, I’ll be profiling each of the sub-appellations and other notable areas within the Sierra Foothills AVA. For a sample of what else is going on in the Sierra Foothills, check out my post “Destination: Calaveras Grape Stomp“.

* In the interest of full disclosure, I admit I am biased toward the Sierra Foothills AVA. I live 30-60 minutes from most of the wineries, and it was wines from this region that really got me started on my wine journey. Nevertheless, I really think the Sierra Foothills are underrated and oft overlooked by the big publishing houses, and therefore relatively unknown to many wine lovers. It is a wine region worthy of notice, and a visit if you’re out this way.

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[1] http://sierrafoothillswine.com/avas.html

[2] http://www.legendsofamerica.com/ca-napawineries.html

[3] http://www.everyvine.com/wine-regions/region/Sierra_Foothills/

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Destination: The Old Sugar Mill


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Located less than 20 minutes from downtown Sacramento, the Old Sugar Mill in Clarksburg, CA, is a wine lover’s dream destination. Take a scenic drive along the Sacramento River to the home of 11 tasting rooms, and several full winery operations. Besides the wine, the venue hosts a number of events including Art Walks, Yoga and Wine, Food Truck Mania, seasonal events, and frequent weddings. This is truly a one-stop wonderland.

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Photo Credit: The Friends of the Clarksburg Library https://oldsugarmill.hosting-advantage.com/osm_construction/04_20_35.jpg

As the name implies, this regional hub for Central Valley wines is housed in an old sugar production mill. But that’s not the most interesting bit about this historic building. Formerly owned by the Amalgamated Sugar Company, it was originally located at Smithfield, Utah. In 1933, the plant was closed, dismantled, and transported brick-by-brick to its current location. It was reassembled between 1934-1936 and resumed operation, processing sugar beets into granular sugar. In 1993, the location closed as a sugar processing plant forever, and remained vacant until 2000. In that year, John Carvalho, Jr., purchased the location and began renovation and conversion into a winery and tourism destination. [1], [2]

Most of the current occupants of the Old Sugar Mill are wineries from the Clarksburg AVA, although other California AVA’s are represented also. These include Fair Play AVA in the Sierra Foothills (Perry Creek Winery) and Trinity County AVA (Merlo Family Estate).

IMG_0424The buildings themselves are worth the visit. The massive, high-ceiling brick edifices are beautiful; the architecture reminiscent of a bygone era.

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When you pass through the main doors, you enter the main building that houses nine of the tasting rooms, and a barrel room that functions as an event hall.

IMG_0425The Barrel RoomIMG_0428

Continue through the building and out the back doors, where you’ll find a large lawn area where Food Truck events and weddings are held. Also out back are the other two tasting rooms. Bring a picnic lunch, or buy something from one of the ever-present food trucks, and make an afternoon of it! IMG_0430

With 11 wineries all in one place, you have plenty of choices and options. In addition to the outdoor seating, many tasting rooms have seating areas for leisurely tasting enjoyment. Most tasting rooms charge $5 for tasting; typically 6-8 pours; but will waive the tasting charge with a purchase. On this trip, we visited four wineries.

Draconis Vineyards specializes in just two varietals: Zinfandel and Petite Sirah, and their wines are excellent. Their tasting room staff is friendly and helpful.

Perry Creek and Draconis

Perry Creek and Draconis

Clarksburg Wine Company has a huge selection of reds and whites. Give their Delta Blanc white blend and the Delta Rouge red blend a try!

Clarksburg Wine Company

Clarksburg Wine Company

Merlo Family Estate produces rich, delicious wines from the volcanic soils of Trinity County. Be sure to say “hi” to their tasting room manager, Djimi. In the summer months, he’ll likely be sporting his kilt.

Merlo Family Vineyards

Merlo Family Vineyards

Heringer Estates operates their winery on site at the Old Sugar Mill. They offer a wide portfolio of wines, including such unusual varietals as Tannat and Teroldedo.

Heringer Estates

Heringer Estates

The Old Sugar Mill is a dog friendly venue. Well behaved dogs on leashes are welcome. Many tasting rooms have water and/or snacks available for four-footed visitors.

Colette the Cavalier King Charles

Colette the Cavalier King Charles

If you are in the area, be sure to stop by for a visit! Here’s a map to help you find the way!

Cheers!!

P.S. The Old Sugar Mill website appears to be undergoing renovation, so the best way to get information is by visiting the Old Sugar Mill Facebook page, where you can find a complete listing of upcoming events.

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[1] https://oldsugarmill.hosting-advantage.com/pages/history.html

[2] http://www.lodinews.com/lodi_living/article_b319ccfa-598e-11e1-b8c1-001871e3ce6c.html