My how time flies! It’s been almost a year since my first post on the Sierra Foothills AVA. When I wrote that piece, I had the grand idea of showcasing each of the five sub-appellations that comprise the Sierra Foothills: North Yuba, El Dorado, Shenandoah Valley, Fiddletown, and Fair Play. Alas, such is the life of a hobbyist blogger. Work, family, and life in general get busy, and grand ideas get set aside. It has taken some time, but I was finally able to make it to Amador County wine country recently to conduct some “scientific research” for this continuing series. It was arduous, but I’ll do whatever it takes for you, dear reader, to provide what I hope is interesting content.
As I lamented in my earlier post, the Sierra Foothills area is, in my opinion, an underrated and underappreciated wine region. Often flying under the radar of major wine publications, the wineries here are producing wines that rival bigger, better known producers and regions. Fortunately, the Sierra Foothills received some recent exposure when nearby Lodi hosted the 2016 Wine Blogger’s Conference. Although I was unable to attend, I’ve read some great posts from fellow bloggers on the field trips that were offered to the foothills. Several of the winemakers and owners I spoke with on my recent daytrip also commented on the visits, and appreciate the attention the conference gave to the region. Still, it is with some trepidation that I go on; for fear that too much exposure will spoil the tranquil, picturesque wine region located in my own back yard. Nevertheless, I wish nothing but success for these amazing wineries and wines, so I must shout my praises from the rooftops. Well, at least from my living room.
Amador County is home to two of the five Sierra Foothills sub-appellations; Shenandoah Valley and Fiddletown. These two neighbors adjoin one another, and while I did briefly venture into the Fiddletown AVA, my focus this day was the Shenandoah Valley.
The Shenandoah Valley is perhaps the best known Sierra Foothills wine region. It is the most easily accessible, and perhaps not coincidentally, is home to some of the larger and better known Sierra Foothills wineries. Many producers in the Shenandoah Valley, like Renwood and Montevina, have grown large enough to distribute their wines nationally, and perhaps internationally. In fact, some time ago I opened a Costco-branded Kirkland Signature Amador Zinfandel, and was surprised to find the Renwood Winery logo on the cork. That’s a testament to success!
Just outside historic Plymouth, a gold-rush era town, Shenandoah Road intersects State Highway 49. A short drive up Shenandoah Road, and around a hilly curve, and you are greeted by lush vineyards and stunning views. The majority of the wineries in the Shenandoah Valley AVA are located along Shenandoah Road or Steiner Road, which loops off Shenandoah Road, meeting it again a little further up. There are some 31 wineries located in the Shenandoah Valley AVA. Most are small, family owned operations, and it is not uncommon for the winemaker to be the owner, or the owner’s son, daughter, or other relation.
Since the early days of the California Gold Rush, this area has produced wine. Originally, vines were planted by enterprising emigrants to supply alcohol to the thirsty miners who came to strike it rich. Zinfandel vines were found to thrive here, so that became the dominant varietal. Today, some individual vines can be traced back more than 150 years to those pioneering days. Other varietals have since been added to the region; mostly Italian and Rhone grapes that thrive in the warm, dry climate. The west slopes of the Sierra Foothills afford abundant sunshine during growing season, and summertime temperatures that can hit the low 100’s help to create ripe, fruit-forward wines.
Like all of the Sierra Foothills wine regions, the Shenandoah Valley AVA’s natural beauty equals, or dare I say, even exceeds that of the more famous California regions. Certainly Shenandoah Valley lacks the crowds, traffic, and commercialization of those internationally recognized destinations. Many wineries still offer complimentary tastings. Those that do charge generally limit it to $5, and that is waived with the purchase of just one or two bottles. (Many Napa wineries are now up to $30 or more, and waiver requires signing up for the wine club, a commitment of several hundred dollars per year.) Even the bottle prices are much more affordable, typically less than $30 for spectacular, award-winning wines.
Winemaking here waned as the Gold Rush petered out. It wasn’t until the 1970’s that the potential for this region was noted, and commercial wineries established. Early wineries such as Deaver Vineyards and Sobon Estate are still going strong, and are joined by relative newcomers like Andis (est. 2010) and Helwig (est. 2011). The growing popularity of wine among the younger generation, and the trend away from exclusivity and pretentiousness in wine has driven the rise in popularity and demand.
The atmosphere at the wineries in this area vary from traditional, down-to-earth, and intimate, to state-of-the-art, hip, trendy, and vibrant. Some offer tours, including a Farm-to-Glass Vineyard Tour at Vino Noceto. Click the link to read my post on my recent experience and learn more. To attract even more people to the area, including non-wine-drinkers, Helwig Winery built an amphitheater along with their winery. They host a summer concert series each year, attracting some big name performers and plenty of fans, who are introduced to the beauty, and deliciousness, of the area. No matter your preference, you are sure to be greeted warmly, and will taste some underappreciated, world-class wines.
If you are thinking of visiting, the closest airport is Sacramento (SMF). Check out the Amador Vintner’s Association website for trip planning help and tips. Come to the foothills, check out the wines and history, and enjoy the stunning scenery. You’ll be glad you did!