There’s grapes in them thar hills! We recently joined the gold rush to discover a motherlode of outstanding wine in California’s Amador County during the 2016 Wine Bloggers Conference.
Between 1851 and 1942, quartz rock veins in Amador County produced $160 million dollars in gold. Gold put this county, nestled in the Sierra Foothills of California, on the map.
As gold fever gripped the state, prospectors from around the world descended on Amador. Many were Europeans who brought the knowledge and vine cuttings to establish wineries. In a few years, there were more wineries in Amador than anywhere in California.
When miners finished their work in the mines, their throats were dry with dust. What better way to slake their thirst than with a glass of wine? Early miners enjoyed rustic wines made with Mission grapes mixed with Zinfandel.
Prohibition in 1920 almost wiped out winemaking in the region. In 1960 a new generation of winemakers began migrating to the Sierra Foothill region attracted by the volcanic, decomposed granite soils and the temperate climate. Today more than 40 wineries call Amador County home and are crafting wine rich with heritage, but with the benefit of modern equipment and techniques.
Zinfandel is one of the most widely planted grapes in the Sierra Foothills AVA and in Amador County nearly a quarter of the grapes planted are Zinfandel vines more than 60 years old. This wine region is no one trick pony, however.
Amador County’s Italian population were among the earliest winegrowers in the county and were devoted to it beyond all others. Today that heritage comes through with with a mastery of Italian varieties like Sangiovese and Barbera.
The best Barbera, I was told by winemaker Scott Harvey, comes not from Italy, but from Amador County – something he says was borne out in a recent international wine competition. Barbera is a sun-loving grape, and sunshine is in abundant supply in Amador. Scott also mentions that in many prime Barbera regions in Italy, the grape is second to Nebbiolo and therefore doesn’t get the best vineyard locations.
My excursion was hosted by Amador Vintners and took place prior to the Wine Bloggers Conference in Lodi. It featured three tastings: one at the historic Kennedy Gold Mine, another at Shenandoah Valley Schoolhouse and the final one at a lovely lunch at Andis Wines. There certainly was plenty of wine, but the story would be incomplete without noting the charm of Amador County.
We stayed at the Hotel Sutter. The hotel was founded in the early days of the Gold Rush, even before Sutter Creek became a city. The original hotel was built in 1851, later burned down, and was rebuilt in 1865. Today it is a historic boutique hotel with 21 guest rooms and an insanely vintage bar. A second floor balcony provides a great view of the old-timey downtown and is an ideal location for a late night glass of wine or spirits.
Up and down Main Street in Sutter Creek there are interesting shops, cool restaurants and wine bars. Driving through the county you’ll also see Amador City, one of the smallest cities in the state. The Village of Volcano has 115 residents today, but nearly $100 million in gold was extracted back in the day. Drytown once featured 26 saloons frequented by miners, today it is known for the Drytown Club, a popular dive bar.
Amador County is a gem, featuring sites for the history buff, scenic landscapes and world-class wines. Now that the stage is set, I’ll cover the wines of Amador in the second part of my odyssey.