Discovering Liquid Gold in the Sierra Foothills

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By Robert Farmer

As summer ends it final month, and the dog days bark in with a lazy yowl, wine country begins to take on a particular texture. The heat, in the long afternoons of blazing sun, works on the vines, producing the big push toward complete ripeness in the fruit. It also works on visitors, pushing them toward cool bodies of water and stretches of time filled with do-nothing schedules and refreshing sips of chilled chardonnay.

Though the famous valleys are still packed with wine-appreciating visitors, still other regions are enjoying a less populated pace. For my money, one of the best escapes is above the valley floor, and into the foothills of the Sierra.

Here, some forty-five minutes east of Sacramento is Amador County, land of the old-vine zin, and home to a burgeoning wine scene whose reputation belies its two dozen or so friendly, family-run wineries.

Amador County in the late summer and early fall months is an idyllic scene. The mountains peek through hazy sunshine and the warm afternoons give way to cooler-than-the season evenings. It's perfect for touring and tasting by days, dining and entertaining by night. Wine tasting in Amador is a casual, no-pressure endeavor; even as the homespun charm of the wineries and their proprietors give little impression that the wines being produced here continue to earn blue-ribbon accolades. Virtually all Amador tastings are free while the hospitality is always in long supply.

There are many highlights in Amador County, not least of which is the scenery itself--a mélange of rolling hillside white-fenced farms, wooded foothills and a mountainous backdrop. Amador, and the surrounding counties that include Calaveras, El Dorado, Mariposa, Nevada, Placer, and Tuolumne, is part of a region comprising six AVAs. The wine industry in these parts dates, like most of California's winemaking past, to Prohibition. Here, winemaking was an adjunct to the Gold Rush, and not a few disillusioned prospectors planted vines when they couldn't dig up any nuggets. Though winemaking withered in the post-prohibition years, many of the vines did not. And today, the resurgent wine industry in the Sierra Foothills owes its reputation to some of those old vines. Indeed, the Old Vine Zin varietal is king. However, among the current total of some 5,700 planted acres in the area, the full compliment of varietal can be found--from cabernet to chardonnay.

Amador is anchored by the Shenandoah Valley, and one of the highlights in the area is Montevina Vineyards, situated on a ridge at the "gateway" to the Shenandoah. It's a great place to get a perspective on the whole scene, both geographically and viticulturally. Montevina's signature zins are the star attraction, and the winery produces three different single-vineyard versions. The winery's rural atmosphere and accessible staff impart the feeling of visiting a gracious country home. Tours of the entire operation are offered in small groups, or you can poke around a bit on your own. Late summer and early fall are ideal times for a visit, as harvest is getting under way, and visitors are frequently given a chance to chip in if the mood strikes. (Montevina Vineyards, 20680 Shenandoah School Road, Plymouth, 209-245-6942, Open 10am to 4:30pm daily)

Also in the area is Cooper Vineyards, in Plymouth, where the tiny tasting room is big on both hospitality and familiarity with the winery's 15 varietals, including a wonderful barbera and a sturdy, intense, cabernet sauvignon. Here, too, guests can get their hands dirty during crush activities if the timing is right. The tasting room staff is usually involved in harvest activity as well, so larger groups are advised to call ahead to ensure they can be accommodated. (Cooper Vineyards, 21365 Shenandoah School Rd., Plymouth, 209-245-6181, Open 11am to 5pm Fri-Sun.)

Amador's welcoming, family-style charm is in full bloom as summer winds down and fall ramps up. In the next several weeks wineries throughout the region are serving up fun, inventive activities to both showcase their wines and to underscore their nature. Events such as the ice cream-and-wine pairing weekend at Convergence Vineyards August 9-10, perfectly capture the spirit. It's all part of what makes the place, to turn a tired pun, adorable.

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