Mining for Wine Gold in Amador County — on the Way to the Lodi Wine Bloggers Conference

When we learned the Wine Bloggers Conference (WBC16) would be held in Lodi, August 11 – 14, 2016, we were thrilled. Not only are there lots of exciting things happening in the Lodi wine world these days, but the drive to Lodi from our home is only 20 minutes. It would be the shortest travel time we would ever have to a WBC. As it turned out our drive was a bit longer than expected because we took a very enjoyable detour through Amador County wine country.

Pre-conference excursions are always offered in addition to the Wine Bloggers Conference. This year the Amador Vintners Association along with the Amador Council of Tourism organized a pre-conference excursion to Amador County wine country. It was a wonderful opportunity to spend a night in the charming little city of Plymouth and taste a wide sampling of the wines being made in Amador County.

A few of the grape varieties grown in Amador County

The Amador Council of Tourism and Amador Vintners Association organized our transportation between Lodi and our lodging, between our lodging and the wine tasting sites and then brought all of us back to Lodi in time for the Opening Reception at Mohr-Fry Ranch. Both of these organization are relatively small with limited staff. They did a fabulous job organizing the events and we truly appreciate their effort.

History and Vines in the Foothills of the Sierra Nevada

Amador County is located in the Sierra Nevada mountains about 45 miles southeast of California’s capital, Sacramento. The county calls itself “The Heart of the Mother Lode” and with good reason. On January 24, 1848 the discovery of gold that started the Gold Rush of 1849 occurred at Sutter’s Mill near Coloma which is located in the county.

Gold mining was a thirsty business. It wasn’t long before vineyards were being planted in the Sierra Nevada foothills and wine production began. According to Amador Vintners, “Within a few decades, there were over 100 wineries in the area known as the Mother Lode, more than any other region of California. Some of the vineyards planted during that era survive to this day.” At the Tapas and Terroir Reception held at the Kennedy Gold Mine Ken Deaver, of Deaver Vineyards, outlined his own family’s winemaking history which dates back to the 1850s and 60s when his great-grandfather planted Mission grapes, then Zinfandel in Plymouth. Thanks to an absence of the phylloxera pest some of these vines still survive today.

As gold began to run out, mining declined and the demand for wine declined along with it. Prohibition in 1920 had the same devastating effect on wine production in the Mother Lode as it did elsewhere in the U.S., though demand from home winemakers helped preserve some of the vineyards. It wasn’t until the 1960s that interest in winemaking in Amador County increased again as Napa winemakers looked for cheaper grapes (and property.)

Bella Grace Vineyards’ Zinfandel

Zinfandel was the original star in the county and remains the most-planted variety. But, other red varieties that have also thrived include: Sangiovese, Barbara, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Tempranillo. Pinot Grigio, Viognier and Marsanne are among the white varieties that have been planted.

At the same reception author and geologist Eric Costa gave us an overview of the area terroir. Old sea floor, volcanic activity, shifting tectonic plates, river deposits, gravel and granitic soils are among the elements that contribute to the quality of grapes produced in the foothills. When you add elevation changes, variable aspect and drainages off the mountainsides you have all of the ingredients for a variety of mesoclimates. Add in a significant diurnal temperature shift and it seems every box is ticked for optimal grape growing.

Map courtesy of Amador Vintners Association

Amador County includes two major American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). The California Shenandoah Valley AVA, which lies northeast of Plymouth, is the lowest-elevation AVA in the County and therefore the warmest. The Fiddletown AVA is located east of the California Shenandoah Valley AVA at higher elevations between 1500 and 2500 feet above sea level. It is a small AVA that is described as producing lighter bodied, less ripe wines in general. Both AVAs lie within the enormous 2.6 million-acre Sierra Foothills AVA. Over 40 area wineries are members of Amador Vintners Association.



REST and Then On to the Wine

We chose overnight accommodations at REST a Boutique Hotel in Plymouth. The 16-room hotel opened in February 2016 and is the result of a thoughtful remodel of two buildings on Main Street in Plymouth. Many salvaged architectural elements have been used to tastefully decorate the Hotel. Our room was spacious and quiet. The staff were attentive and efficient.

Guests are treated to a nightly wine hour featuring local wines and appetizers from Taste Restaurant, just two doors down and owned by the same group. A continental breakfast in the morning. Both are held in the lobby of the hotel.

We have enjoyed several meals at Taste Restaurant in the past. The food has always been superb. It is no surprise that REST is so well thought out. We can recommend it without reservation, though you should have a reservation if you plan to stay!

A completely unexpected and enjoyable bonus of our stay in Plymouth happened the next morning when we went out for a walk along Main Street. After touring the park we walked down Main Street and encountered a gentleman sitting in front of his home. He greeted us enthusiastically and inquired as to why we were in town. We told him about the Wine Bloggers Conference and the local wine tasting events we were attending. He listened enthusiastically and then told us with a straight face, “All you really need to know about wine is that some comes with a cork and some comes with a screw cap.” Then, after a pause, he laughed heartily. Hard to argue with that! Gary was a delightful fellow and I hope to meet him again next time we are in Plymouth.

Mining and Wining, Breakfast and Wine at the Shenandoah School House then Lunch at Andis Wines.

Yes, the Amador Vintners Association and Amador Council of Tourism managed to pack our evening and the next day full of fun, food, wine. We started at the Kennedy Gold Mine as mentioned above on Wednesday evening where in addition to hearing from Ken Deaver and Eric Costa we enjoyed small bites and the opportunity to talk and taste wine with several wineries. Thursday morning we enjoyed breakfast then went to wine school in the Shenandoah School House. Eight Amador County wineries were setup at separate tables. We all spread out among the tables and then moved among them at set intervals. A tour of the vineyards at Bella Grace Vineyards followed, then it was on to lunch at Andis Wines. Here are a few highlights.

MarkMcKennaAndis Wines — look for their bright and flavorful Sémillion made using stainless steel (they’re experimenting with Acacia wood aging on Sémillon too!) and their Mourvedre is delicious. Their Zinfandel is flavorful but not overdone. “Zinfandel is the most abused variety in California,” lamented winemaker Mark McKenna. You’ll not find any Zinfandel abuse at Andis. Be sure to try the 1869 Original Grandpère Vineyard Zinfandel.

MichaelHavillBella Grace Vineyards — their Vermentino will knock your socks off. It, along with their Roussanne, Grenache, Grenache Blanc, Mourvedre and Syrah, are Tablas Creek clones. Michael Havill is the winemaker and her husband Charlie is in charge of viticulture. Michael makes the wine and together they make blending decisions. They are quite the dynamic duo.

CharlieHavellCharlie took us on a tour of the Bella Grace Zinfandel vineyard where we talked soil, the influence of mountain drainages and sustainable farming practices. About 20 acres of the total 50 acre property is planted to 12 varieties of winegrapes. A winter cover crop is planted in the vineyard rows which then becomes mulch for the soil in spring. Bella Grace also has a hillside cave that reaches 110 feet into the mountainside and maintains a perfect 60º F temperature year round.

DickCooperCooper Vineyards — Dick Cooper, who is referred to as the “Grandfather of Barbara” in Amador county, grows 17 wine grape varieties in addition to persimmons, pomegranates and olives for oil. He loves talking dirt, Sierra Series Sandy Loam that is, which makes dry farming Zinfandel possible because the clay content holds winter moisture so well. Both the Cooper Zinfandel and Barbara were big, flavorful and delicious wines.


Deaver Vineyards — in addition to providing an engaging history of viticulture in Amador county, Ken Deaver brought a selection of his Port-style wines for us to sample paired with various desserts prepared by the chef at Jackson Rancheria Casino & Hotel. Decadent and delicious.


DistantCellarsDistant Cellars — this is a family operation with “son #3” as winemaker and labels designed by a family friend. Their style is big and bold. 2009 was their first vintage and Steve Gaiter credits Scott Harvey and Dick Cooper as mentors to his family as they have learned viticulture and winemaking.


LegendreCellarsWineLegendre Cellars — very small production (about 500 cases total) with Rhône blends as a specialty. The Legendre Viognier is lovely and look for their Tailrace which is a Mourvedre, Grenache and Petite Sirah blend.


RenwoodWineryRenwood Winery — at 30,000 case production Renwood considers itself a large boutique winery. They have vineyards in both the California Shenandoah Valley and Fiddletown AVAs for variety. Their Zinfandel is rich and dense; the Barbera is bright and very drinkable.


ScottHarveyScott Harvey Wines — elegance in every glass I tasted. Scott learned winemaking in Germany in the 1970s and that experience continues to influence his winemaking. He believes Amador county is the best place in the world for Barbera! Do not miss Scott Harvey’s Vineyard 1869 Zinfandel. See below.


SeraFinaSera Fina Cellars — Sera Fina Cellars is Paul Scotto’s baby. Paul keeps more than busy as lead winemaker for his family’s winery, Scotto Cellars, but he is happy to make time for this project on his own in Amador County. Production varies between 2500 and 4000 cases per year. They produce Italian and Rhône variety wines. Look for their refreshing Sauvignon Blanc.

VinoNocetoVino Noceto — Sangiovese is the star of the show here, made using six clones and 16 separate lots. Tuscany is the inspiration but Amador county comes through in their delicious Sangiovese. In addition to Sangiovese be sure to look for the OGP Zinfandel. More on that next.


Lunch at Andis Wines

The Story of A Grand Old Vineyard and Its Wines — At Least in Part

One of the most interesting stories that emerged as I spoke with winemakers was the story of the Original Grandpère Vineyard. Mark McKenna was the first to mention the vineyard to me and note that the entire crop of Zinfandel from the ancient vineyard is shared among only four winemakers.

Some of the details of the vineyard’s age are in dispute, but in general the Zinfandel vineyard is thought to have been planted around 1869. The current owner is Terri Harvey. She farms the 10-acre vineyard herself and decides on the harvest date. All four wineries are notified and receive their allotment of Zinfandel on that day. Each winemaker makes a Zinfandel in his own style from essentially the same fruit.

The California State Fair named the Original Grandpère Vineyard Vineyard of the Year in 2016 in recognition of the vineyard’s historic importance.

It’s a really interesting concept and we were able to taste three of the four wines produced from the vineyard. The wines we tasted: Scott Harvey Vineyard 1869, Andis Wines 1869 Original Grandpère Vineyard Zinfandel and Vino Noceto The Original Grandpère Vineyard (OGP). The fourth wine is made by Lodi winemaker Tim Holdener at Macchia Wines and is called Prestigious. (Another Lodi connection besides the Wine Bloggers Conference!)

The history of the vineyard and the story of each winery’s production from the Original Grandpère Vineyard is too lengthy for this post so we will leave you with just this teaser for the moment. We will come back to this story.

Final Thoughts and Thanks

Winemakers working together is not an unusual occurrence and it certainly seems to be the case with this group of winemakers. It was so nice to hear that many of the winemakers had worked at various wineries in the group and continue to work together. I have the sense that they compare notes, ask questions of one another and share as they continually learn with every vintage. Several of the winemakers acknowledged those that came before them as viticulturists and winemakers in the region. Above all each and every owner and winemaker we spoke with seems to genuinely love what he or she is doing.

If you are looking for a wine tasting experience that includes small, family-owned wineries making well-crafted wines in a variety of styles then Amador county has just what you’re looking for. In addition, the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains are beautiful regardless of the season. And there is always the history of the California Gold Rush. If you haven’t ventured into Amador county wine tasting yet, you really should. You will find lots of information on both the Amador Vintners Association and Amador Council of Tourism websites to help you plan your trip.


Many thanks to Melissa Lavin, Executive Director of Amador Vintners, and Maureen Funk, Executive Director of Amador Council of Tourism who were responsible for much of the organization of the pre-conference excursion. We appreciate your hard work and attention to detail which was reflected in the quality of our experience. We truly did “taste the gold” in Amador county!


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