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San Francisco Chronicle Article: Why Amador County is a wine lover’s paradise

Within the valleys and hills of Amador County, stretching some 70 miles into the Sierra Nevada east of Sacramento, grow some of the country’s oldest grape vines. One Zinfandel vineyard there, for example, dates to 1869.

Established during the Gold Rush, wine growing here waned on pace with gold fever, and even further during Prohibition. In the past 80 years, however, viticulture in Amador has made incremental steps, transitioning from the basic fortified wine of the 1950s to the modern wave of artisan wines.

The focal point for grape growing here is the cool Shenandoah Valley in the northern part of the county, where vineyards stretch from 1,200 to 2,400 feet above sea level. The rolling hills here feature soil suitable for old-world varieties like Barbera and Sangiovese, as well as hardy Zinfandel and Rhone varieties.

It’s been a long, slow growth, but Amador County is becoming a destination known for more than just its history.

“You have a lot of really capable people making wines in this region now, at a very high professional level,” says Bill Easton, owner and winemaker of two labels, Terre Rouge and Easton, in Plymouth. “The reason that there’s more attention on the foothills is people are paying more attention to where they grow grapes.”

It’s too early to call it a new Napa, but winemaking in Amador is ascendant, drawing both dedicated oenophiles and weekend tasters looking to pair subtle, interesting wines with a laid-back atmosphere.

“Amador has an incredible quaintness to it,” says winemaker Paul Sobon, emphasizing the reasonable prices for bottles and tastings in the area. “You can still come into any of our tasting rooms of the bigger wineries and likely meet the winemakers or owners.”

Here are the latest developments in the county’s wine scene.

Award Winners

There’s been a recent spate of prestigious national awards bestowed on local winemakers.

Easton himself has won several: In 2016, he was one of Wine Enthusiast’s five Winemaker of the Year nominees, and became the fourth-ever recipient of the Rhone Rangers Lifetime Achievement award for his work promoting Rhone varietals in California. That same year, Terre Rouge was named one of Wine & Spirits magazine’s top 100 wineries in the world.

Easton plays down the accolades. “One of the keys to our success was … really understanding volcanic and granitic soils in this particular climate environment,” he says.

Other Amador wineries recently have taken home awards at Dan Berger’s International Wine Competition, an extensive and exacting contest entering its fourth year: Vino Noceto received a silver medal for its 2013 Sangiovese; Sobon Estate won a bronze and a silver for two different Zinfandels and a silver for its 2015 Barbera; and Jeff Runquist Wines took several golds for wines from Amador County vineyards.

(Amador vineyards also did well in The Chronicle’s 2018 wine competition, winning five double-gold medals and several gold, silver and bronzes.)

Fresh Label

Paul Sobon has been making wine since his parents moved the family to Amador County and bought a winery in 1977. Two labels, Shenandoah Vineyards and Sobon Estate, are based on the family plot in the Shenandoah Valley.

But Sobon wanted a wine that he could put his name on, so this spring he will launch his own label, called Paul J Wine. Sobon is constructing a 1,600-square-foot winery and tasting room off Shenandoah Road between Runquist Wines and Vino Noceto, with repurposed lumber and corrugated metal in what he calls a “restoration hardware” architectural style — more contemporary than western.

Paul J will first release a 2016 Syrah and a 2016 Zinfandel, a blend featuring Portuguese varieties, and more. The idea is to toss out the delicate style that’s become typical of Amador wines in favor of big, intense, dark flavor. Sobon calls it a “very sexy wine.”

New Tasting Room

Completed in late November 2017, Iron Hub Winery’s new tasting room corresponds to the release of its first fully in-house vintage (which comes from the 2014 harvest). Owners Beth and Tom Jones sold their successful Lava Cap Winery in nearby Placerville in 2013 and purchased vineyards and a winery in Amador the next year.

The tasting room is the tip of the ice berg of changes the Jonses have recently made. They re-plumbed and re-wired the winery. They reconstructed the crush pad to allow gravity-flow crushing, a gentler process of handling the grapes. To the vineyards, they added sustainable practices like composting leaves and stems, recycling water for irrigation, and introducing cover crops that bring in nitrogen and retain moisture.

“Tom is very well known for red wines that are very balanced … he’s always respectful of the varietals,” says Beth.

Visit Iron Hub and you can talk to the Jonses and their son, who enjoy telling their story to guests of the tasting room. You’ll see an airy building with floor-to-ceiling windows looking over the Shenandoah Valley and the Crystal Range of the Sierra Nevada.

Growth of the Vintners Association

One thing all these wineries have in common, aside from their location, is their membership in the Amador Vintners Association. Under new executive director Jack Gorman, the association is expanding its schedule for 2018 to include several new wine festivals and events.

Historically, the association has run two passport-style events — Behind the Cellar Door and Big Crush Harvest Festival — where wineries host specific activities on the same day (live music, barrel tastings, educational seminars) and visitors move from one to the next.

In 2018, the association will take charge of, and expand, two more events that have previously been independently produced: Amador Four Fires, where local chefs cook small bite pairings over an open flame; and the Barbera Festival, where around 70 producers converge on a single location for a day of exploring this up-and-coming variety.

New Generation

As in other Amador County businesses, new blood is coming to prominence in the wine industry.

“We’re starting to see a younger generation is coming in with a new energy,” Gorman says. “We’re seeing new creativity in winemaking. We’re seeing moves towards sustainable farming, and sustainable winemaking.”

Take Lindy Gullet, for example, whose family moved to Plymouth in 1995 when she was just eight years old. She’s now learning the ropes of the family winery, Vino Noceto, in Plymouth, in preparation for her parents’ retirement. Chief among her plans is to bring on more full-time employees and introduce a canned version of their popular light, sippable, slightly-sparkling Moscato, called Frivolo.

Like Gullett, Michael and Ashley Long left Amador County to attend college and travel, but ultimately came back. The siblings are taking up the family business at Amador Cellars — he as head winemaker and she as assistant winemaker and marketing director.

“Because this is such a small area, people are willing to experiment a little bit more,” says Ashley. Having outgrown their current space, the Longs are working on a new building to house some of the 4,000 cases of Italian and Rhone wines they produce each year.

“I think the thing that’s cool about Amador is how much it’s changing,” Gullett says. “It’s shifting into a place where change is happening, where there’s excitement about the future, and excitement about what it can be. It’s always been there under the surface, and now it’s coming to fruition.”

Nathan Hurst is a freelance writer. Email: travel@sfchronicle.com.

If you go


Terre Rouge and Easton: 10801 Dickson Road, Plymouth; (209) 245-4277; www.terrerougewines.com

Jeff Runquist Wines: 10776 Shenandoah Road, Plymouth; (209) 245-6282; www.jeffrunquistwines.com

Vino Noceto: 11011 Shenandoah Road, Plymouth; (209) 245-6556; www.noceto.com

Bella Grace Vineyards: 73 Main Street, Sutter Creek; (209) 267-8053; www.bellagracevineyards.com

Shenandoah Vineyards: 12300 Steiner Road, Plymouth; (209) 245-4455; www.sobonwine.com/shenandoah

Sobon Estate: 14430 Shenandoah Road, Plymouth; (209) 245-4455; www.sobonwine.com/sobonestate

Paul J Wine: 10775 Shenandoah Road, Plymouth

Iron Hub Winery: 12500 Steiner Road, Plymouth; (209) 245-6307; ironhubwines.com

Amador Cellars: 11093 Shenandoah Road, Plymouth; (209) 245-6150; www.amadorcellars.com


Behind the Cellar Door: March 3-4; www.amadorwine.com/event/behind-cellar-door-2018

Big Crush Harvest Festival: October; www.amadorwine.com/event/big-crush-harvest-festival-2018

Amador Four Fires: May 5; www.amadorfourfires.com

Barbera Festival: September; www.barberafestival.com

Read the complete article here.