Is it time to discuss Amador County as a world class wine region?

Rolling hills of Amador's Shenandoah Valley

First things first: Amador County and its wines are unique unto themselves. That’s the beauty of this Sierra FoothillsViticultural Area region.

Let us count the ways in which Amador County wines are now distinguishing themselves among other wines of the world. I am not talking about the recent renaissance of visitor-friendly attractions and boutique lodging in nearby Gold Rush Country towns, or the plethora of bright, shiny, new tasting rooms and wedding sites springing up along Shenandoah Rd. I’m happy for all that, but I’m a geeky wine journalist, not a travel or lifestyles writer; and so everything I talk and think about has to do with vineyards, grapes and wines.

And after over 30 years of visiting the region, I can say this: the vineyards, grapes and wines of Amador County are getting serious. My thoughts, followed by tasting notes for 10 contemporary classics coming out of the region; most of these wines tasted just recently at the Amador County Fair this past July 30, 2016...

Deaver Ranch Mission vines planted in 1853

Small-scale, handcrafted wines

To begin with, Amador County is tiny: approximately 3,700 acres of planted wine grapes. There is a single vineyard in Monterey County that is more than twice that size.

Some more perspective: Amador County is a hillside wine region; its vines perched on slopes at mostly 1,200 to 2,000-ft. elevations. These are not the highest altitude vineyards in the state (vineyards in adjacent El Dorado as well as in Santa Cruz Mountains and Mendocino Ridge climb up to 2,000-3,000-ft.), but the region is still defined by its location along the western foot-slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Plantable space is limited. Compare the acreage devoted to grapes in Amador to the 45,000 planted in Sonoma County, 43,000 in Napa Valley, 26,000 in Paso Robles, 21,000 in Santa Barbara County, or the +110,000 acres in neighboring Lodi. Amador is minuscule geographically, but getting big-time in terms of the seriousness of what is produced.

According to Mike Baldinelli, second generation Amador farmer and president of the Amador Wine Growers Association, "Like all hillside regions, there is some soil and microclimate diversity, but one thing the vineyards have in common is that for the most part they are small, 30 acres or less, farmed by passionate people who live on their properties. Things are done mostly by hand, without mechanization, and so this is a region farmed by people who know their grapes intimately."   

Amador County Zinfandel on redleaf virused vine

No place like home in the Foothills

As small a region as it is, both the climate and topography of Amador County are ideal for grapevines. Think about the rolling hills of Italy, one of the cradles of the world’s wine culture. As you drive into the Sierra Foothills AVA from San Joaquin Valley in the spring, when the fine sandy-clay loam has absorbed enough winter rain to carpet the hills with green grass, you cannot help but think of the verdant, cinematic landscapes of Tuscany or Sicily.

It is no coincidence that the climate ascribed to the region between the historic Gold Rush towns of Plymouth, Fiddletown and Sutter Creek is squarely Mediterranean; marked by moderately cool, wet winters and dry, warm to hot summers. All the major varieties of Vitis vinifera – the family of European vines always known to produce the world’s finest wines – originated in the Mediterranean Basin; and so like other California coastal regions (from Mendocino all the way down to Santa Barbara) with climates classified as Mediterranean, fine wine grapes have naturally acclimated to Amador County.

To what extent? How about the fact that oldest, continuously farmed commercial wine grape plantings in the United States are in Amador County? The Deaver family cultivates several acres of majestic, own-rooted Mission vines originally planted in 1853, barely three years after the California Gold Rush. Across the road in Shenandoah Valley, there are 10 acres of Zinfandel in the Original Grandpère Vineyard – recently named the 2016 California State Fair Vineyard of the Year – that have been traced back to 1869. In nearby the Fiddletown AVA, a few of the oldest Zinfandel vines in the Rinaldi-Eschen Vineyard date back to 1865. Compare that to the oldest continuously farmed vineyards in Lodi, Sonoma County, Santa Cruz Mountains, Paso Robles or Contra Costa County, which go back “only” as far as the mid-1880s (which, of course, is still phenomenal).

Grapevines, mind you, are normally torn out and replanted after just 30 to 40 years because, simply, they are no longer healthy enough to produce commercially sustainable crops. The fact that Amador’s oldest plantings are still productive after over 140 years is staggering. It says a lot about how much grapevines love the natural growing conditions of Amador County; and it says a lot about how much these vineyards have been loved and fussed over by their owners all those years, though thick and thin, deluges and droughts, feast or famine.

Why Amador County terroir is unlike any other

At the same time, Amador County is not Tuscany; nor is it Napa Valley or Walla Walla Valley, Santa Barbara or Santorini, Catalonia or Casablanca, or anywhere. For example, take Zinfandel, which makes up close to a third of the grapes planted in Amador County. Amador Zinfandels are not big, thick and irrepressibly jammy like those of Sonoma County’s best vineyards. At least not naturally. When they are grown to be that way, the wines tend to get rough and awkward; which is why the finest Amador Zinfandels tend to be moderately scaled. Neither are they as comfortably black colored, and hard and structured with tannin as Napa Valley Zinfandels. They are certainly not soft and flowery like Lodi’s, nor as ultra-ripe as those of Paso Robles, or as rapier-like in acidity as Mendocino Ridge’s.

One person who should know is Tegan Passalacqua, the winemaker of Turley Wine Cellars, whose company organically farms over 200 acres of Zinfandel in no less than 7 major regions (from Mendocino down to Paso Robles). Turley’s single-vineyard Zinfandels are crafted in a native yeast fermented, unfiltered, “natural” style, and so what you taste in a bottle of Turley is pretty much what is grown in the field. “Amador County Zinfandels reminds me of Barolo” says Passalacqua, in reference to the long-lived Nebbiolo based red of Northern Italy’s Piedmont region. “There is not a lot of color, which can be a good thing, but they have good structure without a lot of weight.”

Continues Passalacqua, “You also find bramble and red fruit in the structure, plus a very fine grained, granitic tannin that you can taste, not unlike what you find in Barolo. It is not tannin resulting from winemaking, which comes from seeds, stems, jacks or use of invasive techniques like enzymes to maximize extraction. It’s a distinct tannin that comes from the sites, which is essentially a decomposed granite with volcanics and, in some places, quartz.”

Zinfandel, which characteristically retains a black peppery spice quality nearly everywhere it is grown, often veers off into dried, leafy green kitchen herb or baking spice notes suggesting cinnamon, clove, allspice or anise when grown in Amador. Old-timers describe it as “Shenandoah spice.” It’s not in every Amador Zinfandel – spice nuances tend to get lost in the aromas of riper wines or wines from riper vintages – but it is often there. Especially in Zinfandels crafted from clonal selections prone to grapevine leafroll virus, which is more common in Sierra Foothills plantings (historically, by choice) than elsewhere in California.

Ancient Zinfandel in Original Grandpere Vineyard in sandy-clay loam Sierra Series soil

Leafroll virus is a dysthemic disease that turns leaves of black skinned cultivars prematurely red – making for beautiful harvest photos, while stunting late season growth. Growers and winemakers are leery of it, but in Amador it is embraced. The diminishment of chlorophyll in leaves may inhibit plants’ ability to photosynthesize and accumulate grape sugars, and lead to fruit shriveling. But it can also accentuate Zinfandel’s natural tendency towards “hens-and-chicks” cluster morphology (i.e. uneven sized berries resulting from variant fruit set) and higher skin-to-juice ratios; not to mention the lighter pigmentation, acid balance, mineral/granitic structure, and to a certain extent, the moderate alcohol (14%-14.5%, as opposed to 16% common in other regions) considered characteristic of Amador County grown Zinfandel. Negatives can add up to positives!

The operative term generally used in the wine industry for qualities found in bottles that directly reflect intrinsic growing conditions – whether natural or as part of longtime viticultural traditions – is terroir, also loosely described as “sense of place.” Terroir, in other words, refers to both natural physical attributes of regions or individual vineyards (including all aspects of climate and topography) as well as sensory qualities that can be delineated in the taste of wines from those growths.

For Amador County, this comes down to higher elevation slopes with volcanic soils primarily falling in the Sierra Series; consisting of sandy-clay loam derived from decomposed granite. This is the kind of soil that can hold moisture from winter rains through spring months, yet is extremely well drained, which encourages the deeper root systems necessary for vines to sustain through hot, dry summers. Therefore, vines are healthy, yet not so well nourished that they produce an excess of foliage and forget to do what fine wine varieties are supposed to do, which is focus on maturing fruit to optimal levels of flavor and complexity, without sacrificing the acidity needed for wine balance and freshness.

What also makes Amador County unique is that its Mediterranean climate is a higher elevation thermal belt. Sunset Magazine, which has been advising Western gardeners since 1898, classifies Amador County as Zone 9 – different from other Mediterranean-type regions such as Lodi or the North and Central Coasts of California, which Sunset clumps together as as Zone 14. Amador’s Zone 9 is distinguished by hot summer temperatures and significant diurnal temperature shifts (30 to 40 degrees) similar to Zone 14 regions, but with less coastal fog influence and more constant sun exposure. It is Amador County’s lengthier hours of unobstructed sunlight throughout the day and the entire growing season that enhance plant photosynthesis and, ultimately, formation of sugar and flavor in wine grapes.

Mission cluster on 163-year-old Deaver Ranch vine

Passalacqua has also pointed out the advantages of Amador County’s elevated solar radiance – or what the French have called luminosity – particularly earlier in the growing season, when the grapes' usual response is to develop thicker skins in expectation of sunburn. Think of the way a Pacific Islander is able to absorb more sun than, say, a Caucasian of European ancestry who spends just occasional time in the sun. Thicker skins in grapes lead to increased skin phenolics, which elevate flavor and complexity in resulting wines. “In this area we can have intense sun that can lead to overripe fruit,” says Passalacqua, “but if you do proper canopy management early in the season, the grapes can adapt as they develop.”

Hence, the unique qualities of not just Zinfandel grown in Amador County, but also a host of other grapes that are now carving out their own unique, and critically acclaimed, niches among California wines: including Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot among Bordeaux types; Syrah, Carignan, Grenache, Viognier and Roussanne among Rhône varieties; Barbera, Sangiovese and Dolcetto among Italian grapes; and Tempanillo, Touriga Nacional and Verdelho among Spanish/Portuguese cultivars, plus at least another dozen and a half more.

10 quintessentially Amador wines

2014 Andis, Bill Dillian Vineyard Shenandoah Valley Sémillon ($21) – While Amador is best known for red wines, Bill Dillian’s 37-year-old, head trained Sémillon planting showcases the beautifully tart, lean, minerally yet silky and desert dry possibilities of white wine varieties in the region. If you’re into untrendy grapes, Sémillon is as unfashionable as it gets; chock-full of the underappreciated white fig, Meyer lemon and creamy viscosity characteristic of the varietal. Bravo to Mr. Dillian for sticking with a good thing, and to Andis Wines for knowing a great planting when they see it. Double-Gold winner at the most recent California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition.

2013 Vino Noceto, OGP (The Original Grandpère Vineyard) Shenandoah Valley Zinfandel ($33) – While Vino Noceto is known for its estate grown specialty, Sangiovese (their silky yet deep, sturdy 2013 Vino Noceto Dos Okies Sangiovese is another keeper), it is their yearly bottling of The Original Grandpère Vineyard (own-rooted Zinfandel traced back to 1869) that has garnered fully deserved renown. Their genius? Letting the vineyard, not a winemaker’s hand or brand of oak barrel, do all the talking; as in their latest vintage, which is fragrant with bright raspberry/blueberry, tinged with a faintly dusty minerality and autumnal pie spices. The nose suggests a certain rusticity, but on the palate this Zinfandel is, refreshingly, all about finesse: soft, quiet entry; moderately scaled fullness; unobtrusively rounded tannin, perky natural acidity, and silky, nimble sensations of the dusty, spicy, prettily scented fruit.

2014 Story, Quartz Vineyard Shenandoah Valley Zinfandel ($24) – What is quintessential Amador County Zinfandel? You can point to bottlings of classic +100-year-old plantings such as Original Grandère or Rinaldi’s Eschen; but in another sense, younger yet fully matured plantings like Story’s Quartz Vineyard (planted in 1989) are even more expressive of the exuberant – yet not overripe or “jammy” sweet – varietal fruit and spice that the region’s hilly, crushed granite sites invariably yield. In this vintage, the Shenandoah spice and cracked peppercorn varietal notes fill out flowery red berry aromas, while natural acidity brightens the feel of soft tannin, moderate oak and upbeat fruit on the palate. Not heavy, not overbearing, but just good, balanced, easy drinking and food versatility (think marinated summer barbecues). What California Zinfandel is supposed to be – useful, delicious!

2014 Sobon Estate, Fiddletown Zinfandel ($22) – Amador is dominated so much by Shenandoah Valley, it is easy to forget that Fiddletown has been a separate American Viticultural Area for going on 33 years. This is Amador’s highest elevation AVA (up to 2,500-ft.), dotted with a handful of ancient vine Zinfandel sites that take a little longer to ripen than vineyards in Shenandoah Valley; thus, building a reputation for darker berried Zinfandels (less red-towards-blue berry qualities), and more of a mountain tannin feel compared to the granitic-type structures of Shenandoah Valley Zinfandels. Still, Fiddletown Zinfandels are not always as big, brawny or jammy as you may think. Whether out of a winemaker’s choice or a reflection of the 106-year-old, own-rooted Lubenko Vineyard’s terroir, there are notes of dried herbs and a dusty minerality that are as prominent as the floral, black fruit qualities in the nose; and the sensations, while brambly and tingly on the palate, come across as finesseful if full in body, with firm yet svelte tannin, and smartly restrained sweet oak.

Dick Cooper in his Cooper Vineyards Barbera block

2013 Cooper Vineyards, Amador County Barbera ($29) – Grower/owner Dick Cooper is Amador County’s modern-day pioneer of Barbera, a grape native to the rolling hills of Northern Italy’s Piedmont region. Since Mr. Cooper’s first 5-acre planting of the grape went into the ground in the late 1970s, the county’s acreage has grown to over 300; becoming as closely identified with Amador as Cabernet Sauvignon is to Napa or Pinot Noir is to Willamette (despite, obviously, the considerably smaller scale). While Cooper remains the “king” of Amador County Barbera – his grapes going into a number of other outstanding, award winning bottlings such as those of Jeff Runquist Wines and Prospect Cellars – his own bottling of the grape is also a standard bearer. An unfettered harmony of blackberryish fruit sings from the glass in Cooper’s 2013 Barbera; the sensations, sumptuous, viscous, fluid and full, yet balanced by the grape’s typical zesty acidity. You can describe it as Italianate, but it doesn’t have nearly the acid bite or dank, shoe leather aroma or tannin typical of Italian Barberas. Its sun-soaked brightness (not overripeness) of fruit is indubitably, and thankfully, “Amador,” which is what makes it special compared to any other wine in the world.

2013 Wilderotter, Shenandoah Valley Barbera ($30) – Starting as a grower/supplier (80 acres planted), this family-owned estate has morphed into a boutique sized producer also discovering the considerable ease in which the Barbera grape has adapted to the Foothills. The Wilderotter achieves genuinely intriguing violet and wild scrub (rosemary and sage) perfumes – almost (or strangely) Syrah-like – to go along with the blackberryish varietal intensity; zesty and silken textured on the palate; full-bodied without being heavy or burdensome. Fully deserving of its Double-Gold at the 2016 Amador County Fair.

2014 Terra d’Oro, Amador County Teroldego ($18) – The suggested retail price of this wine is not the only thing that is outrageously good about this wine, crafted from Teroldego, a thick skinned grape of Alpine-Italian lineage. It’s also its totality of black color (the winery describes it as “obsidian”), pungent blackberry and pomegranate-like aroma and flavor, plus dense, broad, meaty, sinewy yet surprisingly svelte, fluid qualities in the feel. Yes, the phenolics are generous enough to qualify this red as “big,” but it does not assault the palate in the usual (for California) alcoholic way (a fairly moderate 13.5%). Hence, a limber, as opposed to lumbering, feel – think slow roasted beef or red game seasoned with peppercorns, mirto (myrtle berries) or juniper. Another varietal (even if still fairly obscure to the American market) proving natural to Amador’s hillside terroir!

2013 Sobon, Amador County Syrah ($18) – This year’s Amador County Fair “Best of Class Red” shows off the unabashedly upbeat, exuberant, lush and exotic side of the region's sun-soaked terroir. The violet/raspberry-towards-blueberry fruit falls on the ripe side, amplified by sweet oak flourishes, adding smoke and spice complexities. Full, firm yet eminently curvaceous on the palate. Yes, a bit of a coquette (to put it politely); but hey, there’s room in this wine world for drama queens, too.

Jeff Runquist punching down fermenting vintage

2014 Jeff Runquist, Shake Ridge Ranch Amador County Tempranillo ($32) – Shake Ridge Ranch – located southwards outside of Sutter Creek – stands apart from Amador’s Shenandoah Valley and Fiddletown’s sandy-clay loamed terroirs as a different kind of rocky hillside site; an almost magical convergence of crushed granite, basalt, shale and quartz which seem to contribute their own unique garrigue-like earthiness to multiple varieties. In the “R” label Tempranillo, the nose is teeming with roasted meats, sweet tea and maraschino cherry/berry perfumes; deepening in tone and meatiness on the palate, which is velvety, bright with acidity; the fruit and earth sensations understated, yet long, dreamily languourous. No wonder Amador growers are just as high on Spanish varieties as they are on anything from Italy or France.

2012 Andis, Amador County Painted Fields (35% Cabernet Sauvignon/28% Syrah/17% Merlot/10% Cabernet Franc/10% Petite Sirah; $20) – There is no reason why a region like Amador County, steeped in its own history of mixed cultural influences, should conform to traditional conceptions of “Bordeaux,” “Rhône,” or even new fangled Spanish or Portuguese blends. Not when you can compose a multifaceted (and amazingly well priced) red wine like this; pungent with dried-herby, red and black berryish, cocoa nuanced fruit, couched in gripping yet supple, dense, meaty, medium-full bodied sensations. Pass the hanger steak and chimichurri!

Wintering Shenandoah Valley Zinfandel


Evan Williams said…
Very nice piece, Randy. Kudos! I started judging the Amador County Fair in the late 80's and have been so pleased to witness the amazing progression of quality and prestige for the region. Not to say there weren't terrific winemakers back then, there are just so many more now who are doing outstanding work with this remarkable fruit source. As you well know, lately the Foothills has consistently put more contenders in the "Best of Show" day at State Fair than any other region. As I Tahoe resident I am delighted to send my guests, who may be visiting from all over the world, just over the hill to visit our quaint "backyard wine country" and experience some of the best wines available anywhere.
Steve Berke said…
I enjoyed reading your work. I'll come back for more

Keep up the good work :) from TheStillery, a stuart bar in Florida
Robert Bryant said…
Thanks for valuable great article. Where else could anybody get that type of info in such an ideal manner of writing? I waiting for your next update.visit new world wine regions.
Athalia said…
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Randy Caparoso:
"I fought against the bottle," as Leonard Cohen wrote, "but I had to do it drunk"... specializing in wine as a restaurateur, retailer, wine judge, journalist, frequent flyer and mental traveler. But to me, wine is a food like a rose is a rose. So why all the fuss? Currently: Editor-at-Large/Bottom Line Columnist, The SOMM Journal; Contributing Editor, The Tasting Panel. Awards: Sante's Wine & Food Professional of the Year (1998); Restaurant Wine's Wine Marketer of the Year (1992 & 1999); Academy of Wine Communications (commendation) for Excellence in Wine Writing and Encouragement of Higher Industry Standards; Electoral College Member, Vintners Hall of Fame at the Culinary Institute of America, Greystone.