Amador County, in the heart of the Sierra Foothills, is home to over 40 wineries producing classic zinfandels from old and ancient vines dating back to 1863. In the last 35 years, Amador vintners have pioneered Italian and Rhone varietals, making Barbera, Sangiovese, Syrah, Viognier and Roussanne.
Vineyards are planted up to 3000 feet in elevation, in decomposed granite and volcanic soils. Warm days and cool nights allow grapes to mature slowly and develop deep, complex flavours. Most of the wineries are small, family operations located along scenic back rounds in picturesque rural settings.
Families like the Sobons and Deavers have reawakened the lost art of winemaking by reinvigorating old vineyards. The deeply rooted, head-trained vines produce tiny crops of small-berried grapes. Notable among them is Zinfandel, California’s heritage grape. Nearly a quarter of Amador’s 3,300 vine acres are devoted to Zinfandel vines over 60 years old.
CG Di Arie Vineyard & Winery. Chaim Gur-Arieh is the owner and winemaker, and is also an inventor and food scientist. The winery specialises predominantly in Zinfandel. The 2010 Sauvignon Blanc is crisp, citrus and very light and refreshing. Visitors can picnic under the oaks or by the Koi pond. 19919 Shenandoah School Road www.cgdiarie.com
Cooper Vineyards. The Cooper family has been farming in the Shenandoah Valley for five generations. Under winemaker Michael Roser, Cooper Vineyards produces a portfolio of seventeen hand-crafted wines, including Barbera, Pinot Grigio, Viognier, Roussanne, Carignane, Petite Sirah, an excellent dessert wine called ‘Pink’ which raises money for cancer charities, and a late harvest Port style wine called Dicembre. The tasting room is Mediterranean in style, with some fantastic vineyard views. Tasting room open Thurs-Mon. 21365 Shenandoah School Road. www.cooperwines.com
Helwig Vineyards & Winery. New to the scene, Helwig Winery boasts sweeping panoramic views of the Shenandoah Valley, outdoor amphitheatre, state-of-the-art winery and a unique wine cave system. The contemporary American barn design combines modern industrial functionality and rustic charm. David and Nancy Helwig moved to wine country upon retirement, and settled on the charm and simplicity of the Shenandoah Valley. Their son Scott is the winemaker, and they started selling wine in 2011. The 2009 A-Frame Zinfandel is a lighter example of this varietal, and very good. Open daily 10.30 – 4.30. 11555 Shenandoah Valley Road. www.helwigwinery.com
Karmere Vineyards & Winery. Barberas, Nebbiolos, Syrahs and Zinfandels. The vineyards are sustainably farmed, so organic practices are used except regarding rare conditions where only benign chemical treatments are employed. The vineyards are named after the women in the family: daughter, granddaughters and daughter-in-laws. The tasting room and terraced gardens overlook the estate vineyards and winery. Open daily 11-5. 11970 Shenandoah Road. www.karmere.com
Sobon Estate. Founded in 1856, this winery is a historical landmark. Old-vine grapes are grown sustainably, and most of the Zinfandel vines were planted in the 1920s. Sobon has a great range of single-vineyard Zinfandels, Rhone varietals and dessert wines. There’s a spacious tasting room, historic wine cellars and museum. 14430 Shenandoah Road. www.sobonwine.com
Shenandoah Valley Museum. Adjoining the Sobon Estate Winery Tasting Room, the museum is dedicated to the pioneers of the past who established the agriculture and viticulture of the Shenandoah Valley. The Sobon family have gathered together artifacts which illustrate the history of the region, including a textile display, wagons, farm equipment and furniture and winemaking equipment. Open daily. 14430 Shenandoah Road.
Wilderotter Vineyard. Jay Wilderotter is the owner and winemaker, and until 2003 sold his grapes to local wineries – before deciding to produce his own wines. The tasting room is cosy and decorated with local artists’ paintings. Outisde there are secluded patios and fountains. There are some excellent whites, including an elegant 2010 Roussanne, a 2009 Chardonnay which has just a kiss of oak, and a dry 2009 Viognier. The reds are approachable and not overdone and the award-winning 2008 Tempranillo is particularly good, as is the 2008 Syrah. Open every day except Tues, 10.30 – 5. 19890 Shenandoah School Road. www.wilderottervineyard.com
Amador Flower Farm. Demonstration gardens with unusual perennials and grasses, and over 900 different daylilies. 22001 Shenandoah School Road. www.amadorflowerfarm.com
Taste Restaurant. Fine dining, globally inspired menu. Wines from Amador and around the world are on offer, with a wide selection of local Zinfandels, Rhone and Italian varietals.. Great ambience, and excellent service. The long-time favourite starter of mushroom cigars is superb, as is the roasted Guinea hen with walnut spatzel, blue cheese, apple and walnut vinaigrette. 942 Main Street. www.restauranttaste.com
Amador Vintage Market. Supplying the finest foods, beverages and picnic supplies, plus knowledgeable wine guidance. 9393 Main Street.
Though small with a current population of just 100, Volcano was once one of the largest settlements in the area being home to over 10,000 people. Many homes are still owned by the families who built them five or more generations ago.
Chaw’se Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park. Museum of baskets and displays with artifacts of the Miwok tribe. 14881 Pine Grove-Volcano Road.
Volcano Union Inn. Hearty comfort food served in pub downstairs, four guest rooms upstairs. The bar is busy and popular with the local residents. Dishes include Roasted beet salad with mandarins, goat feta and walnuts; Roast duck breast with cherry compote, potato latke and Swiss chard, and a delicious Pumpkin cheesecake. Of course, the wine list features predominantly local Amador wines. 21375 Consolation Street, Volcano. (+1 209 296 7711) www.volcanounion.com
Black Chasm Cavern.
Descend about 75 feet into this natural cave, and be guided through the features by one of the experts on hand. Be enchanted by the formations such as stalactites, stalagmites, flowstones and rare helictite crystals for which the cavern is famous. Open daily. 15701 Pioneer Volcano Road.www.caverntours.com