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Gold Country treasure: explore the Sierra foothills on this fall wine-tasting drive.

You can't really call Amador County a new wine region. After all, vines were planted here, in the Sierra Nevada foothills, when Abe Lincoln was president--some of those graybeard Zinfandel vines from the 1860s are still producing--and only Prohibition has interrupted the flow of wine. But in recent years, Amador's wine country has really grown up. Of some 20 wineries dotting the oak-studded hills, at least a half-dozen have opened in the last 10 years, and all are helping to shape a new image for Gold Country wines.

Zinfandel is still king here--of Amador's 2,823 acres of vineyards, 65 percent are planted with that varietal. But even as big Zin remains dominant, many wineries--both newcomers and veterans--are trying out varietals that have never before been seriously tested here.

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In Sutter Creek, Susan Carter of Susan's Place Wine Bar & Eatery has watched Amador County winemaking mature. "Since these wineries are all small, they can afford to be adventurous and willing to experiment. They're trying Rhone and Tuscan varietals--Barbera, Sangiovese, Syrah--and have been gaining a good reputation lately," she notes.

You can sample local winemaking styles in the bar at Susan's Place, tasting vintages from most of the wineries in the Sierra foothills area. But it's much more fun to tour this emerging wine country on a day's drive. November is a fine time to visit: The days are crisp, the season's first rains usually start to green up the hills, and the harvest-season crowds are gone.

Wine country roving

To get a firsthand look at what the wineries are up to, take a drive around Plymouth, 15 miles south of Placerville, where wineries bunch up like grapes. The rolling hills don't get a lot of rain (an average of 38 inches annually), but the soil--a mixture of sand and clay--retains moisture well enough that many vineyards aren't irrigated, producing small yields of intensely flavored grapes.

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Start your roaming a couple miles northeast of Plymouth on the main drag through the area, Shenandoah Road. One old standby not to be missed--and an appropriate first stop--is 1 Sobon Estate, a historic landmark on Shenandoah Road. Founded in 1856, it ranks among California's oldest wineries, and its museum is worth touring for a peek at early Amador agriculture and winemaking.

Next, take a short detour up Steiner Road to 2 Dobra Zemlja, established in 1995. Strains of jazz, blues, or classical music greet you as you enter the small cave that serves as tasting room and barrel storage facility. Owner Milan Matulich calls his winemaking style "the peasant's way"--handpicked, handcrafted, and unfiltered.

For contrast, get back on Shenandoah Road and stop by one of the county's newest wineries, 3 Villa Toscano Winery. It has a grand Tuscanstyle tasting room, fountains, a gift shop, and a small bistro serving sandwiches, pizza, and pasta.

Take a side jog onto Shenandoah School Road to stop at 4 Montevina Winery. It was the county's first post Prohibition winery and remains its largest and most modern, with a new $12 million production facility. You can spend hours tasting your way through the winery's Italian portfolio, including hard-to-find varietals like Aglianico, Freisa, and Teroldego.

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Return back on Shenandoah Road to newcomer 5 Nine Gables Winery, where owner Jerry Notestine claims the quality of Amador's wine comes, in part, from what's not here. "It's not a nutrient-rich soil--it's full of pulverized granite--so the vines are stressed naturally, resulting in fewer--but richly flavored--grapes." Notestine is also knowledgeable about Amador history. "There were wine grapes grown in these foothills as early as the 1850s," he notes, "selling to the forty-niners roaming these hills in search of gold."

Nine Gables has its own ties to California history--a planting of Mission grapes that dates to the early 1900s. (It's one of the few wineries to grow the varietal, which was brought to California in 1782 by Spanish missionaries.) The resulting Mission Claret is like a rose on steroids.

Back on Shenandoah, you'll take a quick detour onto Dickson Road and another new winery. Small, quaint 6 Vino Noceto produces a popular Sangiovese that you can sample in the tasting room. While you're here, ask if "grappa school" is in session--you'll be treated to a brief seminar on grappa, the brandylike liquor made from the seeds, stems, and skins of grapes left over from winemaking.

If you have time for one more side trip off Shenandoah Road, head up Bell Road to 7 Story Winery, which helped revive Amador winemaking in the 1970s. The tasting room is in a 100 year-old bunkhouse pockmarked with holes made by acorn woodpeckers. Story's picnic area is inviting--overlooking a canyon stuffed with oaks and stirring with wild turkeys, quail, and rufous-sided towhees. Settle in with a picnic and a bottle of Story's luscious, jammy Zinfandel and take in the show.

This is a good place to linger and contemplate how the region has changed since Gold Rush days. As you let the robust Zinfandel swirl over your tongue, you'll realize Amador County's ultimate irony: In their single-minded quest for precious metals, those early forty-niners overlooked the richest strike of all--a Mother Lode of liquid gold.

Area dining

Caffe Via d'Oro. Pasta, pizza, salads in a casual cafe. Lunch Sat-Sun, dinner Wed-Sun. 36 Main St., Sutter Creek; (209) 267-0535.

Susan's Place Wine Bar & Eatery. Taste or buy more than 100 Sierra foothills wines, including some from 20 Amador County wineries. Hearty soups and sandwiches. Lunch and dinner Thu-Sun. 15 Eureka St., Sutter Creek; (209) 267-0945.

Zinfandels at Sutter Creek. Menu stand-bys like polenta and filet mignon; monthly wine dinners. Dinner 5:30 Thu-Mon. 51 Hanford St. (State 49), Sutter Creek; (209) 267-5008.

RELATED ARTICLE: Amador wine roaming

For a complete list of Amador County wineries, contact the Amador Vintners Association (www.amadorwine.com, 888/655-8614, or 209/267-2297). For lodging and other activities, check the Amador County Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau (www.amadorcountychamber.com, 800/649-4988, or 209/223-0350).

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Wineries

1 Sobon Estate. 9:30-5 daily. 14430 Shenandoah Rd.; (209) 245-4455.

2 Dobra Zemlja. 10-5 daily. 12505 Steiner Rd.; (209) 245-3183.

3 Villa Toscano Winery. 10-5 daily. 10600 Shenandoah Rd.; (209) 245-3800.

4 Montevina Winery. 10-4:30 daily. 20680 Shenandoah School Rd.; (209) 245-6942.

5 Nine Gables Winery. 11-5 Thu-Sun. 10778 Shenandoah Rd.; (209) 245-3949.

6 Vino Noceto. 12-4 Fri, 11-5 Sat-Sun, or by appointment. 11011 Dickson Rd.; (209) 245-6556.

7 Story Winery. 12-4 Mon-Fri, 11-5 Sat-Sun, 10525 Bell Rd.; (209) 245-6208.
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Title Annotation:Travel
Author:Finnegan, Lora J.
Publication:Sunset
Date:Nov 1, 2003
Words:1082
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