© By Janet and Stuart Wilson
Standing outside the tasting room, we were admiring the view over the vineyards when Dick Cooper, wearing jeans, suspenders and a cowboy hat, ambled up. “It’s Barbera,” he said. “The rows in front of you and halfway down the slope are Barbera.” It’s like that in California’s original wine region. You never know when you’ll bump into a grower, owner or winemaker here in this rolling, oak-studded, central Sierra Foothills region, where small, family-owned and operated wineries remain the rule, not the exception.
Substantial Gold Country wine production in mid-19th century slaked nearby miners’ notorious thirst. However, 40 years ago only a single winery and a scattered handful of vineyards remained.
A rebirth of wine production since then has generated well-over 30 wineries in Amador County while another dozen or so lie just across the Consumes River’s South Fork in the Fair Play region of El Dorado County. A unique combination of soil, climate, landscape, colorful history, and a tradition of families putting down roots, make this area stand-out from California’s more famous wine regions.
Here are several wineries we particularly enjoyed on a recent visit:
Sobon Estate. In 1989, 12 years after founding nearby Shenandoah Vineyards, Leon and Shirley Sobon, pioneers in the renaissance of the foothill wine region, purchased the historic D’Agostini Winery as a 30th anniversary present to one another. An old winery with historic significance, it’s the only one here that survived Prohibition and it’s the third oldest winery in California. The D’Agostini family owned the winery from early 20th century to the Sobons time, making value-priced jug wines, mostly from Zinfandel.
Grapes in the vineyard and old wine casks at Sobon Winery
A small museum exhibits 500-gallon oak casks, hand-crafted by local cooper and rancher John J. Davis back around 1869. These exquisite relics complete a collection of artifacts relating to the winery’s and region’s history.
It seems appropriate that Sobon Estate should feature Zinfandel, the principal grape of this wine region in the 19th century and the variety that sparked the area’s late 20th century revival. Award-winning, single-vineyard Zins have a loyal following, but we bought a Reserve Primitivo and Reserve Tannat. The Primitivo is an Italian (or perhaps Croatian) Zinfandel clone, while the latter originated in southwestern France.
Dillian Wines. Tom Dillian, a fourth generation farmer in the area, planted his first wine grapes (Zinfandel, of course) in 1972 with his two brothers. In 2003 he started the winery with help from his son Thomas. Tom learned vine cultivation and vineyard management as a boy from his step-dad, Mike D’Agostini. Tom and Thomas share winemaking responsibilities at this small (2800 cases annually) family winery.
Chatting with Thomas on the tasting room’s front porch, we learned that neither he nor his dad received formal training in enology. Nevertheless, they acquired the skills necessary to consistently turn out sought-after, bin-fermented reds. They strive for wines with complexity and intensity of flavors yet with the edges rounded, or as Thomas put it “in a velvet glove.”
Inside the small, simple tasting room modeled after the old farmhouse it replaced, we took special pleasure in the Tre Fratelli (three brothers) Zinfandel, from that 1972 vineyard.
Visitors picnic at Deaver Winery and Noceto Winery
Scott Harvey Wines. Located in the well-preserved Gold Rush-era town of Sutter Creek, this is, strictly speaking, a tasting room not a winery. Here we tasted some truly memorable wines poured by the enthusiastic and engaging Kelsey, who ventured that her Philosophy major might have been good preparation for her job.
Winemaker and proprietor Scott Harvey, a native of the region, makes a line of Amador reds. We tasted several pours in the Victorian-era building, appreciating the wine’s craftsmanship as we viewed impossibly quaint Main Street through large windows. Each wine gave vivid expression of what the French call “terroir” or what Scott calls the “taste of Amador.”
We ended up splurging on the most expensive wine on the list–the Vineyard 1869 Zinfandel. We loved the subtle finesse of this classic Zin, but its history also spoke to us. It’s from the oldest documented Zinfandel vineyard in America. It was here when John Davis crafted those 500-gallon oak casks we admired in the museum.
Vino Noceto. This winery’s story goes back a little over 25 years, when Jim Gullett, a successful technology-savvy banker, and his wife Suzy acquired property in the Shenandoah Valley with the dream of establishing their own vineyard and winery and raising their family here. After careful research and with what Jim calls “an inclination to be different,” they planted Sangiovese vines.
Perhaps California’s premier producer of the grape variety that defines Chianti Classico from Italy’s Tuscany region, Jim and Suzy have found that growing conditions here are very similar to inland Tuscany’s Chianti region, although their wines offer a surprising range of flavors.
Jim says, “We stress education in the tasting room.” Tracy, the knowledgeable manager, guides tasters through an impressive range of Sangiovese. She uses words like “rugged,” “charismatic,” and “voluptuous” to describe the select vineyard Sangiovese wines and compares each to a movie star–Clint Eastwood, Paul Newman, Mae West. Here also is the chance to snag a bottle of Suzy Gullett’s favorite, “Frivolo,” a naturally effervescent Muscato Bianco, refreshing on picnic or patio when chilled.
Shenandoah Valley Vineyards and Sobon Estate Winery
Cooper Vineyards. As our conversation with Dick Cooper continued, he pointed out, “below the Barbera, where the trellises are, those are Primitivo. Then, beyond that is the Zinfandel. You know, Zinfandel is easy to grow around here–almost too easy. I prefer the challenge of the Barbera, it requires just the right location and a lot of attention to do well.”
A third generation Shenandoah Valley farmer, Cooper raises sheep and walnuts in addition to his 80-acre vineyard. He says he’s a landscape designer at heart. Unquestionably a first-rate vigneron, Cooper opened his winery just over four years ago, after decades of grape growing. When we asked him why, he said he was the father of four daughters and didn’t think any of them foresaw a career driving a tractor, so the winery is his way of passing on a family legacy.
His daughter Jeri and the other tasting room staff welcome visitors like family. Jeri calls her dad “The Godfather of Barbera” and enthusiastically talks about the wines that winemaker Mike Roser crafts from his grapes. Roser says he does very little blending. He says his job is to “keep the grape in front.” In other words, to bottle what Dick Cooper grows.
Dick Cooper talks about Barbera. Kelsey at Scott Harvey Wines.
We could go on with wineries like Domain de la Terre Rouge, renowned for premium Rhone varietals, and C. G. DiArie and Runquist, two wineries that have earned accolades and respect. Several in the Fair Play area merit a visit too, including homey, family-run, 30-year-old Latcham Vineyards and a new addition right in the village of Fair Play called Winery by the Creek.
This latter winery, owned by Charles Mitchell who’s made wine at nearby Charles B. Mitchell Vineyards for years, boasts a man-made “cave,” a barrel tasting opportunity, and a special bottling we found irresistible. It’s called “Grandma Betty’s Zinfandel.” Packaged in a 1-liter jug with screw cap and handle, reminiscent of those jug wines the D’Agostinis used to make, it comes with the promise of a $5 refill when you return with the empty jug! Now here’s a case of “what’s old is new again,” rather like the wine region itself.
If you go....
Cooper Vineyards: www.cooperwines.com
Dillian Wines: www.dillianwines.com
Scott Harvey Wines: www.scottharveywines.com
Sobon Estate: www.sobonwine.com
Vino Noceto: www.noceto.com
Winery by the Creek: www.winerybythecreek.com
This story was originally published in RV Journal magazine.