There’s nothing like a picnic in the countryside. Add a bottle of wine and you’re approaching heaven.
Wine tasting? Even better! But not the tired old trails, full of rental cars, flower-shirted tourists and wine pourers reciting prefab winespeak. Instead, drive to Amador County in the Sierra foothills, only 35 miles from Sacramento. It’s your chance to get off the beaten path—clean air, open roads, fine food and drink.
Cruising east on Interstate 50, take the Bradshaw exit right, then a left on Highway 16 (Jackson Road). Industrial parks and office buildings fade into the background as the morning sun warms your face. Dark green leaves on giant valley oaks stand out against the gold hills, and the meadow grasses smell like buckwheat pancakes. It is still early enough to hear the tanager and oriole in the trees or spy a few Anna’s hummingbirds in the wildflowers.
In its own good time, Highway 16 takes you to Plymouth, a tiny town that serves as a gateway of sorts to Amador wine country. First stop: provisions.
Abundant fresh air stimulates the appetite, as do thoughts of a bulging hamper of picnic delicacies from Amador Vintage Market on Plymouth’s Main Street. Patterned after wine country markets, AVM has gourmet foods and box lunches, gelatos from Ciao Bella and a wine bar. Given a list of your favorite things, caterer Beth Sogaard will create a stylish, personalized picnic. (Make sure to call ahead of time.)
Savory breadsticks and ripe melon chunks that AVM packed for the road provide sustenance until your first winery stop: Vino Noceto. Owners Jim and Suzy Gullet are likely to be there to greet guests, and their excellent Italian varietals are a revelation to new visitors. Start things off right with Frivalo, a fruity Moscato Bianco, or the Rosato, a well-balanced rosé sure to calibrate your senses to the festive mood. Then go on to taste the best Sangiovese bottlings this side of Tuscany and join Noceto’s international following.
Next, head over to Noceto’s neighbor, Domaine de la Terre Rouge, where winemaker and owner Bill Easton is known for his world-class Rhône varietals, specializing in Syrah and Roussanne. He also makes terrific Zinfandel and Merlot under the Easton label. His wife and partner, Jane O’Riordan-Easton, is a cookbook author, chef and zesty host who serves generous Mediterranean feasts at winery events. The rustic winery grounds now include a pétanque court and a covered patio, so get out the lunch hamper.
Terre Rouge’s elegant tasting room sells a chilled bottle of Enigma, a proprietary white made from Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne grapes. This wine’s honeyed peachiness would be gorgeous with a curry chicken salad. Amador Vintage Market’s version is a creamy saffron color and is studded with grapes, celery and almonds. On the other hand, if AVM’s balsamic roasted pork happens to be nestled in a sandwich, the one with the Provençal tomatoes, chutney and mustard sauce, then buy a bottle of Terre Rouge Noir “Grande Année.” It’s their flagship red wine, a new-world take on the famed Châteauneuf-du-Pape blends of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre grapes.
A note to drivers, and anyone wishing to keep their wits about them: Terre Rouge has the best spittoons in Amador, complete with splash covers. Honestly, expectoration is perfectly polite. (Wine pros spit because they don’t want intoxication to mar their appreciation of each wine; they even pride themselves on their spitting distance and accuracy!) One swirls, sniffs, sips and swishes the wine, then spits it right in the bucket.
When you’ve finished dining and tasting, pack up your basket and head out to Shenandoah Road. You’ll pass several excellent wineries along the way, but keep going until you reach Sobon Estate. Amador’s oldest winery, dating to 1856, also is one of the most progressive: Leon and Shirley Sobon and their kids—notably sons Robert and Paul and son-in-law Tom Quinn—have committed to organic growing practices and Stelvin closures (modern screw caps to ensure bottle integrity). The Sobons are best-known for their single-vineyard Zinfandels, but they make spirited Grenache and Roussanne that go the distance as well. The family also oversees a museum on the site, filled with artifacts and tools from 19th- and early 20th-century farming and winemaking.
For the ride home, pop back in to Amador Vintage Market. On weekends, it closes at 7 p.m., so there’s plenty of time to come by after last call at the tasting rooms. Sip a foamy latte as the afternoon light changes; the caffeine will help you keep watch for deer peacefully nibbling in the fields before dusk. As the shadows lengthen, you’ll see the deer in twos and threes, bounding into vineyard rows for sweet snacking. Your day is done.
Amador Vintage Market
9393 Main St., Plymouth
Beth Sogaard Catering (209) 245-3968
Open noon–4 p.m. weekdays, 11 a.m.–5 p.m. weekends and by appointment
11011 Shenandoah Road, Plymouth
Domaine de la Terre Rouge
Open 11 a.m.–4 p.xm. Friday–Monday
10801 Dickson Road, Plymouth
Open 9:30 a.m.–5 p.m. daily
14430 Shenandoah Road, Plymouth