Escape: Amador Magic

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Just past Jackson in Amador County, travelers will discover a knot of acclaimed wineries, most of them along or just off Shenandoah and Shenandoah School roads. Rich with history, enology knowledge and, yes, great vintages, they invite wine enthusiasts to drop in and taste, explore the grounds, ask questions. The wine region, home to approximately 35 wineries, has long been admired for its humble traits—miniscule tasting fees and low crowd levels—and the fact that even the most accomplished places often have winemakers and owners pouring at the counter. So pack a picnic and head for the hills.

Sobon Estate
This lovely old winery is steeped in history. Don’t miss the property’s fascinating museum, adjacent to the tasting room in the winery’s original 1856 cellar. Dug out of a hillside and fortified with hand-hewn oak timber and locally quarried rock, the museum contains antique wine casks, lab equipment, grape crushers, and blurry black and white photographs of the winery’s founders. The thoroughly modern tasting room offers an array of wines to sample, from the lip-smacking Rocky Top Zinfandel, crafted from 90-year-old estate vineyards, to the Roussanne, a white Rhône varietal that’s a refreshing alternative to Chardonnay. sobonwine.com
 
Story Winery
This charming winery, located off the beaten path at the end of Bell Road, is well worth the drive. Flower-festooned and decorated with whimsical metal sculptures, it has an inviting shaded picnic area under a cluster of oak trees with stunning views of the hills below. The winery’s unique tasting room, a former barn constructed in the 1870s, is an aerie—you’ll feel as though you’re perched in an eagle’s nest as you savor Story’s excellent Zinfandels (there are plenty to choose from) and the intriguing, delicate Mission wine, crafted from grapes planted on the property in the 1890s. zin.com
 
Andis Wines
Strikingly contemporary, Andis provides Amador County visitors a different kind of wine-tasting experience. The eye-catching metal panel structure, which looks something like a sleek airport terminal, was designed by Sacramento’s Sage Architecture. The sun-flooded tasting room houses a long bar (beer lovers, take note: there’s a locally brewed ale on tap) and several cocktail tables, where visitors can settle in and be served their wine tastes rather than bellying up to the bar. (Andis also has a beautiful private tasting room for larger groups; call for details.) Outside, you’ll find sturdy chairs under colorful shade sails—a gracious spot in which to enjoy the views and perhaps a picnic lunch. Don’t miss winemaker Mark McKenna’s Painted Fields red blend or the luscious, fragrant Semillon.  andiswines.com

Bray Vineyards
Venture up Bray Vineyards’ windy road, lined with silvery olive trees, and you’ll encounter a rustic “Welcome Friends” sign that’s sure to make you smile. The winery—a plain beige building with a bright red roof—is set far enough off the road so that visitors can escape the traffic noises below and savor the quiet expansiveness of the pretty property. A spacious shaded area directly outside the tasting room is just the spot for picnicking on hot days. Walk inside and you’ll find a simple tasting counter of wood planks suspended over wine barrels. Relish Bray’s Brayzin Hussy red blend (“Bountiful Body, Skimpy Close”) and the citrusy, fruity Verdelho, a refreshing Portuguese varietal. brayvineyards.com
 
Charles Spinetta Winery & Wildlife Gallery
Animal lovers should make a beeline for Charles Spinetta Winery, which boasts a full-fledged wildlife art gallery inside its lofty tasting room. The second floor is devoted to depictions of snowy owls, elk, wolves and bobcats—if you have a favorite wild animal, it’s probably pictured here. Walls are covered in warm cedar and redwood, and the tasting counter below is roomy enough for you and a generous handful of friends. The winery’s lineup of samples includes a delicious, intense Barbera (a specialty of the region) and a sweet, perfumey orange muscat that would be a delightful dessert wine on a balmy evening. If you’re interested in previewing the tasting room, art gallery and picnic grounds, take an online tour on Spinetta’s website. charlesspinettawinery.com

Young’s Vineyard
Perhaps the most sumptuously beautiful winery estate in Amador County, this place has it all: profusions of lilies and roses contributing fiery color; a snug, Hobbitlike tasting room with deep-plum colored walls and flagstone floors; and a furry, plump winery dog named Jackson who likes to cuddle with visitors. Stroll through luxuriant grapevines down to the picnic area, which looks out onto a serene pond with an enormous weeping willow sprouting gracefully out of the water, or take a moment to relax in one of the Adirondack chairs, placed thoughtfully under the leafy trees. If you can remember to taste wine (that’s why you’re here, right?), ask to try Young’s sophisticated estate Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. youngsvineyards.com
 

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Nine Gables Vineyard and Winery
Drive up Nine Gables’ crunchy gravel road and you’ll soon pass a magnificent walnut orchard. At the top of the hill, you’ll discover an intimate picnic area with just two tables nestled under several gnarled oak trees. Surrounded by boulders and pretty flowers, the private area, complete with a water fountain burbling out of an oversized wine bottle, is a great spot for a romantic nibble for two. The Victorian-style tasting room pours a handful of yummy quaffs, including the softly pleasing Barbera and a slightly sweet, intriguing almond sparkling wine, whose subtle marzipan flavor would make it an excellent partner to pound cake, shortbread or enjoyed alone as a fun dessert beverage. Note: Nine Gables has a bed-and-breakfast on the property. See the website for details. 9gables.com
 
Vino Noceto
This winery’s fun little tasting room is housed in a casual barnlike structure with scuffed concrete floors and a plastic-swathed counter. In the back, you’ll find a small refrigerator containing chilled, picnic-friendly wines such as the exuberant, spritzy Frivolo Moscato Bianco and the pretty-colored, gold medal-winning Pinot Grigio. But Vino Noceto is best known for its excellent Sangiovese wines, so save some room to sample a few. (If the 2007 Riserva Sangiovese is available, don’t miss it.) The winery also makes a fabulous estate extra virgin olive oil and several varieties of grappa, packaged in exquisite, tall bottles. noceto.com
 
Terre Rouge & Easton Wines
This friendly winery has two different labels: The Terre Rouge products are crafted from Rhône grape varietals, while the Easton brand offers “California style,” non-Rhône selections. This means that there’s a dizzying lineup of interesting wines to try, so be sure to carve out enough time for a proper visit. One of the most delightful wines here: the Terre Rouge Vin Gris D’Amador, a dry rosé blend prepared from Mourvèdre, Grenache and Syrah. This fragrant, light sipping wine would be the perfect accompaniment to holiday meals. And don’t miss the fabulous Easton Fiddletown Late Harvest Zinfandel. If you ask the tasting staff, they’ll give you a piece of dark chocolate to go along with it. Note: The winery derives much of its electrical power from solar panels. http://terrerougewines.com
 
Dobra Zemlja Vineyards and Winery
Navigate your car carefully down Dobra Zemlja’s narrow, twisty road and, eventually, you’ll drop down into the estate’s stunning, lush parklike grounds. Be sure to stop by the tranquil pond near the back of the parking area. With its green lily pads and hovering dragonflies, the scene is reminiscent of a Monet painting. The unusual tasting room, directly beneath an old barn, was dug out of the hill and originally served as the winery’s barrel room. Cavelike and cool, it’s a wonderful venue in which to taste Dobra Zemlja’s full-flavored wines. Ask to try the delicious, apricoty Viognier and the fruity, smooth Barbera, easily the best of its variety in Amador County. But the most exciting reason to visit may be to indulge in a “Dobra slider”: Tasting room staff drop a chunk of anise biscotti into a glass of the winery’s Kikas (repeat the word a few times—the naughty pronunciation is the right one), late harvest Zinfandel fortified with grappa. When the biscotti has soaked up the wine, you toss it back into your mouth. The combination is marvelous. dobraz.com
 
Bantam Cellars
Unpretentious and friendly, Bantam Cellars lies directly along Shenandoah Road. A clutch of chickens is sure to be prowling about as you arrive—the small winery was named after the Bantam chickens raised by a former owner—staking imperious claim to the property. Cool your heels on the porch outside the tasting room, or step inside to sample the winery’s excellent Primitivo or the Coop D’Ville, a robust Zinfandel/Syrah blend that would be a great partner for spaghetti or pepperoni pizza. bantamcellars.com

Drytown Cellars
Expect to be greeted by several tail-wagging, grinning canines when you visit this  unassuming winery. The road leading up to Drytown Cellars is lined with flowering trees, and the facility sits next to a picturesque, crumbling barn. Winemaker/owner Allen Kreutzer and his family live directly below, and you’re likely to see their daughter running around the place. The no-frills tasting area sits in the middle of the production area, so visitors look out onto fermentation tanks, hoses and a winery lab as they sip Kreutzer’s yummy, black cherry-laced Barbera and peppery, spicy estate Petite Syrah. drytowncellars.com

Villa Toscano
Opulent and distinctive, Villa Toscano catapults visitors into another time with its earthy Tuscan architecture, fountains and statues. Stroll the grounds and admire the attractive landscape, or drop into the winery’s bustling bistro, where you can grab a salad, sandwich or pizza to enjoy in the shaded, comfortable picnic area with a bottle of the winery’s Tempranillo or easy-drinking Chardonnay. The tasting room will knock your socks off—airy and spacious, it’s decorated with lively wall murals and brimming with gifts and artwork for sale. villatoscano.com

Terra d’Oro
There are many reasons to visit this appealing Amador County winery, but chief among them is the fun, thoroughly engaging tasting-room staff. Knowledgeable about the wines and clearly proud to be representing them, the staff does a great job of educating visitors in a very entertaining manner. The tasting room overflows with wine-related geegaws, from innovative bottle openers to T-shirts and sparkly caps. Directly outside is a shaded area for picnicking, should you feel so inclined. When you’re settled in at the tasting counter, make sure to ask for a sample of the winery’s bright, vivacious Pinot Grigio and the luscious, bold Deaver 100-year-old Vineyard Zinfandel. http://terradorowinery.com
 
Dillian Wines
Dillian Wines’ airy, sunny tasting room, modeled after a home built by owner Tom Dillian’s grandfather in the early 1900s, is one of the most welcoming in the area. Simple and spare, the space features engaging photographs of the winery’s vineyards throughout the seasons. The tasting lineup is intriguing: In addition to the Zinfandel and Barbera (for which the winery is known), there also are some very appealing red blends—try the Sorella, a vibrant blend of Mourvèdre, Barbera and Primitivo, and the pasta- and pizza-friendly Vino Nostro, a blend of Sangiovese and Barbera. dillianwines.com

 

NEXT PAGE -> SEVEN MORE REASONS TO VISIT AMADOR COUNTY

 

Seven More Reasons To Visit Amador County

1. You Will Meet a Tall, Dark Stranger
Whether you’re a seasoned seeker or merely out for a lark, On Purpose—a New Age emporium in Sutter Creek—promises an out-of-this-world experience. Discover a dazzling array of meditation crystals, ranging from mammoth amethyst geodes to tiny pieces of fossil. Singing bowls guarantee to raise your vibes, and esoteric books pledge mystic revelations. Ask for a tarot reading by medium April Hughes. If you don’t like what her cards reveal, buy one of the many and varied tarot decks and do your own.
2. Coffee Matters
At Clark’s Corner, lattes, espressos and cappuccinos are just the beginning. This class-act operation in Ione easily could have been plucked from North Beach, Fleet Street, the Village or the Left Bank. Think about it: A coffeehouse’s draw is its ambiance, that air of vibrancy, the excited buzz that telegraphs a happening place where issues are debated, deals struck, reputations made or unmade. Go to Clark’s Corner to talk about the latest novel you’ve read or find a corner to write your own. Artists of all kinds perform on the coffeehouse stage. It’s a great place to see and be seen.  

3. Let the Games Begin
Will you be the next millionaire? Maybe—somebody has to win. In 1985, Margaret Dalton, a Native American widow with four children, opened a bingo parlor in her house. It failed. She tried again. And again. Impressed by her spirit, the Tribal Government of the Miwuk Reservation agreed to back a fourth try. Today, Jackson Rancheria Casino & Hotel has 50 gaming tables and more than 1,500 slot machines. Luck was a lady to Dalton, but it took courage and determination to win the jackpot. The moment you hit the casino floor, you’ll feel that same energy—nonstop action ’round the clock.

4. Room With a Boo
Things happen at Amador City’s Imperial Hotel. Strange things. Such as guests encountering ghosts. Built in 1879, the hotel has seen enough action to spawn an army of spooks. Owner Mary Ann McCamant has seen one, a gunslinger who was slain at the hotel. When the one-time bad man forgets his place in the cosmic scheme of things, McCamant placates him with a shot of whiskey left in the room where he met his maker. The Imperial’s tiny bar is a gem straight from central casting. It doesn’t take much imagination to conjure up the restless shades of John Wayne, Kirk Douglas or Robert Mitchum, slouchy hats, sexy grins and six guns at the ready. But this is a real bar. There’s nothing ethereal about the drinks dispensed. The martinis are lethal and delicious.    

5. Tiptoe Through the Tombstones
Miners, gamblers and outlaws lie cheek to jowl in St. Sava Cemetery, Jackson’s intimate frontier burial ground. Among the those who lie here is the scandalous Madam Pantalon, born Jean Marie Suize in France on July 14, 1824. A Bastille Day baby would have to be a rebel—Marie fled France early on, making herself right at home in Gold Rush California. Known everywhere as Madame Pantalon, Marie Suize enjoyed smoking cigars and wearing trousers. An enterprising “girl about town,” she became the state’s first wine and brandy maker. Madam Pantalon’s colorful life ended in 1892, but her legend continues to add pizazz to a graveyard gallivant.

6. Tea for Two  
Imagine having tea at your auntie’s. Not your real aunt, of course, but a lovely fantasy of a lady who lived at least 100 years ago, say, in England. Adorning her tea table: tiny rose bouquets, exquisitely painted china and lacy tablecloths. Tea Eras in Sutter Creek is a place where such daydreams become reality. It all started when Fran Perry and Kristi Winter, two stay-at-home moms, met through their children and discovered a shared love of fine china, whimsy and tea. Why not open a tea room? Try a cup of Ceylon Supreme, a mellow, smooth orange pekoe with a subtly sweet flavor, or a rich, full-bodied Earl Grey scented with oil of bergamot. Winter, now a worldwide tea broker (teashop.net), really knows how to pick ’em. Tea Eras also serves lunch, caters and hosts special events such as princess teas for birthday girls and candlelit dinners for romantic adults.   

7. There’s Gold in Them Thar Foothills
Panning is alive and well on the banks of the Mokelumne River. All that glitters may not be gold, but the river itself is consolation. The water sparkles, the surrounding mountains are covered with trees, there’s nary a house in sight. The only change since Gold Rush days is the quiet. Nobody’s drinkin’, shootin’ or spittin’ tobacco like they did 150 years ago when both banks were lined with hundreds of miners, tents and mules. There is still gold in the Mokelumne. All you need is patience and a wide-rimmed shallow pan. Use the pan to rinse riverbed soil in water with a rotating motion while progressively discarding the dirt. Gold is heavier and will sink to the bottom, then . . . Eureka! You’ve found it! Sometimes. If not, you always can engage in a little retail therapy at Gold Mine Jewelers in Jackson. Tom Peyton, the gemologist who owns the store, sells not only a variety of gold pendants, rings and earrings, but an impressive array of nuggets ranging in price from $20 to $2,000. Who says the Gold Rush is over?