Go! Amador County

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A mere 45 minutes from Sacramento, Amador County feels hundreds of miles away from the hustle-and-bustle lifestyle that is fast defining our fair city. Serenity starts with the drive along two-lane Highway 16 (which turns into Highway 49 just before Plymouth)—retail establishments become fewer and far between, giving way to fields, and maybe a fruit stand and the famous Davis Ranch, home of Sloughhouse corn. The slow-paced vibe of Amador County—which includes the towns of Sutter Creek, Ione, Amador City, Drytown, Jackson, Plymouth and Volcano—invites you to wander about, tasting wine, scouring for antiques and window shopping. Brush up on history by touring a gold mine, historic castle or other landmarks. Take detours, get lost—on purpose. Eavesdrop on locals gossiping. Imagine what life was like during the Gold Rush days that put this area on the map. While the din of bikers cruising Highway 49 intermittently breaks the silence of this otherwise peaceful region, spending a day or two here may inspire the most rigid Type A person to entertain a slower pace of life.

Go Ask Charlie
Want to know why the town of Drytown—population about 225—is called Drytown? (Because the creek would dry up in the summer and miners could not wash their gold.) Or what was mined in Amador City? (Quartz.) Go on a weekend and talk to Charlie Dunklee, co-owner of Antiques Wanted in Drytown. Is there still gold up thar in them hills? According to Dunklee—an amicable walking encyclopedia of all things Amador County—after a hard rain, you’ll still find some.
     While in Drytown, check out Dunklee’s shop, which houses everything from amateur art and furniture to household items. More antiques can be found at Stage Door Antiques across the street. And while the sign outside The Old General Store advertises notions, fabrics and classes, inside you’ll also find a selection of chips, sodas and other snacks juxtaposed with ironing boards and sewing machines. In a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it-size town such as Drytown, it’s only natural to find stores doing double duty: For several years, the post office doubled as an antiques store. (Now it’s solely a second storefront for Antiques Wanted.) If you’re thirsty for a libation, Drytown Club bills itself as “The only wetspot in Drytown.” Though we’re sure Drytown Cellars, located up the highway, may beg to differ.

Preston Castle
Tour this 115-year-old castle in Ione, a former reform school for “incorrigible” boys who counted among its residents country singer Merle Haggard, who reportedly described the castle as looking like “something out of a Frankenstein movie.” Learn about the 1950s-era murder of head cook Anna Corbin, who was found bludgeoned to death reportedly at the hands of one of the residents, or that part of the castle’s spiral staircase now resides in The Firehouse Restaurant in Old Sacramento. Ignore the rest in favor of daydreaming about what a cool hide-and-seek location this would be. You’ll be tempted to veer from the tour to check out closets, rooms and numerous staircases. Tours are offered the first and third Saturdays of the month from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m. Or, be brave and go on one of the overnight ghost tours. While it bears no physical address, the castle is located on Palm Drive, and once you’re in Ione, you’ll see it looming large.
     While you’re there, finish the afternoon with a round of golf at the Castle Oaks Golf Club, an 18-hole, par 71 public golf course.

Andrae’s Bakery & Cheese Shop
Pick up ready-made sandwiches or some cheese and fresh-baked bread at this husband-and-wife-owned bakery in Amador City. (This is a great place to pick up lunch for wine tasting.) Be tempted by Andrae’s scrumptious scones, pastries and cookies. Even if you’re virtuous enough to bypass those, you’ll want to pick up some housemade granola or croutons, the latter made from the bakery’s bread. Chocolate is another big commodity here. We spotted a shirt that read, “Forget love, I’d rather fall in chocolate.” How can you not love this place? (Note: The bakery closes for three weeks in August for vacation.)
     While in Amador City—one of California’s smallest incorporated cities—stop in front of Country Living, a home décor and antiques store, to pick up a free walking tour guide of Amador City. Ramble in and out of the town’s many antiques stores. If you visit on a weekend, have lunch in the courtyard of the Imperial Hotel, built in 1879, then walk up the steps to the old cemetery, where you’ll see headstones dating back to the 1850s and older.

Wine Tasting in the Shenandoah Valley

No trip to Amador County would be complete without stopping off at a few (or more) of Amador County’s wineries. There are wineries throughout the area, but the main region is the Shenandoah Valley, located in Plymouth. Most wineries invite you to buy a bottle of wine and stay awhile with outdoor seating areas that showcase the gorgeous Shenandoah Valley. Bring picnic fixin’s, perhaps from the aforementioned Andrae’s or nearby Pokerville Market for sandwiches. For those touring Thursday through Sunday, wander into local chef and caterer Beth Sogaard’s Amador Vintage Market for gourmet takeout or pre-order a “wine tour lunch.” Coming in a large group or via limo? It’s a good idea to call the wineries you plan to visit ahead of time. A few wineries of note:
• Cooper Vineyards: This family-owned and -operated winery boasts 19 varietals and is known for its Barbera, Zin and some more obscure wines.
• Terra d’Oro (formerly Montevina): Sample wine and gourmet food before heading outside to the winery’s picnic area.
• Villa Toscano: Duck into the winery’s bistro to pick up pizza, sandwiches or prepared salads, then enjoy lunch: The Italian-themed winery’s draped pavilion entices visitors to sit and relax. The tasting room provides a cool respite on a hot day.
• Renwood Winery: Call ahead to reserve the winery’s private tasting room. Buy a large souvenir glass—we understand it holds an entire bottle of wine—for $14 ($12 if you are part of a large group) and you’ll be tasting in style at the rest of the wineries.
• Sobon Estate: A warm, friendly staff and the fact that it’s home to the Shenandoah Valley Museum make this a must-visit winery. In continuous operation since before the Civil War, this award-winning winery is considered a California State Historic Landmark. The museum—housing everything from wine-related artifacts to old-time kitchen and field ware—is an attraction for wine and history geeks alike.
• Shenandoah Vineyards: The sister winery of Sobon Estate, Shenandoah Vineyards has a marvelous covered-picnic area. Don’t forget to peruse the “recipe book.” You’ll find a multitude of recipes using—you guessed it—Shenandoah Vineyards’ wines. See a recipe you like? Help yourself to a copy. The adjacent art museum features the work of local artists.

While in Plymouth, also make a stop at the Amador Flower Farm and stroll the 12 acres of gardens. With picnic tables and big oak trees, the flower farm is a perfect adjunct to a day spent wine tasting in the Shenandoah Valley.

Marlene & Glen’s Diner

Down-home cooking and hospitality are the mainstays of this diner located on the corner of Highway 49 and Main Street. Though it was close to closing time when we arrived, the owner beckoned us to stay, “’Cause nowhere else will you find food so good.” Having fries with that burger? Try the Randy Fries, a sampling of the diner’s fries, which include skin-on, sweet potato, curly and more. Don’t forget a piece of homemade pie—peach, perhaps?—for dessert.

Volcano Amphitheatre
Catch a play under the stars at the Volcano Amphitheatre, which is small on space but big on charm. Bring a blanket and picnic and perch upon one of the grass-strewn steps. Or, come early and dine in the park adjacent to the amphitheatre. See Play On, about a theater group’s attempt to put on a show despite interference from the play’s author, who is trying to revise her script. But don’t delay. The last performance in the amphitheatre is Sept. 12. After that, you’ll be able to catch new shows inside the Cobblestone Theatre across the street.
     While in Volcano, devour a slice of apple crumb pie (or call ahead to reserve a slice of your favorite flavor) at Humble Pies, have a drink in the aptly named Whiskey Flat Saloon or slumber the night away in the nearly 150-year-old St. George Hotel.

Hanford House Inn
Those looking to spend a weekend in Amador County may want to rest their weary heads at this perfectly located Sutter Creek bed-and-breakfast. Owned by the husband-and-wife team of Robert and Athena Gordon, the Hanford House Inn offers two types of accommodations: old-fashioned, antique-furnished themed rooms in the main building and more modern garden cottages next door with fireplaces and heated bathroom floors. Fresh scones in the a.m. whet your appetite for your four-course breakfast, prepared by Athena, a professionally trained chef.
     In Sutter Creek, walk up and down Main Street, perusing all of the shops. Hungry? Stop in J&D’s Steakhouse, the former home of Caffè Via d’Oro. Sidle up to the bar or grab a window table and watch passersby on Main Street as you sip an Alaskan Amber Ale and munch on some jalapeño bites or a steak quesadilla. Have coffee and scones at Back Roads Cafe. But note, diners craving heartier fare midafternoon may find themselves out of luck. We traipsed up and down Main Street searching for a restaurant that served more than appetizers and salads but were denied.

Historic Jackson
Although its most famous landmark these days is the Jackson Rancheria Casino & Hotel, the town of Jackson—the Amador County seat—offers more than just gambling. Check out the historic buildings on and near Main Street, which include several churches built in the 1800s, including St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Church, which was established in 1894 and was the area’s first Serbian Orthodox church.
     For more of the town’s history, stop by the Vista Point Picnic Area, off 49. There you’ll find a plaque denoting the town’s history and landmarks.

Blues News—Fans of the blues will want to check out the Sutter Creek Blues & Brews Festival on Sept. 26. The event—which includes two beer gardens—takes place from 5 p.m. to 9:45 p.m. For more information, call (209) 267-1344 or log on to suttercreek.org/specialevents/bluesandbrews/Index.html. 

Getting There
From Sacramento, take Highway 16 and follow the signs to the Amador County destination of your choice.