The Wine Country Next Door: Amador


Charlie Havill had already been creating acclaimed wines under the Bella Grace label for several years when he and his wife Michael opened a tasting room on Sutter Creek’s Main Street in 2011. At the time, it was one of only a few spots in Sutter Creek where you could sample local wine. Today, there are more than 10 tasting rooms scattered among the town’s boutique shops and restaurants.

“That’s been a big change over the last few years,” says Steve Havill (Charlie and Michael’s son), who works at the family winery. “You can come and stay in Sutter Creek and you don’t have to go anywhere else.”

Of course, Amador County offers a lot more than the considerable charms of Sutter Creek. The area boasts a rich winegrowing history; one still-active vineyard dates all the way back to 1869. Today, more than 40 wineries dot the gorgeous Gold Country landscape, offering not just the expected Zinfandel and Barbera varieties but a global array of fruit-forward reds and surprisingly complex whites.

If you’re visiting Amador County for the first time, don’t miss the amazing wines at Andis in Plymouth, the delectable pastries at Andrae’s Bakery in Amador City or the locally sourced food at Taste, named by Wine Enthusiast one of the top 100 restaurants in America. “They do an amazing job creating this gourmet experience that still has that down-to-earth feeling,” says Havill.

And even if you are visiting Amador for the 10th time, there are still new things to discover.

Facts and figures: No. of wineries: 40+; most common variety: Zinfandel; acres planted: 2,000+; elevation: 1,200–2,000 feet; varieties grown: 13; year established as AVA: 1987 (Sierra Foothills AVA); average annual precipitation: 28 inches.

Beyond Zinfandel
Amador County was once almost exclusively Zinfandel country, and the black-skinned grape is still the most commonly grown variety in the region, with 600 acres of Zinfandel vines that have been in the ground 65 years or longer. However, Amador growers have greatly diversified their crops in the past 20 years, so we asked Steve Havill at Bella Grace Vineyards to walk us through the region’s underappreciated wine grapes.

Barbera  On Sept. 15, Amador County hosts a festival for this robust Italian wine grape. “Most of the Barbera grown in Amador leaves, because all these other amazing wineries in Napa, Sonoma, Lodi are making it into their own wines,” says Havill.

barbera grape

Grenache  The dominant variety in most Southern Rhône wines, the Grenache grape thrives in the volcanic Sierra Series soils of Amador County. The 2011 vintage of Bella Grace’s Grenache Blanc won Double Gold at the 2012 California State Fair.

grenache grape

Vermentino  A light-skinned Italian wine grape used for a variety of whites, Vermentino is one of the rarer grapes in Amador County. “There’s not a whole lot of acreage grown, so when you find it, you know the people making it are in love with it,” says Havill. Bella Grace blends Vermentino with two other whites in its fruit-forward 3 Graces Blanc.

white grape

Under the Radar
With its historic mining towns, abundance of natural beauty and world-class wineries and restaurants, Amador County has a wealth of tourist options that can be overwhelming. Here are a few experiences you shouldn’t miss.

Small Town Wine Bar  With a population of 191, Amador is one of the smallest incorporated cities in California, but Small Town Wine Bar has big-city appeal. Opened by Amador County native Ginger Budrick in 2017, this bar serves local and imported wines as well as a fixed menu of small plates and seasonal specials. 14179 Old Route 49, Amador City

Vino Noceto  If you want a fuller appreciation of the process of winemaking, make a reservation for one of the daily farm-to-glass tours at this winery. Follow the grapes from the vineyard to the crush pad, the fermentation room, the barrel room and the tasting room, all while a “wine education specialist” guides you through six different Vino Noceto wines. 11011 Shenandoah Road, Plymouth

Vino Noceto Vineyards
Vino Noceto Vineyards

City of Volcano  Nutrient-rich volcanic soil is one of the reasons that wine grapes grow so well in Amador County, but this tiny village got its name when miners mistakenly assumed the surrounding valley was caused by a volcano. Remnants of the mining days abound, including the historic and still-operating St. George Hotel. Catch a play by the long-running Volcano Theatre Company and take a guided tour of a living cave at Black Chasm Cavern.

St. George Hotel
St. George Hotel