On a first take, planning a day of Zinfandel exploration in the Sierra Foothills is a daunting challenge: Such a sprawling area! So many AVAs! Eight counties! And, so many great producers tucked away in them thar hills! How can you possibly cover it all? Well, you simply can’t and a touring challenge it is, but outlined here is a route that will give veterans and first-timers a good taste of the very best while offering a contrast in regional characteristics and winemaker styles – without wasting too much time on the backroads and driving all around the western Sierra Nevadas range. After all, it is prime Zin country. What you really want anyway is to sit, relax, enjoy some amazing scenery, meet some great down to earth people, and savor some of the best Zinfandels California has to offer. The Sierra Foothills are the historic sites of California’s first gold mining claims since 1848 and many of the prospectors and settlers soon turned to winemaking to satisfy the need for wine from the exploding population of European immigrants.
A drive on this route will reveal the region’s topography, local color, an array of old and new wineries, and views of some of the oldest surviving vineyards in the state – and the world. At elevations from 1500’ to 3500’ and planted on soils that are largely decomposed Sierra granite, foothills vineyards start later, ripen later, and are above the coastal fog. Sunny days and cold nights are the hallmarks here. Dress in layers, bring a jacket in late fall and through winter, and wear comfy shoes for potential vineyard tours you will be offered – and should take. Keep in mind that you are in some fairly rugged, elevated terrain. You are likely to view snow atop the Sierra Nevadas in the distance most of the year, and it can even snow here, too. You may not dig up much in the way of gold nuggets anymore in the foothills, but you will unearth a trove of delicious wines of complex and pure fruit flavors and taut structure that are among the finest values to be had in California wine.
El Dorado County
Located in Pleasant Valley, El Dorado County, this state of the art estate winery that was founded by Dr. Victor Alvarez in 2003 is producing a series of Zinfandels and other varietals that are among the very finest in El Dorado and California in general. Elegant, pure, balanced and refined, Miraflores Zinfandels defy any notions that Zinfandel is somehow always overblown. Yellow Block Zinfandel is a signature limited estate bottling to look for. Order a light picnic or experience one of the winery’s culinary wine events, or after one of their expertly guided estate vineyard hikes, relax on the patio by the fountain and savor bright and juicy wines that speak of the Sierras’ sunlight and granite.
Amador County, Shenandoah Valley
Terre Rouge/Easton, Amador County, Shenandoah Valley
From Pleasant Valley, drive south down Mt. Aukum Road about 30 minutes and you will arrive in the historic Shenandoah Valley, Amador County. This is home to some of California’s oldest vineyards and is rich in Zinfandel tradition. Noteworthy wineries new and old cluster around the old town of Plymouth but one not to be missed is Terre Rouge/ Easton. This gem of a family winery on Dickson Road just off the main drag of Highway 16/Shenandoah Road was the brainchild of visionary founder Bill Easton, a former Bay Area wine retailer in who in the late 1980’s saw the potential in the red iron laden soils of Amador for Rhône varieties – and soon thereafter – Zinfandel. Terre Rouge is Bill Easton’s brand for Rhône varietals. Zinfandels fall under the Easton name. Modest in scale and architectural extravagance, but long on passion and expertise, Easton produces exemplary small lot Zinfandels from estate and nearby vineyards that are longtime benchmarks of the Shenandoah Valley. Taste a series of wines with a cordial host on the porch by the rolling vineyards or in the winery tasting room and you will be rewarded – classic Zinfandels from traditional vineyards by a top producer – and tremendous values! Picnics are welcome.
Scott Harvey Winery
Amador County, Shenandoah Valley
Less than a mile – and practically walking distance – is your next recommended Zinfandel Trail destination in Plymouth, Scott Harvey Winery. From Dickson Road return to Shenandoah Road/Highway 16, turn right and proceed just a few hundred yards to the winery.Known as a trailblazing winemaker in Amador’s modern era, a champion of old Zinfandel vineyards and authority on Zinfandel history, Scott Harvey is synonymous with Amador Zinfandel. Among his line of beautifully-crafted wines, Harvey is known for producing a special Zinfandel from California’s oldest vineyard planted in 1869 – the Grand Pere Vineyard – the wine called simply 1869. Visitors can choose among tasting flights menus of several Zinfandels and other varietals, and on weekends visitors can enjoy chef-designed food pairings by chef Brian Overhauser. Visitors to Amador looking for Scott Harvey wine tasting can also visit the winery’s tasting room at the nearby old mining town of Sutter Creek.
SEASONAL FOOD AND FRIENDLY SERVICE IN AMADOR COUNTY
After your day of touring in the Sierra Foothills, you will no doubt be contemplating a spot to end up, wind down, and dig in for some day’s end dining and further sipping. Taste Restaurant and Wine Bar is a Zagat-rated bistro that serves up delicious seasonal small plates as well as offering numerous local, domestic and international wine.
For lodging, we highly recommend Taste’s sister property, Rest, a boutique hotel also located on Main St. in Plymouth. In Placerville, the Eden Vale Inn is a bed and breakfast inn that offers all the amenities and spa services that you would want for a wine country romantic getaway. For a small group, Foothills visitors might also inquire with Scott Harvey Wines for availability of the Scott Harvey Cottage, a three bedroom home that is outfitted with all the necessary amenities for a more home-like lodging experience.