What You Thought You Knew

In the wine country north of San Francisco, there is no end to the stories.

There are stories about Silicon Valley high rollers who suddenly are out of work, holding wads of worthless stock certificates, now needing to make that playful investment in vineyards a real money-making enterprise. Or stories about earthquakes and fires devastating whole warehouses full of fine wine. Or stories about winemakers-for-life in the middle of a nationwide prohibition of the products they make.

Then there is the story of Count Agostin Haraszthy who, in the mid-1850s, made his way from Hungary to Wisconsin and then to San Francisco, finally landing in Sonoma County, desirous of growing grapes. He tried to do this in San Francisco, but the fog dissuaded him. 

If you visit the wine county of Sonoma, you will hear of this pioneer, described as the man who established the wine business in California.

But several years before the Count planted his vineyards, there was a growing and economically important wine growing area over to the east, in the Shenandoah Valley, California. This valley does not have the rolling beauty of its eastern counterpart in West Virginia and western Virginia. Coincidentally, as does Virginia and a few other places on the East Coast, it does have a town named Plymouth. Still, California’s Shenandoah Valley can tell several interesting stories, and has proven, particularly today, to be a great place to grow wine grapes.

First of all, the wine industry found a solid foothold in this area because many people, mostly European immigrants, found the place attractive to establish their American dream. Why so here, years before Sonoma? In 1848, a mill operator, John Sutter, discovered several flakes of gold near his sawmill on the banks of the American River. He tried to keep matters low-key, but evidently Sutter was not the guy you wanted to trust with secrets.

The California Gold Rush was soon in full bloom with Sutter’s Mill being the epicenter. And those European immigrants, needing something else with which to make a living while they panned for their stash, planted grapevines from the “old country,” which was likely to be Italy or Eastern Europe.   

The wine industry rapidly grew, and gained a reputation for quality and quantity. Fortunately for the gold miners/growers/winemakers, the soils of the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains are not rich, rather poor, but great for grapes, which don’t like fertile soils anyhow. Worked out nicely for all concerned.

The area grew so quickly that the previously set county boundaries encompassing this new booming economy placed too much real estate under one government jurisdiction. A new county was set by the California legislature in 1854, Amador, which was carved from El Dorado and Calaveras Counties. As a side note, Mark Twain made Calaveras forever famous in his classic short story, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.

Ah, yes, the stories just keep on coming.

This next part is not such a happy tale, however. As the gold diminished, so did everything else in Amador. The grape growers were really not that happy with their lot. Remember, they wanted to find gold and get rich, not be tied into the relentless cycles of agriculture.

By the beginning of World War I, it was pretty much all over for Amador. The gold was gone, the war was on, and when the conflict ended, the Federal Government declared a national prohibition on manufacture and consumption of wine, beer, and spirits. Will the last field hand to leave Amador please turn out the lights?

Fast forward, past the repeal of Prohibition, the Great Depression, World War II, and the presidency of Jimmy Carter. That last item has no meaning to Amador’s story, but I just thought most of us wanted to fast forward past those years.

As we speak, the Amador County grape industry is not only alive, but it is well and kicking. Plantings from the mid-1970s are maturing and we are finding wines from this place that have deep fruit expression, excellent structure and balance, and can favorably compare with wines from any other place in America. Yes, that includes Napa and Sonoma.  

There are more than 35 wineries now operating in Amador County, and in most cases, the owner has his boot prints in the vineyard and his hands in the winery. If you visit this area, and you should although the tourism infrastructure is a bit slim, when you ask the person in the tasting room to give you a sip of some wine, that person will likely be the owner, the winemaker or both.

In case you missed the early before-the-boom times of Napa, this is pretty much what it was like “back then.”

If you are a red wine devotee, then here is the area for you. Varietals include barbera, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, petite sirah, primitivo, sangiovese, syrah, tempranillo, and zinfandel. You don’t get a line-up from any region much redder than that.

The white varietals are good. They do take a bit of a back seat to reds, not in terms of quality, absolutely in terms of quantity.  

A few wineries that deserve your consideration:

Jeff Runquist Wines – Seems like Jeff would be better suited to the more cerebral area of Mendocino, or maybe somewhere in Oregon pondering the meaning of it all, but this thinking man is making it work in Amador.

His wines are both deep in texture (petite sirah, zinfandel) and elegant (pinot noir, barbera and grenache). Jeff has given the whole matter a lot of consideration. He dry-farms his largest vineyard, Massoni, and in his vineyards gives respect to those who came before him, the Italian immigrants.

While today’s California zinfandels can be all over the tasting map in terms of fruit, tannins, and alcohol, Jeff prefers a gentler wine that not so much earns a placement at the table near the end of the meal, but maybe pairs nicely with a duck salad closer to the beginning. His pinot noir actually comes from the Carneros, proving that Jeff is focused on the best location to grow the grapes that are lucky enough to come under his control.

Morse Wines – Robert Morse is also one of those guys who have given this whole wine thing a lot of thought. And he has given the names of his products a lot of thought, and a lot of names. Morse Wines is one of the labels. Another is Il Gioiello Winery. Then there’s Parallax.

Morse Wines are Rhone-style grapes, featuring viognier, grenache, syrah, mourvedre, and some petite sirah, just to be fair. His GSM (grenache/syrah/mourvedre) blend is a luscious wine, full of berry fruit and a full mouth-feel.

Il Gioiello Winery focuses more – big surprise – on Italian varietals. The name means “little jewel,” describing how Robert feels about his winery. But it was also the name of Galileo’s estate in Arcetri, Tuscany. The fact that Galileo was under house arrest there makes for an interesting part of the story. But I can’t connect it to anything at Morse, unless Robert feels a deep-seated confinement with his estate that I did not detect. Maybe I should sit with Robert for a few more hours and continue to have a conversation while trying more of his wines. Public service is a specialty of mine.

The grapes of Il Gioiello are focused on barbera, montepulciano, sangiovese, aglianico, alongside the Rhone varietals, making for an interesting American Super Tuscan blend.

Vino Noceto – Bills itself as California’s sangiovese specialist. But the Italian connection does not end there. Suzy and Jim Gullett have an abiding love of Tuscany and the wines from that storied Italian region, and then there was the consideration that maybe there was plenty of zinfandel already being produced in Amador, so why do one more? Semi-romantic reasoning, mixing a love of grape with a pragmatic business conclusion.

The Gulletts just knew that the soils, the sun facings and the climate were perfectly suited for Italian varietals. Turns out they were spot-on, and the wines from Vino Noceto are excellent expressions of New World conditions delivering incredible experiences with Old World varietals.

Sangiovese is the work-horse of the line, and at least 6 clonal selections are used, with up to 20 parcels kept separate.  Layer upon layer of fine Italian fruit, both on the nose and the palate. Then there’s a favorite Tuscan white grape of mine, vernaccia, which finds its home in the Old Country around the town of San Gimignano. Accompanied by fresh-baked bread and just-made olive tapenade, you will believe you have entered The Kingdom.

Driven Cellars – If you fear you are late to the discovery of Amador, Driven’s already second-generation experience will bring that point home. Now being overseen by Chris and Cathy Chinco, children of the founder, Rudy, Driven has not only continued on the wonderful path of the parents, but the kids are enhancing the visitor experience by taking another passion, antique cars and tractors, and housing them in a museum-like setting.

The wine labels are reproductions of tire tracks. Very cool. And the Chincos have planted vines from the extreme south of Italy and Sicily, using the primitivo grape, to the far north in Piedmont with tempranillo. In between are the barbera, petite sirah and even a bit of pinot grigio. Oh, and the ever-present zinfandel. Quality juice, one and all.

Amador County is a comer. But it’s a comer with a 160-year history. Not exactly brand new, even by European standards. It’s a place that has been hiding in plain sight.

Digital Sponsors

Become a MyNewOrleans.com sponsor ...

Sign up for our FREE

New Orleans Magazine email newsletter

Get the the best in New Orleans dining, shopping, events and more delivered to your inbox.