Amador County – Wine Country the Way It’s Meant To Be

If you’re looking for a wine region in California where crowds are rare, prices are reasonable, and the wines will please any critic, take a trip to Amador County. The region is home to 40 wineries, many of them small, family-owned businesses. Time slows down here. Think Napa Valley before the fame.

The wine industry started here during the 1850s when Europeans flocked to the region to prospect for gold. Family roots run deep, and some of the grapevines date back 150 years. However, there’s no pretense here and no exorbitant tasting fees, just good wine. And that’s what keeps me coming back.

Just a 45-minute drive southeast from Sacramento, Amador County lies at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Its sun-drenched hillsides, warm summertime days, and volcanic, decomposed granite soils provide an ideal growing climate for robustly flavored red wines. Well-known for its Zinfandel, Barbera, and Rhone-style wines, the region also produces excellent Sangiovese, Syrah, and Tempranillo. Limited bottlings of Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Marsanne, and Roussane are also produced here.

While you can’t go wrong at just about any of the wineries along Shenandoah Road, Shenandoah School Road, or the Steiner Road loop, here are a few favorites for a relaxing afternoon of wine-sipping:

Shenandoah and Sobon

Shenandoah and its sister winery, Sobon, make a variety of classic and reserve wines. A three-generation family-run business, we had the pleasure of being served by the owners’ knowledgeable grandson, Andrew.  At this time, the tasting room at Sobon remains closed due to COVID-19. However, Shenandoah’s tasting room offers wines for sale and tasting from both wineries.

The Sobon 2018 Rocky Top Zinfandel, priced at $18, is a favorite of mine. Its flavors of summer berries, white pepper, and a mellow earthiness pair well with slow-cooked meats, sausage, or a spicy meat pizza.

The Sobon 2017 ReZerve Petite Sirah, priced at $24, offers up a fruity, rich flavor. Its deep, dark color is characteristic of the petite sirahs from this region.

Sobon Estate Rezerve Petite Sirah from Shenandoah Winery’s picnic grounds ©PamBaker

The view of the valley below from Shenandoah’s picnic grounds is stunning. On the day we visited Shenandoah, they practiced the highest protocols for protecting guests from COVID-19, including plexiglass between the server and guests, and wine poured in your glass untouched by the server.

Open 10:00-5:00 every day, and reservations are required.

C. G. Di Arie

Started by food scientist and biochemist Chaim Gur-Arieh, inventor of Captain Crunch cereal and Hidden Valley Ranch salad dressing, C. G. Di Arie makes a perfect stop for lunch. A food truck called Taste A Go-Go, operated by the well-known Taste Restaurant in Plymouth, sits just atop a sprawling patio. A new addition to the winery to accommodate plenty of social distancing, the patio is shaded by oak trees and 25 colorful canvas umbrellas. Misters on one end of the patio provide plenty of cooling relief from Amador’s warm summer days.

C G di Arie patio
View of C. G. Di Arie patio ©PamBaker

I enjoyed a chilled glass of the 2017 Summer Breeze, a red blend of Primitivo, Barbera, and Zinfandel, bursting with fruit flavors. My husband opted for the 2017 estate-grown Tempranillo, a full-bodied wine filled with dark berry aromas and savory, earthy, smoky flavors. Both paired well with Taste’s juicy grilled burger loaded with mushrooms, bacon jam, and goat cheese aioli.

Wine tasting and the food truck are available on Saturdays and Sundays 11:00- 4:30. Reservations recommended.

Cooper Vineyards

A trip to Amador would not be complete without a visit to Cooper Vineyards. Formerly the home to Amador’s annual Barbera Festival, Cooper Vineyards remains synonymous with Barbera in the region. Dick Cooper grows enough Barbera grapes to sell to others.  So don’t be surprised when you find the source of grapes proudly noted on other winery labels.

The 2017 Barbera Riserva at $45 is the creme de la creme. Aged in American oak for 35 months, the wine’s aromas of cherry lead to flavors of smoke and vanilla with a spicy finish. To pair with this extraordinary wine, Cooper recommends a great steak from nearby Pokerville Market, a fluffy baked potato, and a garlic-seasoned salad.

But Cooper is not just about Barbera. His 2017 Sangiovese gets rave reviews. The delightful 2017 Blondie, a classic Rhone white blend, won silver in the 2020 San Francisco Chronicle wine competition.

Plenty of covered patio seating provides a safe, socially distanced setting, with sweeping views of the vineyards in the valley below. The winery opens Thursday through Monday, 11:00-4:45.

Bella Grace

Bella Grace Vineyards, owned by Charlie and Michael Havill, offers two locations in Amador. Their tasting room in Sutter Creek is housed in an 1860s era house. The wine cave and outdoor tasting area co-exist on the winery’s property just off Steiner Road. The wine cave, built out of the side of a hill, offers a cool retreat on a warm afternoon. Outdoor seating, safely socially distanced, overlooks the rolling vineyards and nearby Sierra Hills. Food trucks are often onsite on weekends, and outside food for picnicking is permitted with a bottle purchase.

Michael, one of California’s elite female winemakers, and her husband Charlie are warm and approachable. They can often be found serving food and pouring wine at the club member events. Yet they’ve earned Wine Business Monthly’s Top 10 Hot Brands. And when you taste their wines, it’s easy to see why.

Bella Grace wines at the wine cave

Bella Grace produces 15 reds, six whites, one rose, three sparkling wines, and olive oils and balsamic vinegar. Their 2017 Barbera, priced at $33, earned a 90-point rating from James Suckling. For that wine, they source the grapes from five Amador vintners, including the prized Cooper Vineyards. On the nose, the wine offers hints of spice with chocolate and raisin notes, then follows with bright flavors of plum, cherry, and fig. Michael recommends pairing it with robust foods like grilled lamb, spaghetti and meatballs, or mushroom risotto.

But the 2016 Montagnaro, priced at $27, a 50/50 blend of Barbera and Zinfandel, remains a favorite in the Baker household. The nose displays hints of chocolate and anise. The ruby red color matches the flavors of black cherry on the palate, with tempered tannins in the finish.

Open Friday through Sunday, 11:00-4:00. Reservations required.

For more information

If I’ve piqued your interest in one of my favorite wine regions, Amador Vintners or Visit Amador can provide more information. Guides to the wineries, including maps, are available at almost any winery in the area.

If you enjoy discovering Amador, don’t tell too many people. I like it just the way it is – uncrowded, unassuming, and (almost) undiscovered.

Pam Baker

Pam Baker is a freelance wine, food, and travel writer based in Northern California. She has written for local, national and international publications including Via Magazine, Porthole Cruise, Northwest Travel and Life, Upscale Living, Inspired Senior Living, Food Wine Travel Magazine, Edible Sacramento, Europe Up Close, Australia and New Zealand, and Washington Tasting Room. She is also the former editor for Sacramento Lifestyle Magazine.