The Shenandoah Valley of Amador County is home to some of the oldest and most storied vineyards and wineries of the Sierra Foothills. Small family-operated wineries, many of which are of exceptional quality, comingle here with much larger corporate-owned wineries.
The region was settled during the Gold Rush and named after the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia and West Virginia, though almost certainly out of homesickness rather than visual or geographical similarity. Many of the settlers were of Italian origin. They brought with them a love of wine, and some also brought smuggled vines. As a result, old vines of Zinfandel (the genetic equivalent of Primitivo from Puglia) and Barbera (from Northern Italy) have long dominated the region.
The Valley is situated in the western portion of the Foothills and at a lower average elevation than the regions to the east, making it quite warm. The Sierras, though, provide just enough cooling to keep the grapes from over-baking and to help preserve some acidity. The region is further cooled by breezes from the San Joaquin River system which transports the cool air from the San Francisco Bay 100 miles inland.
Largely because of the region’s sandy soils, which the vine-root-destroying louse phylloxera doesn’t thrive in, the Shenandoah Valley is blessed with some very old vines. The Original Grandpere (OGP) Vineyard, for example, was planted in 1869 and is still a working vineyard that supplies grapes to three local wineries. The old vines from OGP and dozens of other old vineyards produce small fruit in lower yields making for highly intense and concentrated wines. This combination of climate, soil, and vine age results in some of the best versions of Zinfandel on the planet.
While the success of Zinfandel is easy to understand, Barbera, which is native to the cool foothills of the Alps in Northern Italy in mostly limestone soils, is another story. Yet, fortunately for us all, the match was made. The region’s warmth helps keep acid levels in check while, for some reason, the grapes do not over-ripen and become flabby. This prime spot thus produces the most unique and highest quality Barbera wines outside of the Piemonte region.
While Zinfandel and Barbara rule, other varieties are starting to find a foothold here in the Shenandoah Valley as well as the rest of Amador County. All Rhone varieties are thriving with some particularly great examples of Syrah, Grenache, and Viognier. Sangiovese and Tempranillo also are proving to be particularly well-suited. Some adventurous growers and skilled winemakers are even having some success with Bordeaux and Burgundy varieties from the region, but there are many failed attempts with those varieties as well.
Highway E-16 (known here as Shenandoah Road) runs diagonally from Plymouth in the southwest to the El Dorado County line and the Fair Play region in the Northeast. Shenandoah Road is home to many of the best wineries in the Sierra Foothills. Two loops offshoot from Shenandoah Road. On Steiner you will find wonderful wines and beautiful tasting rooms. And on Shenandoah School Road you will find some of the largest producers in the county.
The town of Plymouth, known as Pokerville back in Gold Rush days, is your last bit of civilization before you head up E-16. So, load up on gas and picnic supplies. Taste restaurant is a delicious and highly underrated lunch and dinner spot (if this place was in the Napa Valley you would need to make reservations years in advance), and Amador Vintage Market is a good place to pick up a sandwich. Also in Plymouth you will find Amador 360, a winery collective tasting room and store featuring wines from wineries across the Sierra Foothills that are too small to have their own tasting rooms.
It’s a family affair. Larry and Linda Long took a family full of teenagers and transplanted them to the middle of wine country to pursue their passion for making wine. Larry uprooted existing vines and replanted with 16 acres of mostly Mediterranean varieties which are sustainably and meticulously hand-tended and cropped in small yields. The children caught the wine bug and now help run the place. Michael went off to Fresno State to study enology and took over as head winemaker in 2013. Ashley studied communications and business and now handles the business end of things when she’s not assisting in the cellar.
The quality of wine coming from Amador Cellars cannot be overstated. The intensity and complexity of everything bottled is remarkable. We know of no other winery in the region (and perhaps even in the state) that has as many diverse offerings of such consistently high quality. They spend virtually nothing on advertising, and instead put all of their resources into their wines. You will find Amador Cellar wines lighting up our wine ratings in a number of categories, and they have our Sangiovese of the Year plus several others in the top three. The Syrah, Tempranillo, Montepulciano, and especially the Aglianico are personal favorites.
The tasting room is situated in the middle of the action in the Tuscan-style winery and cellar. Larry, Linda, Michael, and Ashley are usually hanging around and are excited to tell you all about the wines and the happenings at the winery. A freshly renovated barn in the middle of the vines serves as a center for special events and weddings.
11093 Shenandoah Road
Plymouth, CA 95669
Hours: Monday-Sunday 10:30-4:30
With a beautiful facility and wine quality on the up-tick in recent years, Andis is quickly becoming one of the top dogs in Amador. Winemaker Mark Fowler was hired in 2018 and brings a lifetime of Foothills experience and an impeccable palate.
Andis offers a wide range of wines. They are one of three Foothills wineries that produces Zinfandel from 150+ year old vines from the Original Grandpere vineyard. The Andis Barbera is one of our favorites and is crafted in a very Old-World style. The Cabernet Franc is sourced from a high elevation vineyard and is amazing. The Rhone varieties are also on the rise. The whites also shine, especially the Semillon, and be sure to ask if they have any Orange Viognier available to taste.
The tasting room is very sophisticated, but casual, and there is plenty of outdoor seating. There is also a good offering of cheese and snacks to pair with your wine. And if you are lucky Lorenzo, a partner at the winery, will be around to pour and share his knowledge.
11000 Shenandoah Road
Plymouth, CA 95669
One of the hottest wineries in Amador County has now opened a stunning tasting room in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley. The incomparable Matt Zaldivar runs it to perfection. Winemaker Jessica Tarpy Shaheen has a beautifully delicate touch, and the wines get better every year as the vines mature.
Reservations are required for now.
10690 Shenandoah Road
Plymouth, CA 95669
Hours: Fri-Sun 11:00-4:30
Terre Rouge & Easton
One winery; two labels. Innovator, pioneer, and pleasant recalcitrant Bill Easton established the winery in the 1990’s and is largely responsible for shaping the modern day Shenandoah Valley. Bill was the first to fully realize the potential of Rhone varieties in the Foothills, and for them he created the Terre Rouge (“red earth”) label, named after the red soil of the region. All non-Rhone varieties are bottled under the Easton label. All told, Bill makes over 30 different wines, each in very small quantities.
The ability to juggle so many varieties of grapes and maintain such a high level of quality is astounding. It is so impressive that Terre Rouge & Easton has twice been named one of Wine & Spirits Top 100 wineries in the world, including 2019. The Rhone wines are excellent and are some of the most age-worthy wines in the Foothills, especially the Syrahs, and the winery maintains a healthy library of older vintages. The Easton Zinfandels come in a wide range of styles, including some old-style versions that harken back to a time before Zinfandels became fruit and alcohol bombs. Ever undaunted, Bill also makes some of the most successful Bordeaux-style wines in the Foothills, including some you would swear come from more hospitable climates.
The tasting room is pleasant, understated, and fits right in with the tone of the wines. It is always a good idea to keep your eyes out for special flights, library tastings, and case specials.
10801 Dickson Road
Plymouth, CA 95669
Hours: Thursday-Monday 11:00-4:00
Turley Wine Cellars
Turley is the undisputed Zinfandel champ. It’s what they do. Larry Turley moved to California in the 1970’s as a physician, found himself in the wine business somewhat by happenstance, and has spent the rest of his life perfecting the making of Zinfandel wine.
If you don’t like Zinfandel, you probably want to pass on this one. But don’t let that give you the impression Turley is without variety. They make 50 wines sourced from 47 different vineyards, which are mostly old vine, dry farmed Zinfandel vineyards, with some Petite Sirah, Cinsault, and Cabernet Sauvignon sprinkled in.
Though Turley uses grapes from all across California, many of the vineyards (including most of our favorites) are from the Sierra Foothills. The Shenandoah Valley tasting room highlights many of these local vineyards, and it is fun to taste them along side versions from Napa and the Central Coast to see if you can detect differences. Our personal favorite is the Sadie Upton vineyard where a bad-ass 21-year old woman decided she was going to plant a vineyard right in the middle of prohibition… now that is supreme optimism.
10851 Shenandoah Road
Plymouth, CA 95669
Hours: Monday-Sunday 10:00-5:00
California’s Sangiovese Specialists. Suzy and Jim Gullett purchased the property that is now Vino Noceto in 1984 and decided, adventurously, they would try their hands at growing Sangiovese, even though there was virtually none of it planted in the area at that time. They studied, traveled to Tuscany, and drank a lot of Sangio, and somehow they made it work. Vino Noceto now has nearly 25 acres of Sangiovese and is probably the most prominent California winery primarily devoted to the grape.
Vino Noceto produces several styles of Sangioveses. Each has varying lengths or types of maturation and/or sourcing of grapes. Some versions are solely from designated blocks of their vineyard. Dos Oakies is the most famous of the blocks and tends to be the most structured. The Hillside recently was awarded the Best Sangiovese in California at the California State Fair. But the Marmellata is often our favorite and has a fruit quality that can be easily confused for a Rosso di Montalcino. I like to refer to Vino Noceto’s Sangioveses as Tuscan, but cleaner.
The barn-style tasting room is delightful, and the staff is knowledgeable. (The only complaint being that the pour size is sometimes a bit on the skimpy side). The Rosé, a saignee of Sangiovese, is our Foothills Wino Rosé of the Year. The Pinot Grigio, Barbera, Original Grandpere Zinfandel, and Aglianico are excellent, and they are almost as famous for their Frivolo, a lightly spritzed Muscat in the style of Moscato d’Asti, as they are their Sangiovese. The Frivolo is available in a frozen version from a slushie machine on hot summer days… a true guilty pleasure. A wonderful lawn has tables, a bocce ball court, and one of the classic Doggie Diner heads, a heartwarming sight for many San Franciscans.
11011 Shenandoah Road
Plymouth, CA 95669
Hours: Monday-Sunday 11:00-4:00 (5:00 on weekends)
Foothills Wino Wineries to Watch
Bella Grace Vineyards
The Barbera and Zinfandel are outstanding, and the Vermentino is one of the best, if not the best, in the region. You can taste in their cave in the Shenandoah Valley or in their tasting room in Sutter Creek (see Sutter Creek page).
Bray has 22 varieties planted on 30 acres, some of which is sourced out to both large and small producers, and some of which is used to make their own wines. We are very excited to watch the new Iberian grapes develop and evolve. The size of pours in the tasting room can be disappointing and make a Somm-style tasting impossible. Excellent olive oil is also made here.
Thur-Mon 11:00-4:00 (5:00 on weekends)
Chaim Gur-Arieh is a world renowned food scientist, biochemist, and tinkerer. His notable contributions to the food world include Cap’n Crunch cereal, Pudding Cups, and Hidden Valley Ranch salad dressing. Needing a change and a new challenge, Chaim decided to turn his attention to winemaking. He and his wife Elisheva now make outstanding, mostly fruit-forward wines at their winery in El Dorado county (see Fair Play) and pour them at their tasting room in Amador county.
Cooper is synonymous with Barbera in the Foothills. They grow enough of the variety to sell to many wineries and to make their own wonderful versions. Also, the Cooper Clone of Barbera is the predominant clone grown throughout the region. Surprising to many, Cooper also grows and produces many other varieties. The Sangiovese is particularly good.
Iron Hub Winery
Founding Lava Cap winemaker Tom Jones and his wife Beth purchased Amador Foothill Winery in 2014 and converted it into Iron Hub. They have constructed one of the most spectacular tasting rooms in Amador County, and it has a stunning view. The wines are excellent and get better every year, and we are confident there will be a star in this winery's future.
Jeff Runquist Winery
Jeff sources grapes from all across California and produces wines made in a very distinctive style and that have a cult-like following. Of the Foothills wines, the Tempranillo and Barbera are some of our favorites.
Scott Harvey Wines
The Scott Harvey 1869 Zinfandel, sourced from the 150 year-old vines of the Original Grandpere vineyard, is our Foothills Wino Zinfandel of the Year. It is near perfection. The J&S Reserve Syrah is also outstanding. They also have a tasting room in Sutter Creek.
The old and historic D’Agostini Winery was purchased by the Sobons, who also own Shenandoah Vineyards, in 1989. They were one of the earliest adopters of using sustainable farming techniques and continue to be responsible in the vineyard and minimally invasive in the cellar. The Rocky Top Zinfandel is one of our favorites in the county.
With some very old vines and a beautiful setting, Story Winery is always worth checking out… and we hear some rumors of experimentations with ancient Georgian winemaking techniques… we are intrigued and watching.
Mon-Sun 12:00-4:00 (11:00-5:00 on the weekends)
Terra D’Oro Winery
A very large estate by Foothills standards of more than 400 acres, Terra D’Oro was the producer of the first Amador County post-prohibition wines (bottled under the Montevina label). Today, winemaker Emily Haines who came onboard before the 2017 harvest is doing some interesting things and is giving us good reason to be watching this established winery.