When one thinks of California Wine Country, it is usually Napa Valley that comes to mind. Napa Valley makes arguably the best wines this side of the Atlantic, and many of those wines are internationally acclaimed.
However over the last decade or two Napa Valley became more of a theme park or tourist trap thing. Due to its proximity to San Francisco metropolitan area and constant flow of visitors many of Napa wineries turned into granite and marble palaces with tasting rooms capable of handling thousands of visitors per day. The wine is too often heavily overpriced. And the experience is nothing of the genuine wine making rural area.
But Napa is not the only wine growing area in California. Today we shall go to a wine country many people never heard of – and it is located within just 2 hours drive from San Francisco.
California Shenandoah Valley
I am talking about California Shenandoah Valley. It is a designated AVA, or American Viticultural area, located in Amador and Eldorado counties, off the historic Highway 49. It is also part of the legendary California Gold Rush country.
This post is not a wine tasting or wine buying guide. Trust your taste and be open to new wine varieties. This area is famous for its Zinfandel (originally from the Balkans, but now grown mostly in the New World). Other varieties worth mentioning and tasting are Barbera (an Italian grape), Primitive (a cousin of Zinfandel), Tannat (another European grape), and Sangiovese (the same grape Chianti is made of).
Unlike in Napa, most wineries offer free tastings here. Some of them also offer premium tasting flights of reserve wines, which are usually inexpensive and are worth taking. Also, unlike in many other areas, here you can often talk to the actual owners of the winery.
Here in Shenandoah Valley you won’t find luxurious castles and villas that pose as wineries. However you can find a more genuine experience and a warm old style hospitality, and a wine country not yet spoiled by excessive flow of tourists. And the traffic will be way lighter than in those touristy wine regions.
One of the ways to get to California Shenandoah Valley is to take Highway 88 East from Stockton and it will take you to Amador county. Once you get out of the flat Central Valley the road starts climbing the Sierra Foothills and more and more views open up. So far these are mostly pastures, not wineyards, green from March to June and golden yellow the rest of the year.
Once you get to Highway 49, you may want to turn left (North) and in a few minutes you’ll reach Plymouth. There make a right turn onto Shenandoah Road, and then in a few hundred yards bear left as the road turns North into the Shenandoah Valley. Now you’ll see more and more winery signs popping up on both sides. As you drive you may want to explore Shenandoah School Road and Steiner Road for more wineries off the main route.
At the far end of The Shenandoah School Road you will find the Terra d’Oro winery, one of my favorites. Besides the traditional spectrum of solid reds they have a noteworthy Zinfandel Port and Moscato (Muscat).
They have a nice tasting room that doubles as a souvenir / wine accessory shop. Their vineyards are located right next to their tasting room and caves. In winter the vineyards are dormant and leafless, but still look beautiful.
Nights can get frosty in this area, so here and there one can see the huge fans for moving the air around. If you’d like to see how they did it before the electric fans, check out the movie A Walk In the Clouds (starring Keanu Reeves, Anthony Quinn and Giancarlo Gianinni).
Does you local grocery store have the organic section? Some vineyards in this area do have one:
Proceed down the Shenandoah School Road and stop by Andis Winery. I like their Barbera. Then go down to Cooper Vineyards (nice dessert wine, I usually buy a bottle or two whenever I stop by). Apparently some of the Cooper owners are into vintage trucks, so if yo wander around the property you’ll see a few Prohibition-era small trucks in various stages of decay.
Vineyards are often located side by side with ranches and pastures – real ones, just like the wineries. We saw lots of horse, sheep, and even llama ranches.
We now return to Shenandoah Road and head North, stopping by the stylish château of Karmere Winery. In addition to their wines, Karmere has great views – even on a rainy day in early January.
Stop by Bray Vineyards off Shenandoah Road – notable for their Verdelho, a Portuguese variety that is quite rare in California, as well as Barbera and Sangiovese. They have what is probably the funniest logo among all wineries – look at the truck door at the photo below:
Now let’s head North on Shenandoah Road, and in a couple of miles we’ll see Sobon Winery on the right. It was founded in 1977 with the purchase of D’Agostini Winery which was one of the oldest wine estates in the area. They have a nice tasting room where they offer both free and premium tastings (the latter is worth it). They have a superb Zinfandel (may vary from year to year), but my favorite is their Tannat – I never leave without a bottle or two.
Sobon tasting room has a gift shop with wine paraphernalia and Gold Country souvenirs. There is also a small museum right next to it, full of everyday life objects from the Gold Rush Era all the way to the 1950s. It’s worth seeing, just to get an idea what a 1890s washing machine looked like.
We leave Sobon Estate and keep moving North towards the El Dorado County. The landscape around us is typical of a busy wine growing area. Here and there we see barns, water tanks, fermentation tanks and other tools of the trade. The views and the vegetation vary from season to season.
Once in El Dorado County we head to the Fair Oaks area, which is home to dozens of vineyards and wineries.
We now head to Fitzpatrick Winery and Lodge, one of the pretties places in Fair Play. Located on a hilltop, their tasting room offers views of surrounding vineyards, valleys and Sierra Nevada foothills.
They have a small lodge next to the tasting room, and an outdoor wood-burning oven where they bake their own pizza served with live music on most Friday nights (call ahead for the actual dates and to reserve a seat).
Gold Rush Towns
Winery touring and wine tasting can take the whole day, or even a whole weekend, but there is more to see in this area. Remember, this is not just a wine country, but also the historic California Gold Country with many towns and sites dating back to the Gold Rush Era.
Heading back South from the Shenandoah Valley we stop by the town of Plymouth on Highway 49. It’s a neat small town with a few good restaurants and shops, and some interesting old buildings.
Our next stop is another small town, Amador City, with its mail landmark, the Imperial Hotel:
Next stop: Sutter Creek. (John Sutter was the first one to discover the gold in California in 1849). It has a long vibrant main street with lots of restaurants, boutiques, wine tasting rooms and a few hotels.
You may also want to see Fiddletown, a true ghost town of the Gold Rush Era.
If you happen to be in this area on a weekend in mid or late March, you can visit the Daffodil Hill estate that has a few acres covered with daffodils. During the few weeks when they are in bloom the estate is open for the visitors.
Our final destination is the town of Volcano. It it also one of the Gold Rush ghost towns, about two street blocks total. However, it has 2 hotels, 2 restaurants, several shops, a theater with an indoor stage and an outdoor stage, a masonic lodge, and several other items of interest.
Dining and Lodging
We had a full day, driving around the wine country and the gold country, and now it is time for dinner. As usual, I conclude my post with a dining recommendation. It is not by chance that we ended up in Volcano, because the winner is Volcano Union Inn and Pub, located… well, the town is so small that you won’t be able to miss it. The Union has great pub style food, a selection of local wines (try Andis Barbera), and super nice friendly staff. If you’re need to stay overnight there are four rooms upstairs (the place is popular, so book a room in advance).
This area is about 2 hours drive from San Francisco or Silicon Valley. Take I-580 East, then I-5 North, then CA-4 East, then CA-99 North, then CA-88 East and follow it all the way to Jackson. All towns mentioned in this post can be navigated to using a phone or car based navigation system. The only caveat is that as you get past Highway 49 the cellular coverage becomes sporadic, so you might be better of with offline maps that don’t require mobile connection.