It has been 160 years since the discovery of gold in the Sierra foothills brought fortune seekers from around the world. Many were Europeans who recognized that the golden hillsides resembled their homelands in southern France and Italy.
They planted vineyards, and winemaking was established in Amador County by 1860. Some of those original vineyards still are producing highly desirable fruit. This is zinfandel country and old-vine zinfandel vineyards are scattered around Shenandoah Valley, Amador County's most heralded grape-growing appellation.
It is home to Grand Pere vineyard, thought to be the oldest continually producing vineyard in the state. These gnarly, head pruned, low-yield vines produce intense reds with an extra depth of flavor. Nearby Fiddletown, one of California's smallest grape appellations, has several of the oldest vineyards in the region.
This is a great time to visit Amador, a pleasant drive up Highway 49. The harvest is in full swing, and with more than 30 small wineries, it is a great opportunity to taste wines without the madness of Napa or Sonoma. Many are small enough that you may even meet the winemaker or get to watch the crush. Try to visit during the week when all the activity is in full swing.
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Sobon Fiddletown Zinfandel
This old-vine zin has been a benchmark for the Sobon family, and the 2006 vintage displays classic foothill dusty aromas, along with brambly berry and spice fruit. The vintage is a blend of 91 percent zinfandel from the 98-year-old Lubenko vineyard and 9 percent Fiddletown petite sirah. A black cherry component adds complexity. At over 15 percent alcohol, it is a full-throttled zin. Sobon Winery also has a winemaking museum. About $18.
Cooper Vineyards 2005 Barbera
Considered one of the best growers of barbera in the foothills, Cooper makes a limited amount under its label. Very drinkable, with a nice dose of acidity commonly found in barbera from both Italy and California. Plum and dried fruit flavors are enhanced by a touch of oak. About $22.
Vino Noceto 2005 Zinfandel
From the oldest zinfandel vineyard in the foothills, the spicy red displays a touch of the foothill dust and lush berry fruit. This winery also specializes in sangioveses and pours several different vineyard selections. Try the Grand Pere zin with grilled foods, including a dry rubbed pork roast. About $25.
Wine picks are from Tom Bender, wine instructor at Columbia College and wine steward for O'Brien's Market, 4120 Dale Road, Modesto, 545-8100. E-mail him at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.