My friend Lola and I went on weekend trip to the Gold Country last weekend, and spent Sunday morning wine tasting in the Shenondoah Valley. We hit 6 wineries, had a wonderful time and discovered a new and fantastic wine growing and wine making region. Pretty much every wine I tasted was good to very good, at one of the wineries I found some of my favorite wines ever. I was astounded, because I thought that that little known region would produce sub-par wines, I was definitely wrong.
Another great thing about tasting in Shenondoah is that none of the wineries had tasting fees and most of them offered a lot of wines for tasting. Indeed, after the first winery I limited myself to tasting four wines per winery, as I wanted to be able to hit as many as possible without getting tipsy.
Amador County specializes on Zinfandels, though Sangioveses and Barberas are also quite popular. Most of the Zinfs I tasted were very good, hearty yet balanced, and in the future I’ll look for Amador County when I go Zinf-buying.
We started our visit at Young’s Vineyard, one of the loveliest wineries I’ve seen. It has fragrant flower gardens outside, a beautiful view of the vineyards, an artificial lake and a little shack amidst flowers playing music. There are plenty of tables for a pic-nic, and I’d recommend that you bring a picnic with you as there is nowhere to eat in the Shenondoah winery region – you’d have to go back to Plymouth.
The tasting room is also very nice, with marble columns, polished wood and posters of their labels – beautiful pictures of Italian-comedy-like figures.
But what I most liked about Young’s were the wines. In general, they were hearty, full of flavor and somewhat unusual. It was hard selecting a favorite, though I finally bought a bottle of the Sangiovese ($26), as it was the oakiest of them all (and I love oak in my wine).
The first wine I tasted, though, was the 2007 Roussanne ($18), a very sharp and challenging white wine. It was pretty dry but I really liked it, if Mike and I were more white wine drinkers, I’d have bought it.
Young’s 2006 Zinfandel ($28) was very good. It was dark, full-flavored, with hints of dark cherry, yet smooth. Their 2006 Barbera ($28) had a great start and I just found it “yummy”. Finally their 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon ($32) burst with flavor. It had strong tanins, and a sharp, fast finish.
It’s no wonder that Young’s sells out its production every year – though they only sell in their winery and a few local places (though, according to their website, they have a distributor in Arizona). They use only local grapes, though they mix their grapes with those of other producers.
Our second stop was Cooper Vineyards, which had been recommended by at Young’s and which seems to be a favorite of many people. The winery is not as pretty, though it does have a small artificial waterfall and a few picnic tables, there is also a deck with tables and umbrellas.
The tasting room inside is nice and open, with a counter for white wines and another one for reds. The guy manning the reds counter was very knowledgeable and he gave us a full explanation of the differences between Primitivos and Zinfandels (the twin grapes originated in Croatia, one went to the Americas while the other one to Italy. Differences in climate and growing conditions led to the development of wines with different characteristics. Primitivos are lighter).
Cooper produces only 16,000 cases a year, but they distribute their wines in 27 states. You may want to look for them.
I tasted their 2005 Sauvignon Blanc ($18) which was light, slightly sweet and very refreshing. Their Rose was very light, peachy and crisp. The 2005 Zinfandel ($35) comes from their Grandpere Vinyard, which is well over a hundred years old. It was full bodied, yet refreshing and I liked it a lot. I wasn’t as crazy for the 2006 Primitivo, which was considerably lighter, too light for my taste.
C G Diarie Vineyards had also been recommended by the people at Young’s. It wasn’t the loveliest winery on the outside, but the tasting room is pretty nice, it’s full of barrels and has a marble counter. They have Hershey kisses, cheese and crackers for those in need of a bite. The tasting room staff is very knowledgeable . C G Diarie is a very small winery, it only produces 3500 cases a year. They make 9 wines and all, except for the merlot, are from grapes grown in the property.
Their 2006 Roussane ($20) was fruity, yet full bodied. A nice wine. The 2006 Mourverde, which I think was a new wine for me, had a medium body, was easy to drink but not a favorite. Their Alicante Bouschet ($25) also had a medium body, but showed some tanins. Finally, I tried the Orange Muscat ($14), which is not as sweet as wines as other Muscats.
We hadn’t really meant to go to Sobon Winery, but we found ourselves on Shenondoah road heading east, and Sobon is one of the last wineries in that direction. We’d driven that far, we might as well try it. It’s not the most attractive winery from the outside, but it does feature a museum of 19th century farm and home equipment. It was really interesting to see all the different implements people used back then. The tasting room itself is quite large, and feature books about the region for sale. Here you can also get some cold drinks if you are in need of some non-alcoholic refreshments.
Sobon features both regular and estate wines. I did not get to taste the estate ones, as I was limiting myself to four wines per winery and they served the common wines first. For all I know, their more expensive estate wines are significantly better than the ones I tasted. The latter were generally good, cheaper than those at other wineries, but not among my favorites. Together with their sister winery Shenandoah Vineyards, they produce 40,000 cases a year. Sobon itself (under different ownership and name) is the oldest continuously operating winery in California – or so I was told. They specialize in Zinfandels.
I made no notes about their 2006 Viognier ($15.50) so it must not have impressed me too much. I did like their 2006 Old Vines Zinfandel, made from vines 30 to 80 years old. It was tanic and spicy. Their 2006 Cougar Hill Zinfandel ($18),meanwhile, was very nice, less tanic, smooth and buttery. It grows on soil formed by decomposed granite. Their 2006 Rocky Top Zinfandel, on the other hand grows on soil made of volcanic ash. It’s not as complex and less challenging than the other ones. I also tasted their 2006 Fiddletown Zinfandel ($22), made out of grapes from 100 year old vines, but I also have no notes on it.
After a snack, Lola and I headed to Steiner Road, to the north of Shenondoah Road, where we picked a winery at random: Amador Foothill. This was probably the most modest winery we hit, but it was also one of the friendliest. It’s a small operation, they don’t grow their grapes, but buy only from local farmers. Their wines were also quite good.
The 2007 Rosato de Sangiovese ($11.50) was a nice summer wine. It had a peachy, sweet aroma, but was dry with a hint of acid. Their 2004 Esola Zinfandel ($17) was tanic and full-bodied, but had a smoother finish than most Zinfs. Amador’s winemaker has set it as a goal to make a world class Sangiovese. I’m not sure if their 2005 Sangiovese ($20) is world class, I definitely didn’t like it as much as Young’s, but I thought it was nice and well-balanced. It’s the kind of wine that would go well with pretty much anything you’d like to cook. You can’t go wrong taking it to a dinner party. Finally, the 2005 Katie’s Cote Rhone Blend ($20), named after the winemaker, was dry but still good. Still, none of the wines here blew my mind, though all of them would be pleasant enough to drink.
Finally, we headed to Jeff Runquist Winery, a “boutique” winery that produces only 4,500 cases a year. Still, they sell throughout the Bay Area. That’s a good thing because their wines are also very good.
The winery has been around for a while, but the tasting room is brand new. It had opened a merely three days before our visit. The building is nice but the grounds are bare, though the tasting room itself is quite comfortable. Most importantly, it was manned by the people behind the whole operation – the winemaker himself was there – so you can get the sort of information you can’t get anywhere else. Alas, I’m not sophisticated enough to even know what to ask.
Another “plus” at Runquist is that the pours are very generous – so much so that I had to ask them to serve me smaller ones (I really didn’t want to get drunk). It was my last winery, however, so I did try all the wines they had to pour.
Runquist produces only red wines (which is a good thing, many wineries seem to produce white wines just to have them in their portfolio) from grapes brought throughout California. Their 2006 “Z” Zinfandel ($24), however, was grown 5 miles away from vines almost 100 years old. It had a full body and a pleasant oaky taste. If I actually drank the expensive wines I buy, I’d buy it. I thought that the 2006 Primitivo ($26) had a fuller body that the one we had tasted at Cooper. It was slightly sweet, with caramel undertones and generally very good. The 2006 Cooper Vineyard Barbera, was also very nice though perhaps not as complex as the other ones. The guy behind the counter recommended the 2006 Carignane ($30) as his favorite, but I didn’t really like it. It was different, though I don’t know how to describe it. It had a full beginning and a light finish. I ended with the 2004 Reserve Syrah ($40), a nice way to end. The wine was extremely smooth, somewhat smoky and well balanced. A full fledged wine.
In all, it was a great tasting experience, and I’d love to go back to the Gold Country and taste the wines of its other regions. Few of them, unfortunately, seem to be available in the Bay Area – but they seem to really suit my taste.