Bear Not: Amador County, California’s Other Wine Country


The Holdout

We visited Amador County, California wine country few outside of the state know about.

There is a little cluster of teddy bears trembling in a corner at the Hanford House in Sutter Creek, California. “What shall be our fate?” they cry through their little button mouths. “A few years ago bed and breakfasts were safe-houses for us. We swung naked from the rafters, we sat on window sills in our frilly little outfits, we heard laughter as guests made up `unbearable` puns about us.”

Cutesy is out in Sutter Creek, the gateway to California’s “other” wine country. Oriental antiques and designer olive oil are in. Amador County, in the heart of Gold Country, has a winemaking tradition that dates back to Gold Rush days. It is, refreshingly, what the Napa Valley was thirty years ago…at least for now.

My first trip to the Napa Valley was in the 70s, when U.S. President Richard Nixon went to China. As a cub TV reporter, I interviewed Jack Davies, the founder of Schramsburg, who supplied the bubbly for Nixon’s toasts in the Great Hall of the People. Davies gave me a bottle from the ceremonial fizz which I saved for my own ceremonial occasion…the day I got out of the Army. I was a bit disappointed. It was extremely dry, like a gin Martini. (Nixon, can’t get rid of him, I thought. He and his pal Bebe Rebozo were said to have spent afternoons getting blasted on pitchers of dry Martinis aboard the Presidential yacht).

Davies was charming, as were many of the winemakers who plied their trade in those days before the wine country became a theme park. I toasted with Carl Heitz, Hans Kornell, schmoozed with the Italians, like Louis Foppiano, along the Hwy 101 corridor.

I still enjoy the Napa Valley. It still has pockets of tradition and some supurb restaurants and spas (if you have deep   pockets). Driving the Silvarado Trail in March, when all is clean and green and the wild mustard blooms, rates as one of earth’s subtle pleasures.

But much of the Napa Valley has become cloyingly corporate. At two wineries I visited recently, I was badgered to join a wine club before I had tasted their vintages. I felt like I was buying a VCR and some greasy salesman was trying to sell me on an extended warranty. One “associate”, who said he was from LA, allowed me to taste a better vintage and became angry and intimidating when I didn’t volunteer to buy a case for about $400. I didn’t like the wine. In fact most of the vintages I tasted on two recent visits, with prices in the $20 to $40 range, were no better than the $6 Chilean and Spanish plonk I copiously consume at home.

California’s Other Wine Country
To get a glimpse of what the Napa Valley was like 20 years ago, pay a visit to Amador County, in California’s Mother Lode.

The wine industry began in Amador County 150 years ago to lubricate the lifestyles of the gold rushers. Within twenty years of the discovery of the first nugget in nearby Marshall, more wineries existed here than in the rest of California. The gold supplies dried up and so did the country, during Prohibition, and the  industry lay in limbo until the late 1960s. There are now 18 wineries near Hwy 49, between Placerville and Jackson. None of them is very large and tastings are often presided over by the winemaker and his family.

Just like the good old days in the Napa Valley.

Zinfandel is king here, from some very old vines, along with some Italian varietals such as Sangiovese and Barbera.  The best I tasted was a bottle of Young’s Vineyard Zinfandel I sampled with an excellent dinner at Zinfandel’s restaurant in Sutter Creek. The next day my wife to be and I went to the winery in the Shenandoah Valley. “Closed”, read the sign on the gate. “Out of Wine.” Charming, we though, and raided the local wine shop for all we stuff in our shopping bags.We thought so much of this tasty vintage that we served it at our wedding. We called Sharon Young who supplied a few cases from the winery’s private stock. She, by the way, designed the label.

At the end of the valley, Sobon Estates has a museum with wonderful antiques and good printed explanations of the winemaking process.

One of he beauties of this region is that  wine isn’t its only attraction,  it harbors the history and lore of the Gold Rush. Columbia State Park is a living museum that re-creates a Gold Rush town of the 1860s.

Sutter Creek is a duded up version of an Old West town with splendid restorations. The teddy bear “shoppes” are giving way to the high fashion and oriental antiques, however. One hopes that it doesn’t become as toney as the Napa valley, but at least some schlock of the past is gone. Both the Sutter Creek Inn, which calls itself the oldest B&B west of the Mississippi,  and the Hanford House (teddies removed) are quite good.

Hanford House
Sutter Creek Inn
Sutter Creek



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