California’s Shenandoah Valley: Here Lies a Burgeoning Wine Scene

Posted on October 25, 2018 by Mark Stevens

A hundred miles east of both San Francisco and Napa Valley and 40 miles east of Sacramento grow some of the country’s oldest grape vines—one dating to 1869. Welcome to Amador County, home of California’s Shenandoah Valley AVA, famous for its “old growth” zinfandel vines. Its Barbera and Rhone varietals are renowned as well. Here, vineyards stretch from 1,200 to 2,400 feet above sea level. The rolling hills feature sandy clay-loam soils derived from decomposed granite (volcanic Sierra Series soils). These soils retain Amador’s 36-38 inches of annual rainfall, enabling most growers to dry-farm the vineyards. The soil composition is also low nitrogen and phosphorous and results in sparse vine canopies which allow high sunlight exposure. All of this combined creates vineyards that are naturally resistant to pxlloxera and ideal candidates for organic farming practices. (Amador boasts one of the highest percentages of organically farmed vineyards of any wine region in California.)

The majority of Amador’s vines are head-trained, spur-pruned and on low vigor rootstocks (like St. George) which produce intensely flavored red wines and the heady zinfandels for which Amador is renowned. Here lies a burgeoning wine scene.

The region was first settled during the California Gold Rush in the nineteenth century, and settlers in the region began planting the first grapevines and producing the first wine soon thereafter. In 1983 the region became a designated American Viticulture Area and was the launching ground for the Sutter Home brand and it’s popular zinfandel iterations.

As the least elevated and warmest region within the Sierra Foothills, Shenandoah Valley in known for high temperatures (what the French call “luminosity”) and low humidity resulting in very ripe fruit and full-bodied, high alcohol wines. While Amador heats up earlier in the day than appellations in Napa, it rarely exceeds 100 degrees during the growing season. Equally significant, temperatures typically drop 30-35 degrees in the evening as breezes cascade down the Sierras. This rapid cooling helps the grapes retain the acidity essential to balanced wines.

On paper in Amador, Zinfandel is king, with 60 percent of the county’s plantings dedicated to the grape and wineries vying for the recognition of whose Old Vine Zin is truly the “Esteemed Elder.” But under the layer of Zin’s dominance, it’s clear Amador’s niche is a land of seemingly infinite varietals, most considered “old world.”  The county’s climate and terroir most resemble that found in southern Europe — think Italy, Spain, Portugal and southern France’s Rhone Valley. So what you’ll find is a huge selection of bold-flavored, food-friendly wines associated with those cultures: Barbera, Sangiovese, Roussanne, Marsanne, Grenache, Mourvedre, Tempranillo — and those are just some of the more common names.

In addition to a trending wine scene, Amador County is a pretty place to be–a patchwork of the rugged and serene. During the rainy months, the verdant rolling hills are pocked with vernal pools, mountain streams and more than a few herds of cattle. In the dry heat of summer, the grass is a long blonde shag scarred with rocky crags and dry culverts braced by live oaks. In most places, you can hear little but the rustling of the wind. Dilapidated stacked-stone fences and foundations of old adobe houses built by the placer miners line the winding roads. In wetter years, you can ski in the morning and make it back for lunch until June.

These days there’s a new surge of interest in the area. The overcrowding of Napa has tasting groups in Plymouth — spread languidly across the bar at the Plymouth Hotel, which serves Vino Noceto on tap  — lamenting. “You can’t even get in on a Monday in winter,” says one patron. There is a flurry of new wineries with different attitudes (and altitudes) focusing on different wines — from California heritage zinfandels to Iberian, Rhone and Italian varietals — being championed by roguish and talented winemakers and growers teeming with personality and expertise. The small town of Plymouth calls itself the Gateway to the Shenandoah Valley, fitting given its position at the fork in the road between the valley to the north and the idyllic Highway 49 towns of Amador City and Sutter Creek to the south. There are now 47 wineries in the surrounding hills, the number growing every year.

Sangioveses and barbera are among the most drinkable reds and few wineries sell anything above $30. The surprising Iberian newcomer, tempranillo, flows like water in the Spanish Rioja region of its origin. In Amador it’s bottled by at least seven wineries. As a region, this is a place that values its diverse microclimates as much as its diverse winemaking philosophies. With its very accessible wineries for the Sacramento-Metropolitan area and the discovery of Shenandoah (lately)by Reno-Tahoe folks, this is a place that promises more to come…..much, much more.

Take a look at our latest offering in Shenandoah AVA: Two State-of-the-Art Shenandoah Wineries

Sources for this article include: San Francisco Chronicle, SF Gate, Wikipedia

Wildlife Wineries of Sonoma and Mendocino Counties

Posted on October 24, 2018 by Mark Stevens

You may already be aware of the importance of sustainable agricultural practices for the longevity of our land, wildlife & communities. These practices minimize the use of pesticide and chemical fertilizers, protecting our waterways and topsoil; maintain wildlife habitat by setting aside acreage for wild plants and animals; and include efforts to reduce water, energy use and recycle material goods in all aspects of the business (aka vineyard & wineries).

Discover our favorite local wineries and vineyards that are making sustainable wines, and focusing on wildlife habitat conservation at the core of their land management plans.

Frey Vineyards

Frey Vineyards manages just 10% of their land as vineyards with the remaining acreage kept as wild forestland. They have placed bird boxes throughout their property, and have eight hives of honey bees.

Preston Winery

Preston produces more than just wine… they also grow olives, heirloom grains, apples, peaches, figs, walnuts, vegetables, sheep, chicken, and pigs. Beyond this agricultural diversity that supports insects and bird life, Preston Winery leaves some of their property wild. They have hedgerows that attract beneficial insects, and use annual cover crops—a method central to organic farming—to build healthy soil.


The Parducci Winery Estate is a Certified Wildlife Habitat, allowing and even encouraging wildlife to life among the vines. To facilitate this partnership between wildlife and their land, they provide nesting boxes for owls and songbirds to help manage pests, and plant cover crops to attract beneficial insects.


Quivira has been a leading voice in preserving and restoring the riparian corridor of Wine Creek, a Dry Creek tributary that has a native Steelhead trout and Coho salmon population. Beyond these restoration efforts, they are committed to composting. In fact, they maintain a 500 cubic yard compost pile that recycles waste from their gardens, animals, and vineyards.


If you enjoy this topic and want to do more for the wildlife in your neighborhood, check out my article from last week about simple steps to increase wildlife habitat in your own backyard: CLICK HERE


My Simple Guide to Creating Backyard Wildlife Habitat

Posted on October 17, 2018 by Mark Stevens

This past weekend I made a nesting box for the Western Bluebird. This species is a one of my favorites—their color is stunning and they are a pleasure to watch as they swoop and dive to catch insects. Over time, I have found that creating and/or preserving space for wildlife in my own backyard isn’t as difficult as it may seem. Putting out bird feeders and making nesting boxes are just the tip of the iceberg. Here are some simple steps that my family and I have taken to make sure that the birds, bees, and all the other critters that live alongside us have safe, welcoming homes of their own.

My Western Bluebird nesting box.
Create Shelter

Most birds want a nest that feels just right. For those birds that are comfortable nesting in a box that someone else made, the dimensions and opening size are important. An opening that is too big may allow predators or competitors to use the box. A great resource for region specific nesting box plans and placement is NestWatch. To support the natives bees in your area you can make nest blocks or other types of tunnel nests.

Plant Natives and Provide Food

Using plants that are native to your area will provide habitat and food resources for a variety of animals. Plant a varied selection of plants, which will give birds many options to build their own nests and find food. Choosing plants that flower at different times will ensure that there is a steady supply of food for native bees. For information on California’s native plants, visit the California Native Plant Society. Placing bird feeders throughout your yard will also attract and sustain wildlife. For help choosing the right bird feeders check out Wild Birds Unlimited.

Manage Wisely

One of the simplest ways to ensure that your yard is wildlife friendly is to leave some of it untouched. Whether you plant natives or have more exotic landscaping, try letting them grow wild for most of the year. It may end up looking less tidy than you are used to, but the insects and animals like it that way.

Want to go further? You can get your yard certified as a Certified Wildlife Habitat by the National Wildlife Foundation. Check out the checklist here.

*featured image courtesy of

News This Week: “Best Of” Sonoma County & Other News

Posted on October 12, 2018 by Mark Stevens


“Best Of” Sonoma County Awards
Award recipients—including Ferrari-Carano Vineyards & Winery and Cowgirl Creamery (our fav)—were honored at the Luther Burbank Center on Wednesday evening. READ MORE

Explore Marin County
Find out the best places to eat, drink, play, shop, and stay. READ MORE

Best Remodeling Projects of 2018
Remodeling Magazine just announced their awards for the best remodeling work in the past year. Discover the top 5 home remodeling projects for smart design tips and trends. READ MORE

Sustainability Award for Jackson Family Wines
Jackson Family Wines has been given a Green Power Leadership Award from the US EPA for  their continued commitment to using renewable energy; the company uses 100% certified green power, including power coming from solar installed on their 12 wineries. READ MORE


*featured image courtesy of 7×

Harvest Party at Flanagan Winery in Healdsburg

Posted on October 11, 2018 by Mark Stevens

It was a perfect day for a harvest party in Sonoma County’s signature wine town, Healdsburg. And it was my first. My lucky break came when my boss, Mark Stevens, asked if I wanted his ticket. A scheduling conflict had come up, and alas, he couldn’t attend. I had to think about it for about half a second, then told him I would take one for the team and go. (Later, Eric Flanagan said Mark should be paying me double-time for working on a Saturday….)

I made the short drive from my Windsor home to Healdsburg, parked in a gravel parking lot and was promptly bussed up to the winery on West Dry Creek Road. In exchange for my ticket I was handed a shimmering glass of the signature Viognier, which was creamy but light and the perfect introduction to a day spent drinking wine at noon. I sat on the deck in the sun and admired the view of the famed West Dry Creek Valley. From there I made my way to the tents and felt compelled to go with the Pinot Noir while I sampled the Liberty Duck with Polenta & Fig Jus (which was amazing, I had three of those!). I am a huge fan of Pinot, so that was a no-brainer, and it was deliciously paired with the duck.

Then I headed to the the Hog Island Oysters stand, manned by a biologist who was a wealth of information on oysters. I adore oysters, and I appreciate them even more after learning about all the things that make them so unique and tasty. One of the best things I learned was that oysters, like wine, have a terroir. Hog Island Oysters are grown in Tomales Bay, CA and have a distinct flavor that is unique to that particular spot in the ocean. Ever wonder what that whitish round disc is in an oyster? It’s a muscle and makes the shell open and close. Because muscles store glycogen (another name for sugar), when you eat that part of the oyster you will notice–if you pause to really taste–a distinct sweet flavor.  And I did!

And like wine, every oyster is unique. Some are skinny, some are fat, some are in between.  Which you prefer depends on your taste (like the dark meat/white mean debate). I definitely gravitated towards the fatties, which were marked by a creamy, luscious layer over the main body of the oyster. The amount of fattiness is somewhat determined by sex (oysters are gametes, so they can change sex when they feel like it, based on the environment).  Females–you guessed it–tend to be fattier and more abundant during “good” years. I ate about half a dozen oysters, which was nothing when I discovered another party goer claimed to have downed no less that three dozen! And it almost goes without saying that in order to fully appreciate the oyster, I had to pair it with the signature Flanagan Chardonnay. I am not a big chard fan, so I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed it.  Full bodied and fruit-forward with just the slightest hint of oak. Very nice.

The pizza oven was energetically worked by two pizza chefs, and though I normally don’t eat pizza, this was not your normal pizza.  It was rustic. Authentic. And had an impressive wood-fire oven to go with it and a seductive, lively fire. It was the archetype of a thin-crust pizza pie, a “pizza margherita”, adorned simply in the colors of the Italian flag: green from basil, white from mozzarella, red from tomato sauce. Oh–and a few, lightly roasted thinly sliced purple onions on top for a beautiful accent of extra flavor. This I paired with the Flanagan Cabernet Sauvignon. I found the Flanagan Cab to be respectable and well-mannered…”structured” as they say. It was not as heavy as some of the Cabs I’ve had recently, and I enjoyed its ability to be serious and casual at the same time. If that makes any sense.

Finally, the grand finale was the Syrah. The very nice woman in charge of the Cab and Syrah station would not let me try the Syrah before the Cab. She warned me: The Syrah is very large, very strong, very bossy.  I love bossy and I couldn’t wait to try it. And this I did, with three of the gorgeous little dark chocolate macaroons, each crowned with a dollop of tart cherry and cream. It was the perfect finish to a perfect afternoon of drinking amazing wine (thank you Flanagan and Cabell Coursey) paired with exquisite culinary delights. I’ll say one thing: those Flanagans really know how to throw a party! Thank you!

And thank you, Mark Stevens.

–Michelle Magnus, Mark’s assistant

Oasis Set Among Redwoods

Posted on November 01, 2017 by Mark Stevens

Tumbling McD Ranch

Wild Iris Retreat located at the historic Tumbling McD Ranch is a unique and magical oasis set among old and second growth towering redwoods.

Situated on over 300 acres with the Navarro River and Anderson Creek bordering the ranch, prepare your self for an adventure of surprises.

Multiple residences and extensive entertaining areas provide an endless amount of possibilities for this magnificent property.

 Set among botanical gardens, pond and fruit trees, be amazed as you travel over well-maintained roads to the grounds of the old “Dude Ranch”.

Explore the river, climb 600’ to great views across the valley and look down on 10 acres of ultra premium Pinot Noir vineyards. This property is a place of solitude, grandeur and unlimited possibilities for the discerning buyer.

*Please contact me for more information regarding this property |  707.322.2000