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

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