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Wines Leaving A Mark

By on September 5, 2016

Where You Live

By Nick Dedier

Amador Wine Country, CaliforniaThe areas just east of Sacramento are special. While they are special for a lot of reasons, one of the most notable is the wine they produce. The Sierra Foothill AVA’s are a lesser known, less grandiose, and less pretentious up and coming region.

Often times our little hills take a back seat to the Napa, Sonoma, and Central Coast regions that dominate our state. While playing second fiddle to these more attention getting regions may or may not be justified based on the juice that is produced, it does allow for one truly beautiful thing for those of us that live here: accessibility.
If you asked anyone in the United States what city has the best restaurants, I would bet dollars to donuts that you would be answered by New York or San Francisco 10 times out of 10. And while that may be the case for the brick and mortar restaurants, I’d bet you would get a different answer if you asked which places in the United States had the most exciting food culture.

As a food-nerd myself, I would have to answer Portland, Charleston, Austin, Memphis etc. These are places where local chefs, great ingredients, and communities thrive while flying under the radar of the PR machines and fancy pants white tablecloths and white linen of the big cities.

In that same vein I would venture that “the Sierra Foothills” would not be on anyone’s lists of the “best wine regions to visit in California.” Yet if you turned the question around and asked “what the most down to earth, yet-to-be discovered place to find great wine in our state,” was, I would offer up the Sierra Foothills and our AVA’s up first with Napa and Sonoma bringing up the rear.

One of the principal, yet truly indefinable qualities of wine growing, production, sales, and tasting, is the feeling of discovery. Growing in a new microclimate, blending a new blend, marketing it to a small group of people, and then tasting something that you’ve never experienced before, is discovery.

Sobon Cabernet SauvignonDiscovering the yet to be discovered is what makes the art, production, and practice of wine so enticing, and we get to live on the frontier of that discovery every day. Napa was “found” almost 5 decades ago. The valley and coastal regions have erected castles and monuments to themselves as they bask in their (well earned) glory of being “established.” However, in our own back yard, is the juxtaposition to the castles, monuments, and fountains of the big wine growing regions of our state.
We have a piedmont like landscape brimming with wineries, new and old alike, that have the ability to take us back to what the trade and vocation of winemaking is all about.

In the foothills, you are just as likely to find yourself tasting and chatting around someone’s sorting table, or in their living room, as you are to be sipping in an overly primped and decorated tasting hall straight out of Napa.

This rustic blue-collar approach only adds the feeling of discovery when you are able to put yourself close to the tools and masters of the trade.This area has been around as long as, if not longer, than Napa as a place to grow grapes. While we have not enjoyed the celebrity of the cousin AVA’s to the west, I am happy we are flying under the radar.

However, in our own backyard, we find the Sierra Foothills AVA that is populated by smaller wine growing regions that are each filled with very special places, wines, and people that should be visited and enjoyed.While Amador, Fairplay, El Dorado, Fiddletown, Shenandoah, North Yuba all sound like dwarf names from Snow White, they produce some of the best mountain and hill fruits and wines that you can find in California.

In Napa, some of the best wines come from the lower hill and mountain regions of the valley. They are sought out and purchased at premium prices.
Yet here in the Foothills we are lucky to have nearly all of our vines enjoy these altitude loving, steep-slope having, naturally occurring microclimates.
However, (a word caution to those who can instantly become drunk on the idea of finding new things in new places), not all of the foothill wines, like any region in the world, are all they are cracked up to be. Wine is a vocation, an art, and a business. Sometimes when the three cross, the results can be messy.

Not every region in the world produces good Sauvignon Blanc or great Pinot (two varietals that are not in the foothill’s wheelhouse). Yet they will still grow, produce, and sell it to meet an ever-growing demand. So when you’re planning your next wine tasting trip, make sure you are going out to find the areas greatest hits.

spring_bannerWhen in the hills, stick to the robust varietals like Zinfandel, Barbera, Cabernet Sauvignon, Viognier, Syrah and Sangiovese. These grapes thrive up here and they define our wine producing region. If you like, feel free to indulge in a Chardonnay or a Pinot. Just ensure that those grapes were grown outside of and purchased into the winery to give the winemaker a few more toys to play with.

Additionally, do yourself a favor and ask about rose. Nearly all roses are pet projects of the winemaker or winery owner, and they quite literally make the wine that they want to drink. It is usually made in small quantities, and it changes from year to year. These wines can be a magical, singular expression of the winery and its staff year-after-year. Keep in mind, also, to drink what you like. Every wine boasts medals and double medals and points that have been bestowed upon them by various tasting panels, fairs, newspapers, and competitions. While these accolades validate a lot of work for the producers, they tend to mean very little to the consumer.

In a tasting room, have them open everything they have. Pick what you like, buy what you like, and enjoy it. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a few wineries that have been standouts here in the foothills. These wineries offer an exceptional product, exceptional people, outstanding value, and an experience that will satisfy even the most seasoned wine tasting veteran.

Renwood: While they play strongly in the field of blends, roses and some whites, they truly own Zinfandel. This winery may not be a “new discovery”, or a dirt and gravel kind of experience, but they have shown what our region is made of and what is possible to offer.

D’artagnan: Hits two of my favorite varietals right on the head. Tempranillo and Malbec are two varietals that can be difficult for any winemaker to show restraint with. They tease out and highlight all of the muscle here, while also showcasing the subtleties that really make big boy grapes like these some of my favorites. Additionally, they make a Riesling that is not to be missed.

Sobon Estate: They get their hands into a little bit of everything. However, for my money they do something that nobody else holds a candle to. They produce a top notch Carignane and Cabernet Franc. These are two varietals that I will drink over Cabernet Sauvignon any day of the week and twice on Sunday. If you’re out and about, skip the big varietals here and focus on the gold. These two are amazing wines.

C.G. DiArie: Chaim makes an incredible lineup of wines, but I always seem to gravitate to their blends. The owner-proprietor-winemaker is an absolute master at blending with a flair that gets the most out of each varietal while creating a smooth balanced wine that is good with or without food. These are some of my favorite everyday drinking wines.

Feist: Owned, operated, created and staffed by the two owner operators, Feist is a small, up-and-comer. Their tasting room is in Sutter Creek, and while they feature a small lineup of wines, there is nothing like being in a small owner-operated facility that is proud of what they do and the juice that they serve. Standouts are Primitivo and Viognier.

The point of all of this is that we have some serious gold in these hills. The trick, and the fun, is discovering it. In Napa, you can’t drive ten feet without hitting a tasting room or winery, one that has most likely already been gobbled up by one of the big conglomerate wine companies. However up here, in the hills after all these years, there is still an incredible sense of discovery, a feeling of history, and a love of the art that is wine-making. It is in our backyard. The grapes are here. The workers are here. The artists are here. Take time to go out and enjoy the beautiful wine project we are lucky enough to live in.

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