The vein of Gold Rush history that runs deep and wide through the Sierra foothills may give visitors the impression that the Mother Lode is locked perpetually in its past.
Beyond all those weathered brass plaques, ancient stone buildings and rusty mining relics, however, beats the pulse of change, however slow and faint.
To take its measure, we recently drove to Sutter Creek, the old Amador County gold camp whose mood and tempo long has been set by its visitor-friendly and photogenic bed-and-breakfast inns, antiques shops, art galleries and boutiques. It’s a village inviting to stroll and to shop, to amble down a sleepy side street, to circle back for a cup of coffee.
But on this visit we had wine more than coffee in mind. By our experience, fall is the best time of year to visit the Sierra foothills. The battering heat of summer has been succeeded by balmy days. A golden haze that begs for a clutch of plein-air artists settles among the oaks. Nights are invigorating in their clarity and snap.
The annual harvest of wine grapes is virtually over, but the energy and the aroma it generates lingers. Vintners, taking a breather before tackling the winter pruning of their vines, often linger in their cellars, ready to welcome visitors without the distraction of incoming bins of grapes.
You won’t find any wineries in Sutter Creek, and while vineyards are nearby they aren’t a significant part of the local tapestry. Exploitation of the surrounding hills has run to cattle, timber and gold more than vines.
Nevertheless, to walk along Sutter Creek’s Main Street nowadays is to discover a new and growing complement of shops – winery tasting rooms, nine of them and counting.
What’s more, Sutter Creek is perfectly poised to develop into the epicenter of wine tourism in the Gold Country. The Mother Lode’s most prominent and vigorous wine appellation, Shenandoah Valley, is just to the north. And a short drive beyond Shenandoah Valley are the bucolic wine enclaves of Fair Play, Pleasant Valley and Apple Hill. To the south is the Calaveras County hamlet of Murphys, which early on took industriously to the surge of consumer interest in wine. Today, some 20 winery tasting rooms are along and about the town’s short Main Street.
Murphys provides the model that Sutter Creek’s wine entrepreneurs are emulating. For wineries small and scattered, the creation of satellite tasting rooms in nearby hamlets is almost essential to remain viable, given the challenges of getting their wines distributed through traditional channels. Often, sales direct to consumers through tasting rooms, wine clubs and the Internet account for 75 percent or more of the volume for small producers.
But while tasting rooms inMurphys and Sutter Creek have helped bolster local economies, fill vacant buildings and restore historic structures, the change hasn’t been without controversy and challenge.
Some Sutter Creek businesspeople and residents fret that the rise in tasting rooms will squeeze out other tourist amenities and result in a monoculture that caters to just one kind of clientele: the pilgrim in search of wine rather than antiques, attire or art. What’s more, wine enthusiasts show up only from Thursday through Sunday, the days when most of the tasting rooms are open.
Others, however, appreciate the restoration sparked by tasting rooms, and hope that wine tourists, recognized for their taste in food as well as wine, will encourage a surge in quality restaurants. Fine dining isn’t an element for which Sutter Creek is celebrated, though several cafes are available and speculation abounds about new chefs settling in the area or scouting for sites, a couple of them with links to the mecca of California wine tourism: Napa Valley.
For now, tasting rooms for such wineries as Miller Wine Works, Scott Harvey, Bella Grace, Baiocchi, Andis and Yorba look to be bringing new diversity to a business core long vibrant and colorful with fashion boutiques, antiques shops, galleries and inns.
What’s more, Sutter Creek is an ideally situated launch pad for wine tourists who not only want to discover new producers and styles but also are open to compatible amenities away from the tasting room. Spas are in short supply, but the town isflanked by a network of narrow though lightly traveled country roads splendid for cycling and walking. Chaw’Se Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park, a bowling alley and a casino are nearby. The Sutter Creek Theatre frequently plays host to intimate concerts.
And jaunts north or south from Sutter Creek on rhythmic Highway 49 open wine adventurers to dramatic changes under way in foothill vineyards and wineries. Given the region’s viticultural history and standing, visitors are apt to be lulled into thinking that all those vineyards they see are planted solely to the black-skinned grape zinfandel.
Granted, zinfandel remains the Mother Lode’s dominant wine grape, accounting for 2,588 of the total 5,826 acres of red-wine varieties being cultivated in the stretch of the foothills between Nevada and Mariposa counties. Over the past four decades zinfandel has been squeezed into all sorts of permutations, from sweet and spritzy blush wines to dense, weighty and complex blockbusters, the style most closely identified with the foothills. Zinfandel is what initially drew wine enthusiasts to the region and it’s what keeps them coming back, and no one in the trade sees its dominance being challenged by any other variety soon.
Nonetheless, more viticultural variety is taking root on the ridges and in the hollows of the sunset slope of the Sierra. Growers and vintners have come to recognize that while zinfandel adapts well to a wide range of growing conditions all the elevations, exposures and soil types into which the foothills are crumpled lend themselves to experimentation with other varieties, several of which are seeing startling and consistent success critically and commercially.
“Individual vineyards have multiple micro-climates, and no broad characteristic can be given to the region in general,” says Greg Boeger, who has been growing grapes and making wine at his Boeger Winery on Apple Hill in El Dorado County since 1972. “It is a region of potential diversity, unlike coastal counties that are dominated by marine air and a more uniform valley geography suitable to a limited range of varieties.”
Thus, numerous other grape varieties are intruding on zinfandel’s turf. Just 300 acres of barbera are planted in the foothills, but several interpretations have done sowell on the competition circuit over the past decade that many growers and vintners see it as the heir-apparent to zinfandel to set apart the area from other appellations in the state.
“Growers up here have been playing with barbera for a long time, and all those years of farming are paying off,” says Mark McKenna, winemaker for Andis Wines in Shenandoah Valley.
No vintner has had more experience and success with barbera than Greg Boeger, for whom it is his best-selling wine. “Barbera is an up-and-coming variety. While it may not eclipse zinfandel, it is certainly a challenger to the hegemony of zinfandel. It seems to pique tasters’ curiosity, besides being an all-around wine for everyday use, as well as being suitable for all types of foods. It’s a more versatile wine, so to speak,” Boeger says.
Other growers and vintners see the region becoming as respected for syrah as it is for zinfandel, none more so than Bill Easton of the brands Domaine de la Terre Rouge and Easton Wines in Shenandoah Valley. He typically makes seven syrahs each vintage, in large part because he feels syrah expresses specific terroir to a degree unmatched by most other varieties.
“Syrah works in the Sierra foothills in a variety of volcanic and granitic terroirs. It is a variety that is more ageable than zinfandel, still showing its youthfulness at 15 years of age if made properly,” Easton says.
While syrah has yet to generate the kind of buzz that barbera is getting, it looks to be gaining traction in critical circles. During this summer’s California State Fair commercial wine competition, three of the four syrahs to win double-gold medals were from the Sierra foothills. Two years earlier, the best syrah in the judging came from the tiny winery Solune Winegrowers in Grass Valley. (A double-gold medal is awarded when all four judges of a panel concur that a wine merits gold.)
Several other varieties have their proponents: Cabernet franc, tempranillo, sangiovese, primitivo, mourvedre, grenache and malbec often are mentioned by growers and vintners as strong candidates to develop solid followings, and examples easily can be found in tasting rooms through the foothills. Touriga nacional, nebbiolo and aglianico also have their partisans. And don’t rule out schioppettino, an obscure black grape from northern Italy, says McKenna.
Note that all these varieties traditionally yield red wines, but that none is cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir or merlot, the most popular black-skinned grapes in higher-profile regions of California. Growers and vintners have learned that the Big Three only rarely produce notable wines in the foothills. What’s more, the numerous alternative grape varieties in the foothills acknowledges three characteristics of the region – its sharply variable terrain, its growing viticultural knowledge and sophistication, and its long-standing appeal to farmers and winemakers willing to gamble on remoteness and obscurity.
Paul Bush, the winemaker at his family’s Madrona Vineyards in El Dorado County, also attributes the growing diversity of wine styles in the foothills to the shift in marketing from distributors to direct sales to consumers.
“In effect, this has given rise to more interesting wines coming out of the Sierra foothills as the passion of the winemaker and the terroir of the region come through,” Bush said. “Basically, we need not worry so much about making a style that fits all palates in Nebraska and Maine, for example, and can make styles that express our unique aspects. Consumers in the tasting room can sample what excites them about our wines rather than compete in the grand market of styles on the store shelf.”
While the foothills is red-wine country, some growers and vintners see a future in such green-skinned varieties as grenache blanc, chenin blanc, viognier, semillon, riesling and arinto. Ann Kraemer, a longtime highly regarded Napa Valley vineyardist who over the past decade has developed a 46-acre vineyard just east of Sutter Creek, is keen on her plot of greco di tufo, a green grape that yields an aromatic and tangy dry white wine in southern Italy.
Kraemer hasn’t yet released any greco di tufo, but visitors to Mother Lode tasting rooms generally and to her Sutter Creek tasting room specifically, where releases under her label Yorba Wines are poured, willfind plenty of other new varietals to explore.
Not all will be the modern Mother Lode equivalent of pay dirt, given the unpredictability of individual taste, but collectively they will show in their diversity that the region’s viticultural wealth no longer runs to zinfandel alone.