Amador City, squeezed into a fold of the Sierra foothills 40 miles southeast of Sacramento, has a new bridge over Amador Creek on an old stretch of Highway 49, a rich scattering of Gold Rush buildings, a marvelous bakery and just 185 residents.
Small as Amador City is, however, California’s wine trade is a growing presence. Hills flanking the town, long dominated by the dark skeletal remains of head frames over played-out gold mines, now spill with vineyards. A winery, Wine Tree Farm, occupies a slope on the northwest outskirts.
And smack dab in the middle of town, in a dark and narrow structure dating from the 1860s, is the tasting room of Feist Wines. Like the community itself, Feist Wines is tiny, relaxed and unassuming. Almost certainly, the people who pour tastes are the people who make the wine, Anthony and Susan Feist, who founded their brand two years ago after nearly a decade of fitful starts and stops while searching for their place in the foothills.
They expect to produce just 800 cases off this past fall’s harvest, but that’s almost double their output from the first vintage they crushed in 2011. Ultimately, they hope to turn out about 10,000 cases a year. They make their wines with grapes traditionally identified with the foothills – zinfandel, primitivo, barbera, syrah – as well as with the fruit of a couple of relative newcomers, such as viognier and mourvedre.
“Restrained alcohol, supple finish, more elegance,” says Anthony Feist in sizing up his aesthetic goal. They buy grapes from assorted growers in the area and make the wine at nearby Wine Tree Farm.
Susan Feist, who handles marketing of the brand and weighs in on the winemaking, says, “They’re definitely lower in alcohol. It’s a big thing for us that the wines go well with food.”
That said, an example of the rich and aggressive style of Amador County zinfandel occasionally creeps into their portfolio, lately in the form of the 2010 Ferrero Vineyard zinfandel, which pops with sweet, ripe, concentrated fruit and equally expressive oak ($28).
But for the most part, Anthony Feist prefers a lighter approach. “Making wine is a direct, ancient tradition. It’s a natural process, and I try to stay away from interfering with that process. Find some good fruit, pick it at the right time, and stay away from it.”
The couple’s current lineup includes a dry, smooth and varietally forthright unoaked 2012 viognier ($24), a 2011 mourvedre juicy with suggestions of Bing cherries ($22) and a 2011 zinfandel that while loaded with the marks of Amador County – dark jammy berry fruit and a spiciness suggestive of cloves – is dry, unusually lithe and decidedly low in alcohol, weighing in at just 13.9 percent ($28).
So far, the couple has gained recognition largely for its Feist Wines 2011 Reserve El Dorado County Barbera ($32), an interpretation of the varietal that offers both upfront fruit and an exceptionally long finish, yet still is distinguished by barbera’s tangy and refreshing acidity.
With the barbera, the Feists took the unusual step of blending in 10 percent syrah, a decision that paid off in June when the barbera was named “best of class” for the foothill region at the California State Fair commercial wine competition.
The Feists’ route to winemaking was slow and circuitous. They met at the University of California, Berkeley, where both were members of the crew team majoring in English, Anthony with an emphasis on Shakespeare, Susan with an emphasis on Milton.
“We spent a lot of time drinking wine and eating cheese in the Berkeley hills. It was a cheap date,” says Anthony Feist.
“We drank mostly merlot and cabernet sauvignon,” adds Susan Feist. “I didn’t ever have zinfandel. ‘What is this zinfandel stuff?’ ” she recalls asking herself when they migrated to the foothills, where zinfandel is the primary grape and wine.
That was a decade ago, when Anthony Feist took over as chef and Susan Feist oversaw the front of the house at Amador City’s Imperial Hotel, a handsome landmark inn owned by Anthony Feist’s mother.
After a while, Anthony Feist began to look for other career possibilities.
“There’s not a lot of work here. You’ve got the prison, the casino and the wine industry,” says Anthony Feist of three of Amador County’s principal employers.
Given their interest in environmentalism and agriculture – in Berkeley Susan Feist had worked at the farmers market, and the couple made organic extra-virgin olive oil – they segued into the local wine trade.
Susan Feist is the spark plug behind a steady series of special events at the tasting room, though Anthony Feist often joins in as musician, performing folk, country and blues on guitar, piano and viola, either as a solo artist or with his band.
This past spring, they and their four children moved from Amador City into a two-story Victorian farmhouse in Amador County’s Shenandoah Valley shortly before daughter Adelaine Josephine was born.
Early on, they wanted to develop their own vineyard. Now, they aren’t so sure.
“There are so many grapes available at good prices,” says Susan Feist, pointing to the numerous small vineyards planted by people who want to grow the fruit but don’t necessarily want to be involved in making wine.
Instead of grapes, they may end up with an olive orchard, and resume production of olive oil to complement their winemaking.