With fall comes the best time of year to explore California wine regions — cooler temperatures, enthralling golden sunlight, the excitement of the crush, no end of harvest festivals. Amador County alone has two major gatherings: the Barbera Festival on Sept. 15 and Big Crush the first weekend of October.
But what if you want to taste wine without the crowds? Head to Amador City, which, with 193 residents, is California’s smallest incorporated city, according to the State Department of Finance.
That’s small, all right, but not so small that day-tripping wine enthusiasts will have difficulty entertaining themselves. Aside from wine, for example, Sally Knudson has been tending her fashion boutique Victorian Closet for 46 years, and as closets go, it is more cluttered than ever. The grand Imperial Hotel, which includes bar and restaurant, anchors the business district with color and class. Andrae’s Bakery offers all sorts of luncheon provisions, most notably the pastry “lemon cream nest,” after which you will want to stroll or cycle on one of the scenic if challenging country lanes that snake about the city. There’s the cozy new tea shop Time for Tea, the intriguing Amador Whitney Museum and the usual foothill cluster of gift shops.
OK, back to wine.
Start at Wine Tree Farm, at the junction of the Highway 49 bypass and old Highway 49 just west of the community proper.
Corinne Moore, a native South African with a high-tech background, was drawn to Amador City from Silicon Valley in 2000 to pursue her twin interests in marketing chocolates and showing jump horses.
Two years later, as she scanned her 100 acres and as online commerce sustained one of its periodic dips in business, she concluded that she might as well take advantage of the site to grow grapes and make wine, and began to plant vines.
Today, she tends 7 acres of grapes, most of them traditional Rhone Valley varieties like grenache and syrah. She sells most of the yield to other vintners but keeps enough for herself to turn out 300 cases of wine per year in her small, rustic, solar-powered winery.
Six years ago, Moore signed on with an Italian cruise line to put on wine-blending classes, an option that found such a receptive audience at sea that she now offers the sessions most Sundays at Wine Tree Farm (www.winetreefarm.com).
She releases wines under two brands: Wine Tree Farm primarily for blends, Corinne for single varietals. Don’t mosey on into town without first trying her dry 2016 pink wine Off the Grid, a fruity and spicy blend of grenache and mourvedre ($19); her unusually lyrical 2011 mourvedre ($22); and her fresh, aromatic and layered GreSyrMour, a readily accessible blend of grenache, syrah and mourvedre ($19).
The name Wine Tree Farm, incidentally, was inspired by her son, then 5. They were new to the U.S. and driving by a vineyard when he shouted, “Look, mom, wine trees.”
And she still keeps two jump horses, but as grape grower and winemaker, she doesn’t have much chance to show them these days.
In Amador City proper, the historic Amador Hotel is the most obvious place to resume tasting. With the Amador Holistic Center (yoga studio, reiki master, massage therapists), the rambling former hotel houses the tasting room of the Fiddletown winery Legendre Cellars.
In quarters spacious and comfortably chilled on a hot summer day, Legendre winemaker Scott Mahon himself is likely to be pouring and discussing his reliably balanced lineup of Amador wines, including his highly perfumed and unusually spry 2016 Tumbas Vineyard Viognier ($19), his solidly structured 2016 Grenache ($24) and his signature 2016 Tailrace, an earthy and penetrating blend of mourvedre, grenache and petite sirah ($24).
Visitors to Legendre are welcome to take glasanks or bottle — and a sandwich from nearby Andrae’s Bakery — to the creekside patio out back. (By appointment, Mahon also offers a slate of food-and-wine pairing options either on the patio or at the French kitchen table in the cool tasting room; www.legendrecellars.com.)
But why Amador City? Mahon gives several reasons: Fiddletown is too remote and too limited in facilities for a tasting room; Amador City is centrally located along historic Highway 49 for Gold Country tourists; he likes his space in the Amador Hotel, which formerly housed a massage parlor and art studio; and parking almost invariably is readily available.
Amador City isn’t yet as recognized for winery tasting rooms as fellow Mother Lode settlements Sutter Creek and Murphys, but that could be changing. Chris Walsh, a former New York City sommelier, has returned to Amador County, where he grew up, to plant a high-elevation vineyard at Pioneer and to expand the wine brand he started two years ago, The End of Nowhere.
Walsh is a proponent of “natural wines” who tutored at such highly regarded wineries as Donkey & Goat in Berkeley, Terre Rouge/Easton Wines in Shenandoah Valley and Forlorn Hope in Calaveras County.
He is to open his Amador City tasting room, also in the Amador Hotel, this weekend.
Across old Highway 49 from the Amador Hotel, and a few steps south, at the back reaches of the old brick Mercantile Store, is a veritable man cave of a tasting room, complete with low lighting, a television set and plush seating. This is where Gordon Binz holds forth with his extensive and varied portfolio of foothill wines.
Binz, like Mahon, makes his wines in far-off Fiddletown, so a tasting room closer to the bulk of Mother Lode tourist traffic made sense after he established his eponymous brand in 2012. A winemaker since 1974, Binz has worked for such local wineries as Villa Toscano and Renwood, which introduced him to several of the region’s more highly regarded vineyards, which he continues to tap for his own wines.
From the Fox Creek Vineyard in Shenandoah Valley, for one, he makes a flamboyant zinfandel that stands out for its fresh berry fruit, ticklish spice and racy acidity ($28). Another celebrated Shenandoah Valley vineyard, Crain/Sleeper Ranch, yielded the fruit for his robust and precise 2015 barbera ($28). And from his Fiddletown backyard, the vineyard Slate Creek Hills produced the grapes for his exceptionally aromatic, smoky and zesty cabernet franc ($25).
By now, you likely have worked up an appetite. From the Binz tasting room, backtrack a few paces to Small Town Wine Bar. It’s young, just a little less than a year old, but Small Town, as much café as wine bar, boasts a distinguished culinary heritage. You can see it in much of the art that helps brighten the place, various posters recognizing this or that anniversary of the landmark Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse. These are works by the Berkeley artist David Lance Goines, who also did the print at the front of the house that shows a 3-year-old girl riskily reaching for a cookie jar high above her.
The model for the drawing was Ginger Budrick-Carter, now grown up, a new mother and, with her husband, Matt Carter, the owner/operator of Small Town. She is the daughter of Amador City residents Jerry and Deborah Budrick, high-profile players in Berkeley’s emergence as a culinary destination, he as an early partner in Chez Panisse, she at the celebrated charcuterie Pig-by-the-Tail. Together, they owned and ran the restaurant Caffe Via d’Oro in neighboring Sutter Creek from 1996 to 2005.
The influence of both Chez Panisse and Caffe Via d’Oro can be found in Budrick-Carter’s exploitation of fresh seasonal ingredients and such menu items as her zesty take on Caesar salad; colorful sandwiches like the roasted chicken with basil pesto, melted Brie and roasted red peppers; and playful flatbread pizzas along the lines of Brie and apple with baby arugula. Pastry chef Ingrid Fraser, long a fixture in the Amador City food scene, prepares desserts such as lemon tart and chocolate bombe.
When she opened Small Town, Budrick-Carter saw it principally as a wine bar with a few tapas-like plates and a wine selection that eagerly embraced European wines. Early feedback, however, persuaded her to stock more local wines and to expand the menu.
“The bar scene doesn’t happen in Amador City, and lunches have been busier than I ever thought they would be,” Budrick says. “People really wanted food.” While the café’s wine list now includes more local wines, including several from vintners at Amador City, it also offers Barolo, Cahors, Sancerre and other European staples.
In planning an outing to Amador City, keep a couple of caveats in mind: The best day of the week to visit is Saturday, when virtually all businesses are open. Binz, for one, opens his tasting room Saturdays only, though another time can be scheduled (www.binzwines.com). The End of Nowhere, Wine Tree Farm and Legendre are open Friday through Sunday and by appointment. Small Town Wine Bar keeps more ambitious hours, 11:30 a.m. to around 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to around 3 p.m. Sundays. Andrae’s Bakery customarily is open 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday through Sunday but will be closed for its annual summer break Sept. 10-26.