Wine Tasting in the Sierra Foothills: Amador County

Villa Toscano
On Friday, we did wine tasting in Lodi, and Saturday we were in Calaveras County. Sunday is the day that everyone is on their own during our wine tasting treks. Many had to be back at work on Monday morning, so they headed out on the road for the 7 hour drive back to Southern California. We, on the other hand, headed northeast to Amador County, to do some tasting in the Shenandoah Valley.

Officially, the name of the AVA is California Shenandoah Valley.  The AVA was established in 1983, and it includes portions of Amador county and El Dorado county. This is California gold rush country, but now probably better known as Zinfandel and Barbera country. The Shenadoah Valley is the lowest elevation region, in the Sierra Foothills AVA, and is also the westernmost. There are over 40 wineries in the Shenandoah Valley.

From Lodi, the drive to Amador only took about 45 minutes. We wound our way through rolling hills covered with oak trees. As we approached the town of Plymouth, we saw signs of new housing sub-divisions, touting wine country living. We turned off of Hwy 49 and made our way onto Shenandoah Road. The country road winds through the foothills, and wineries are easily accessible on both sides of the road. These wineries are generally smaller than what we encountered in Lodi and even in Calaveras County, if you judge them by their parking area. Most of the tasting rooms were smaller, and any thought of bringing a large group in for a tasting would be a challenge. Matter of fact, a couple of the wineries had signs saying, “No buses or limousines”. 

Gardens at Young's
At the recommendation of friends, the first stop (and the first winery you come to on Shenandoah Rd) was Young’s Vineyard. As you approach the tasting room, you can’t help but wander the garden area interspersed with lawn chairs and picnic tables. The tasting room is small, but we were the only four people in the room. We were greeted and went through a lineup of wines. As another small group came in, our pourer moved over to them, and we continued our tasting with the owner. She never introduced herself, but she had a European accent, and we were told (later) that she was the owner. The wines are mostly reds. We did have a Riesling and a Rose, but this is red country.  They produce about 3,000 cases. The wines are full bodied, fruit forward wines. All have interesting, artsy labels. We purchased the 2014 Barbera and the 2014 Reserve Cabernet (which needs to age another 4 to 5 years).

Tasting room at Youngs
As I typically do, I had asked the owner what winery we should go to next, and she suggested Jeff Runquist Wines, just up the road. This winery has a larger parking area, and it was a good thing, as they have a club member event going on that day. The tasting room was packed. The winery produces 22 different red varieties from 9 different AVAs. They do not grow their own grapes, so don’t expect to see their vineyards. No white wines here… Zinfandel, Barbera, Syrah and Petit Sirah are the main focus, but we also found Sangiovese and Petit Verdot. All the wines are fruit forward, and rich. We purchased the 2014 Cooper Vineyard Barbera and2014 Esola Vineyard Zinfandel. More on the Cooper Vineyard below.

Tasting at C.G. Di Arie
Another recommendation was C.G.Di Arie Vineyard and Winery. We backtracked a bit and pulled into the small parking lot. Once again, we were the only people in the tasting room. Our pourer gave us the entire history of the winery, and the winemaker. The back stories are always the fun thing about tasting at a small winery. This one was really interesting. Chaim Gur-Arieh made his money as a food product developer. His claims to fame are Cap’n Crunch cereal, Hidden Valley Ranch dressing, and Power Bars. I can’t tell you how many different wines we tasted here. It had to be at least 15. Many weren’t on the tasting list, but happened to be open and sitting in the tasting room cooler. This was one of our “finds” of the weekend. They had a number of special discounts available, and they were not just for wine club members. We took advantage of the ½ priced 2007 Zinfandel, and split a case with our friends, as well as the 2007 Petit Verdot. At a local wine tasting event, back home, I brought a bottle of the Zinfandel for the tasting, and it was picked as the best wine of the evening. Stop at this winery if you are in the area.

Entrance to C.G. Di Arie
By this time, we were getting hungry, so we stopped at VillaToscano Winery. Our friends are wine club members there, so we stopped to pick up there club shipment. The lunch choices were tasty, and the outdoor picnic area is very nice. This is one of the largest wineries in the area, with a large tasting room, and extensive gift shop. The grounds and building do look like something out of Tuscany.

Tasting Room at Cooper
The next recommended winery was Cooper Vineyards. I mentioned their vineyard above, as one of the suppliers for Barbera. We parked along the dirt circular drive, overlooking vast vineyards on all sides. We happened to pick the tasting bar where Dick Coopers daughter, Jeri, was pouring. We soon learned that Dick Cooper was known as the “Godfather of Barbera”. The family has been farming in the area since 1919. Most of the wines are dry reds, but don’t miss the two dessert wines they offer too. All the wines are outstanding, and this was our second “find” of the weekend. If you like Barbera, then you have to stop here. We purchased the 2013 Barbera, 2013 Sangiovese, and the 2014 Grenache. All estate grown, and all very well priced.

Photo credit to
We left Shenandoah Valley and drove to the old gold rush town of Sutters Creek. This was like a step back in time. I had received a message on Facebook, from a winery who follows the Sommelier Update page. One of the owner’s sons saw that I was going to be in the area, and suggested I stop by, so I did. Bella Grace Winery is a family owned winery with a tasting room located in a building from the 1860’s. They offer a mix of sparkling, whites, rose, and reds. They also have a quaint gift shop with olive oils, vinegar and animal wine pour spouts. We purchased the 2012 Barbera and 2013 Old Vine Zin.

Rosewood Bar & Grill
As our weekend was coming to an end, we drove back to Lodi, and then headed out for our final dinner in the refurbished downtown area of Lodi. I small group of us met at Rosewood Bar & Grill, and shared our different tastings throughout the area (some stayed in Lodi and explored the local wineries there).

The next morning we had breakfast at the Omelet House, then hit the road back to Southern California. I said it in one of my previous blogs about this trip….don’t discount Lodi, or the Sierra Foothills. While they don’t get the press that Napa, Sonoma or Paso Robles get, this is a legitimate wine tasting region!

Wine Tasting in the Sierra Foothills: Calaveras County

Twisted Oak Tasting Room

Saturday morning, in Lodi, started with breakfast at the Wine and Roses Hotel. Our wine group consisted of 22 people. The planning began six months prior. While Lodi is a large wine region, with a lot of wineries (see last weeks blog), the services to cater to wine lovers is still building. I hired Neumann Limo services, out of Sacramento, to take our large group to the wineries I had selected in the Sierra Foothills. Today we traveled to Calaveras County and the Sierra Foothill communities of Angels Camp, Vallecito and Murphy’s.

Since the gold rush days, Calaveras County has been a wine growing region.  Probably best recognized as the location for Mark Twain’s famous frog jumping contest, Calaveras County is part of the five sub-districts within the Sierra Foothills AVA (El Dorado, Shenadoah Valley, Fairplay, Fiddletown, and North Yuba). The AVA was established in 1987, and was recognized for it’s rolling hills, moderate climate and elevation (averaging about 3,000 feet above sea level).

We left Lodi and drove through miles of rolling hillsides, covered with grape vines and oak trees. Along the 90 minute drive, we passed small rural towns that looked like they were straight out of the gold rush days in the mid to late 1800’s. Our first stop was at Twisted Oak Winery. They are a small, family owned, boutique winery in Vallecito. When I arranged the tasting, I had talked with the owner, Jeff Stai. He had warned me that there were two entrances to the property: one along a dirt road; the other paved. Our limo bus driver was familiar with the property, and chose to drive the dirt road. Now they’ll tell you that the name of the winery came from the twisted oak at the end of their parking lot, but I think it also reflects their twisted sense of humor. As we drove up the road, we passed through the “Rubber Chicken National Forest”  and saw numerous signs posted along the road preparing us for the journey ahead..

Entrance to Cave at Twisted Oak
Twisted Oak has a small tasting room, packed with humorous gift items. At 22 people, our group was too large to handle all at one time in the tasting room, so half the group tasted while the other half toured the gravity fed production area, and ultimately the man-made caves. The large wooden doors to the cave hid how large and deep they actually were. Once back at the tasting room we were presented with a large array of Spanish and Rhone Varietal wines. They have a nice mix of whites and reds, from Verdejo and Viognier to Grenache and Touriga Naçional.  This is a fun location, and one you’ll want to visit.

Our next stop was up the road, about 15 minutes away. From small boutique winery, our next stop was the large Ironstone Winery. As we drove to the front gate, there was a welcome sign for our group. The property is immense. But, we had no idea how immense until we took the one hour tour of the property. The creeks, wedding grounds and amphitheater were impressive. The large caves built into the mountain side offered a cool respite from the growing heat of the day. They also have a Gold Rush Heritage Museum on the property, that includes a 44-pound gold nugget. The tasting room is huge too. The tasting bar is comes from an old saloon, and was originally built in 1907. Our group of 22 people easily fit at the bar.

The tasting bar at Ironstone
After our tour, we had lunch from their deli. All meals were pre-ordered. The sandwiches and salads were handmade on the property. As each of us finished lunch, we headed inside for wine tasting. Many bottles that were not on the wine tasting list were made available to us. One of the more unusual wines was made from the Symphony grape (a cross between Grenache Gris and Muscat of Alexandria). As we were tasting, the owner of Ironstone, John Kautz, happened to come in for lunch, and we spent some time talking about how he got in the business, and developed this huge operation.

The next stop on our tour brought us back into the town of Murphy’s. The town grew out of the gold rush in 1848, when brothers, John and Daniel Murphy established a trading post and gold mining operation. Now the town has numerous small shops, 20 wine tasting rooms and craft brewing houses.

At Newsome-Harlow
We traveled just out of town to a newer subdivision, and found Newsome-Harlow. Instead of going to a tasting room, we did our tasting at their wine production facility. The winemaker, Scott Klann, met us along with Shelly, who conducted the tasting. Grapes were soaking in plastic bins, as we entered a backroom on the property. The tasting went through each of the varieties, an Scott shared some information on each wine. We all noticed a spiciness that ran through each of the wines. 

Newsome-Harlow has a unique flavor profile that is different from the previous wineries we had visited in the area. After some discussion with Scott, we determined that the difference might be due to his use of natural, local yeasts. This gives the wines a more “terroir” driven profile.  This is Zinfandel country, and Newsome-Harlow makes some good ones. Add Syrah, Petit Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, and you have an idea of the tasting. These are serious wines, for people who like wines that are small production, and not manipulated. If it is any indication, the most wine purchased by our group was at Newsome-Harlow. A great find, and really nice people.

Chatom Winery
Our last stop of the day was at Chatom Winery. The small winery was recently purchased by Hatcher Winery, and now includes Chatom, Hatcher and School Street. Our group took over most of the small tasting room. They offered either a tasting of the Chatom wines or School Street. My wife did one, I did the other, and we shared the tasting of all the wines. This is Zinfandel, Barbera, Syrah  and Tempranillo country, and that is what we found here. This day, the winery was preparing for a club member gathering, so I didn’t get as much information about their winery as I would have liked. I can tell you they have a nice grassy picnic area in front, and very nice wines.

It was now about 4:30 and we headed back to Lodi, arriving at 6:00pm. After unloading the limo bus, and separating out all the purchases everyone made, we headed back to our rooms for a short break before going out to dinner. Our dinner this evening was at Fenix, in Old Town Lodi. The original downtown area of Lodi has been completely redone. The store fronts and sidewalks make you feel like you are back in an Andy Griffith show, walking through downtown Mayberry. The Fenix restaurant, on the other hand, is like being at a trendy place in downtown San Francisco. This is contemporary American Cuisine, served in an eclectic atmosphere. The menu is creative and beautifully presented. Chef Richard Hyman walked through the restaurant and spent time at each table. 

Our entire group kept on saying, “this is Lodi?” We had not expected to find this type of restaurant/downtown/wine tasting experience in Lodi. If I haven’t convinced you to visit Lodi or the Sierra Foothills yet, I have one more blog to write about our visit to Amador County. Check back next week.

Wine Tasting in Lodi

We hit the road at 6:00am, in an effort to avoid the typical Southern California commuter traffic. While we still got stuck in some traffic, we were soon out of the urban area, and headed up Hwy 5 and eventually Hwy 99. For those of you not familiar with California, these interstates run through the center of California, and one of the largest agricultural areas in the country. We were headed to Lodi. Most of you will automatically start singing the Creedence Clearwater Revival  song in your head at this point, “I set out on the road/ Seekin' my fame and fortune / Lookin' for a pot of gold / Thing got bad and things got worse / I guess you know the tune / Oh Lord, stuck in Lodi again.”

When I moved from Northern California, Lodi was this little farming town that we drove through on our way to the Sierras. My how things have changed!  Lodi has always been a farming town, and grape growing dates back to the 1800’s. The California goldrush hit the mountain communities in 1849, and the demand for wine switched from Southern California, to Northern California. Vines were planted in the Lodi area as early as 1850, but it wasn’t until the late 1800’s that the area started to take off. The most popular grape varieties planted were Zinfandel and Tokay.

Fast forward to 1986, and the region was established as the Lodi AVA. It was recognized for the Mediterranean climate with warm days and cool nights. The delta breezes, coming off the San Francisco Bay, create a natural air conditioning. The alluvial soils are sandy, mixed with granite, due to ancient river flows from the Sierra Nevada mountain range. In some areas, the soil is so sandy, that the vines are not grafted on to protective root stock (to avoid phylloxera).

Wine and Roses Hotel
Before we had left, many people joked about taking a 4-day vacation to Lodi, and I half wondered myself, if this was a mistake. This wine tasting weekend came at the recommendation of David Phillips, one of the brothers/owners at Michael David Winery. We had met at a wine pairing dinner a couple years back, and he had encouraged me to take our wine club up to the area. At his recommendation, we booked rooms at the Wine & Roses Hotel. To say we were pleasantly surprised with the accommodations would be an understatement. The hotel is an oasis in the middle of farm country. Large trees, and buildings covered with climbing ivy are just part of the charm. Each room has a fireplace, and very nicely furnished. Two weddings were taking place on the weekend we were there, and the grounds are perfect for such events.

On this wine trip, I had arranged for 22 people to attend. Everything is focused on our Saturday tasting trip, but I also schedule some type of event on Friday. This Friday, we were scheduled to do a tasting at Michael David Winery, at 3:30. Since my wife and I arrived early, we headed out to a winery just down the street from the hotel, named Jessie’s Grove. I chose this winery because it is one of the oldest in the area, and claims to have some of the oldest vines still producing grapes.

Jessie’s Grove has 265 acres of vineyards planted.  Of these, the oldest vines are Zinfandel and Cinsault. The Zinfandel, Carignane and Tokay vines date back to 1889, and the oldest vines are Cinsault, planted in 1886. Only a small portion of the harvest is used for estate wines. Much is sold off to other wineries in the area. 

The tasting room is located in what appears to be an old farm building. Around the tasting room are numerous photos and memorabilia showing the history of the property. Wine tasting fees are only $5, and between the two of us, we tasted most everything on the tasting sheet. We came here for the Zinfandel, and that is what we bought. Unfortunately, the oldest vine Zinfandel was sold out already, mostly to club members. We did also pick up the old vine Cinsault. All the wines were fruit forward, and deep, reflecting the vines effort to produce limited grape clusters. The production is small, maybe only 6,000 cases, but this historic property is worth a visit.

Michael David Winery
From the tiny historic property, we left to meet up with the rest of our wine tasting group at Michael David Winery. When I lived in the Bay Area, and drove through Lodi on Hwy 12, The Phillips Fruit stand was along side the road. Now the fruit stand is still there, but behind it is the large production winery.  Michael David Winery produces over 800,000 cases of wine. 300,000 of that is Zinfandel. They are the largest Zinfandel producer in the world.

Dave Phillips pouring for our group
Dave Phillips met our group on the outdoor patio, and took us on a tour of the facility. We started at the colorful “freak show” fermentation tanks, and continued on to the destemmer and presses, tasting freshly pressed juice, as well as fermented juice still in the fermenter. Dave was a great host, and allowed us to taste anything we wanted in the tasting room. Something has to be said here…in many instances, I find that the larger producers lose touch with the quality of their wines. Not at Michael David. They produce consistent quality, even with high production numbers. Their tasting staff is attentive, and you feel like this is a family operation, even with the behemoth size. Since many of the Michael David wines can be found in local retail outlets (including Costco), my purchases were focused on the higher end, and unusual wines. I purchased the Rage Zinfandel, and some of the Inkblot wines. Whatever you do, don’t skip this large producer, just because they are large.

We had dinner planned at Pietro’s Trattoria, in Lodi. Dave Phillips suggested that we go with the family dinner. Great suggestion. We had eight people at our table, and had  two appetizers, salad, garlic bread (the best), pasta course, and main entrée, as well as two local wines (St Amant Barbera  and Bokisch Tempranillo). With tip and tax, the total bill was only $100/couple, and we had leftovers. The place was packed on a Friday night. The perfect end to our first day in the area.

Saturday would present us with another adventure. This day we would be heading up to the Sierra Foothills, and another AVA. Check out our trip to Calaveras County

Wine Dinner Takeover

Richard Krumweide, Jim, Nytasha Mealer, Elizabeth Krumweide
What happens when a winemaker, a chef, and a venue, which was once reputedly owned by Bugsy Siegel, come together? Of course, the answer is a 6-course wine pairing dinner.

I have known the winemaker, Richard Krumweide for years. He and his wife, Elizabeth, own the recently bonded Sycamore Ranch Vineyard &Winery. They are located in Dart Canyon, high up on the San Bernardino Mountains, in the town of Crestline. They are one of the highest altitude wineries in California. Sitting on 3.5 acres, they produce Zinfandel, Syrah and Hard Cider from their own vineyards and orchards. The remaining grape varieties are sourced from the Central Coast, and Sierra Foothills. All wines are produced at the winery. As an amateur winemaker, their wines have been winning numerous awards at tasting events throughout California. The first vintages for sale to the public will be the 2015 vintage. Since this event was a private dinner for Arrowhead Wine Enthusiast members, we were happy to help rid them of some of their older vintages.

I met Chef Nytasha Mealer at Sycamore Ranch Vineyards. She currently runs an organic food market in the town of Crestline, but has an extensive cooking background, which has her catering numerous events. She went to culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu, and has cooked with Bobby Flay, and Wolfgang Puck. She was the chef of Fig and Olive in Los Angeles. Needless to say, she has some “street cred”.

The Tudor House had approached us, and asked if our wine club would be interested in creating a wine pairing dinner. We agreed to do the dinner, as long as we could “takeover” their kitchen with Nytasha creating the menu, their staff doing the serving, and Sycamore Ranch providing the wine and cider for each course. Nytasha and I met at Sycamore Ranch, and had the “painful” job (someone has to do it) of tasting numerous Sycamore Ranch wines, along with Richard and Elizabeth. For over two hours, we tasted, and share our tasting notes, and ideas for what would pair best with each wine. Nytahsa took most of the notes, and used those to pick which wines to pair, and ultimately create the wine pairing meal that follows.

At 6:30, on the evening of the dinner, we gathered outside the Tudor House for the Amuse-Bouche. This course was a delicately seared albacore and red snapper tataki, enveloped around baby herbs atop handmade wonton drizzled in a kumquat ponzu, finished with flavored tobiko. This was paired with the Big Moon Hard Apple Cider. This was one of my favorite pairings of the evening, and a great way to start things off. The kumquat ponzu really worked well with the tartness of the apple cider. The effervescence of the cider awakened the palate, and prepared us for the coming courses.

We next moved inside. The historic Tudor House was set for four couples at each table. A large screen above the performance stage, had a slide show highlighting Sycamore Ranch. We had a small crowd of only about 45 people, but that wasn’t too bad, considering the entire event was put together in less than three weeks.

Our first sit down course was “brown butter pan-seared scallops, fixed upon a Meyer lemon Marcona almond pesto, dotted with cilantro coulis and feathered parsnip chips”. This was paired with the 2014 Sycamore Ranch Rousanne. This white wine has a certain richness to it, with honey and pear notes. The acidity of the wine was matched with the acidity of the Meyer lemon pesto. The pesto itself was not only Meyer lemon, but Marcona almonds. This added a richness that mirrored the wine.

The next course was “roasted organic raised quail and golden beet salad on a bed of wilted tatsoi, graciously dressed with raspberry white balsamic vinaigrette”. This was paired with the 2014 Sycamore Ranch Grenache.  This is a very nice Grenache, with notes of raspberry, strawberry, cherry and white pepper. For many, this was their favorite pairing of the evening. I am not a big beet fan, so for me, they over-powered the wine.

The third course (or fourth depending on how you count) was a Moroccan carrot ginger veloute, dolloped with crème fraiche”. This was my favorite pairing of the evening, being served with the 2014 Sycamore Ranch Rhone Ranger. When a pairing comes together, the food changes the taste of the wine, pulling out flavor notes that weren’t there without the food. This course did that. The ginger and carrot greens made the fruit pop in this wine. For me, this was the best pairing of the night.

After a palate cleanser of apricot lemon sorbet, we moved on to the main course of a “richly marinated, then flash seared venison tenderloin, nested against a forest mushroom risotto, aged parmesan Reggiano, bathed in a luxurious fig and wine reduction”. This course was served with the 2013 Sycamore Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon. What can I say? Cabernet and venison…they just go together. Add to that Parmesan and figs, and you have a rich course.

We ended the evening with “the deepest darkest Belgium flourless chocolate cake, draped in a violet lavender ganache”. This was paired with the 2014 Sycamore Ranch Primitivo.  This was a challenging pairing. Since Sycamore Ranch does not make a dessert wine, and we needed to end the evening with a dessert…the options were limited. The Primitivo is probably their most fruit forward wine variety, but it is not sweet. In this case, the dessert was sweet, and made the wine seem a bit flat. The ganache, with its’ flowery notes did play off similar notes in the wine. Individually, both were delicious.

This was a fun evening of experimenting with wine and food. Learning what works and what doesn’t, and to see how a chef interprets the wine, to create an experience for the participants. At the end of the evening, the owner of the Tudor House was encouraged to try this again, and I made some recommendations of wineries to try. That means more wine pairing notes in the future.