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Regional Spotlight: Amador County

Driving along historic Highway 49 through the Amador County wine region, it’s pretty easy to see that California’s Gold Rush wasn’t the only thing happening here 150 years ago. Twisted and thick-trunked, the old Zinfandel vines that dot the landscape -- not to mention the “old vine” Zinfandels that come from them -- are reminders that the Mother Lode’s dual histories of gold mining and winegrowing are inextricably linked.

“There’s no doubt that part of what makes Amador County such a unique place to visit is the fascinating history of the area,” says Jamie Lubenko, executive director of the Amador Vintners Association, which has over 35 winery members, mostly small and family-owned. “But while people might come for the history, they’ll stay for the wine.”

Although there were over 100 wineries in Amador County by the end of the 19th century – most founded by prospecting immigrants of European descent -- the decline of gold mining followed by Prohibition in 1920 effectively put an end to its wine industry. But as in other regions of California, Amador County experienced a wine renaissance in the late 1960’s, with a new generation of winegrowers – drawn to Amador County’s history as well as its unique topography, climate and soils – setting the stage for what has become one of California’s most vibrant and beautiful wine regions.

“This is an area of California that Mother Nature made just right for grapes,” says Ken Deaver, who farms 275 acres of wine grapes, including several acres of Mission and Zinfandel grapes that were planted by his great grandfather in the 1850s and 1860s.

Indeed, as part of the larger Sierra Foothills AVA, Amador County is blessed with a combination of characteristics ideally suited to wine grapes. Located some 40 miles east of Sacramento in the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, Amador County encompasses two smaller AVAs – Shenandoah Valley and Fiddletown -- with 3,700 vine acres planted on rolling hillsides ranging from 1,200 to over 2,000 feet in elevation. A warm, sunny climate during the growing season is tempered by easterly winds sweeping down off the snow-capped Sierras at night, dropping temperatures by as much as 40 degrees. The two major soil types – Shenandoah Loam and Sierra Series -- are derived from decomposed granite, with a sandy clay loam content that retains much of the rain water that drenches the area during the winter.

“One of the things that sets Amador County apart is that our vines have access to water deep in the soil throughout the growing season, so many of our vineyards are dry-farmed,” says Ken.

“That’s why the grapes here are unique. If you have a little experience, you can pick out a dry-farmed Amador County Zinfandel in a blind tasting. They’re very distinct.”

Although Amador County is probably best known for its Zinfandels – over 2000 acres are planted to the varietal – lately the area has been churning out Rhone and Italian varietals, including Barberas, that are garnering gold medals and awards at state fairs and wine competitions. In June 2011, the area hosted its first Barbera Festival, an outdoor wine and food festival featuring 80 wineries pouring Barbera wines from all over California. In summing up the event, longtime wine writer Mike Dunne, who writes the blog, said “The problem wasn't in finding outstanding wines; it was that so many of them were outstanding. Rarely have I attended a tasting where the wines were so uniformly notable.”

“Barbera is our darling right now,” says Jamie, who notes that because most Amador County wineries are very small with no national distribution, their wines must be purchased directly from the winery. “It’s great to see it being discovered and embraced by so many consumers.”

Still, as Jamie says, its Amador County’s Zinfandels that “pay the electric bills. It’s what the area is good at.” Ken Deaver agrees, also noting that although Amador County used to be known for pushing the envelope in terms of high-alcohol red wines, today, the region produces a wide range of styles that are full-bodied and robust yet balanced and harmonious. “Modern techniques in the vineyards and wineries have enabled us to produce wines with the strength and concentration our Zins have always been known for, while maintaining that careful balance of fruit, tannin and alcohol. It’s Mother Nature’s gift to us.”

To learn more about Amador County, its wineries and wines, and for information about dining, lodging and attractions in the area be sure to visit or For information about the 2012 Barbera Festival visit

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Some might say Mother Nature made Amador County just right for grape growing.


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