If you're from the Sacramento area, and like wine, you've probably heard of Amador County Wineries. If not, it will probably come as a surprise to you that Amador County (East of Sacramento County) has a Vintner's Association with 36 member wineries. Most of these are on, or within walking distance of, a 5-6 mile stretch of the Shenandoah Road in what is referred to as the Shenandoah Valley.
At one time the Shenandoah Valley was the main viticultural region of California, but along came Napa, Sonoma, and all that jazz... and now... most people I talk to are surprised to hear about it... or consider it their own little getaway that they don't want ruined by Napa crowds. Come to Amador and you will not pay for the privilege of tasting their wines, you will not stand in line for a pour, you will not spend 30 minutes to drive a four mile stretch of road, and you will most likely have your questions answered with a smile and patience. The scenery is even better than Napa for my money. Spring in Amador is something to behold, and something to remind you of the secrets California still holds outside its urban sprawl... there are no McDonalds or Walmarts here. There are vineyards over 100 years old here though... and that's one reason why you should check it out.
Why are they not spoken of in the same breath as Napa? I'd guess it's the lack of 'serious' wines that consumers have gravitated toward. You'll find very few, if any, Cabernets, Pinot Noirs, or Merlots here. Amador is best know for its Zinfandels. You will also find plenty of Barberas, Primotivos, Syrahs, Sangioveses, Savignon Blancs, Viogniers and quite a few Ports (or Late Harvest) wines.
The Amador Vintners Assn has a couple of big events each year, one of those being "Behind the Cellar Door" in March, right when Spring is getting ready to take hold. No leaves on the trees yet, but the ground is green and the air is crisp. Behind the Cellar Door is a ticketed event. As I said, you typically don't pay to taste in Amador, but the special event includes different foods at each winery, expanded tasting lists, fairly blind pouring (if you know what I mean), and most wineries have some sort of special event/tasting if you schedule wisely.
This year marked the first year where we actually had a home base in the area. A few months earlier, Rick & Laurie Bressler moved into Wild Bird Ranch only a couple miles from Sobon Winery (the last winery on Shenandoah Road). The entire Baer family came up from SoCal, as well as Rick M. Robb rented a van on his way in and I hired us a driver from Driver Please. It was great fun, great tasting, and a very manageable and friendly crowd of connoisseurs. No fuss, no waiting, no snobs.
Of course, you don't need to make it to the special events to enjoy Amador wines. After several trips through the area and many consumed bottles here are a few of my recommendations:
Amador Cellars: A small & unpretentious building, hidden from the main road by a bank of trees on one side and a hill on the other. For my money, some of the best wines out here and the folks here are always friendly. By now, they probably think we are a little nutz as we've come calling every couple weeks for the last few months... with new people in tow each time... but they've yet to blow our cover. The Rocky Point Zinfandel is one of my favorite wines anywhere. If you like Ports, they also make a great Late Harvest... which was out of stock on our last visit.
Storey Winery: I could get some pushback on this but I always have a good time at Storey Winery. They enjoy what they do and that is almost as important as the wine when you're tasting. Beyond that, an incredible line-up of Zinfandels (some of them from ancient viineyards). One of the few wineries here that put out a Champagne. The Picnic Hill Zinfandel ranks with the Rocky Point I mentioned above. In fact, their special event that day was a vertical tasting of 10 years of the Picnic Hill Zin. If you don't know what that means... we tasted every year of Picnic Hill, 2002 through 2011, and were able to taste the differences... while snacks were being carried between tables. Oof.
Dillian Wines: Dillian is a great setting and the owners have a lot of history in the area. For me, the big attraction here is the Primitivo. We always come home with a bottle or two. It's all good though... just a matter of deciding how much you have to spend that day. :p
Cooper Vineyards: Cooper has a lot of history and prestige in the region. At each winery I've gone to in the area I've asked, "Where should I go to next?" In almost every case, they say Cooper. I also ask where the grapes come from. Most use their own for most wines, but there is almost always one or two blended wines where the grapes come from someone else in the area.. and usually... that someone else is 'Dick Cooper'. BTW, their tasting area has one of the best afternoon views you will find in the area... legally.
Wilderotter Vineyard: Wilderotter makes a slew of great wines, including a Vin Doux that's like a white port (YES!). Unfortunately, they are sandwiched between two behemoth wineries (that aren't even members of the Vintner's Assn) who probably make more money off of food and merchandising than wine. That's a tough gig and they deserve some attention. Check them out.