California’s other wine countries
A worthy side trip from the Lodi region, Amador County might be something of an underdog among California's winemaking regions. But a thriving circuit of family wineries, Gold Rush history and local characters make for excellent wine touring without a whiff of pretension. The region lays claim to the oldest zinfandel vines in the United States, and the surrounding country has a lot in common with this celebrated variety – bold and richly coloured, earthy and constantly surprising.
To begin the circuit of Amador wineries, leave Highway 49 in Plymouth and follow Plymouth-Shenandoah Road, taking you through rows of vines basking in the heat. You will see hill after rolling hill covered with rocky rows of neatly pruned vines, soaking up gallons of too-bright sun. Tastings at the family-operated wineries around the county have little in common with those in the Napa Valley – most hosts are welcoming and helpful, offering free tastes and information about their operations. Be sure to stop at Drytown Cellars, one of the most fun tasting rooms in the county thanks to a gregarious host and an array of stunning reds, and take a picnic to the bucolic Sobon Estate – founded in 1856 and home to the Shenandoah Valley Museum.
Backtracking to the Bay area, you will pass the emerging Livermore wine country, then coast down the peninsula into the Santa Cruz Mountains. Vines were first planted among these coastal redwood forests in the mid-19th Century. One of the first US regions to be awarded its own appellation, it was a cabernet sauvignon from these rugged, little-known mountains that bested mighty French Bordeaux in the Judgment of Paris in 1976. Taste the championship winemakers’ most recent harvests at legendary Ridge Vineyards. Heading over the mountains on twisted Highway 9 or Skyline Drive to Santa Cruz, you will pass dozens more wineries, most open for tastings only on Saturday afternoons or during the quarterly “Passport Weekend” festivals. In case you are wondering, estate-bottled pinot noirs are the specialty around here.
Along the coast north of Santa Cruz, Bonny Doon Vineyard has a cult following for its unusual varietals and original Rhône blends like Le Cigare Volant (“The Flying Cigar” – ask about the actual French law that prohibits UFOs from landing in vineyards). In downtown Santa Cruz, Vinocruz is an airy wine shop with a modern stainless-steel tasting bar, where an ever-changing lineup of wines by famous Santa Cruz Mountain winemakers like Kathryn Kennedy, Thomas Fogarty and David Bruce, to name just a few, are poured. Also downtown, Soif is where bon vivant foodies flock for a heady selection of 50 international wines by the glass and tempting Old and New World tastes.
Further south, Monterey County is a much younger wine region. Although most of its vineyards are found far away from the coast, you can taste vintages from as far away as the Santa Lucia Highlands right on Cannery Row at A Taste of Monterey. This wine shop and tasting room has panoramic sea views and thoughtful exhibits on barrel-making and cork production. East of Carmel-by-the-Sea, Carmel Valley Road takes you past organic farms, vineyards and equestrian ranches and into the tiny village of Carmel Valley, where many established Monterey County wineries have tasting rooms, and country bistros have invitingly shady garden patios.
Further south is Paso Robles, a hot spot for San Luis Obispo County wines. With an unprepossessing tasting room, Martin and Weyrich is a stand-out producer of Italian varietals, including noteworthy Tuscan blends. Travel west along Highway 46 to discover scores of small family-run wineries, including many zinfandel specialists, like Dark Star Cellars, which also crafts outrageously rich reds and Bordeaux-style blends. Closer to Highway 101, Zenaida Cellars is a Zen master of zin, along with lush estate-bottled red blends like Fire Sign and Zephyr. Rent its Winemaker’s Loft and watch the sunset over the vineyards from your own private porch. Paso Robles’ downtown square is bordered by even more boutique tasting rooms and outstanding California and European-style wine-country restaurants. Vinoteca wine bar will send you soaring with its wine flights, artisan cheese plates and tapas.