I will attest, I knew next to nothing about the wines, or people behind them in Amador County before spending a couple of days about an hour’s drive along one lane country roads east of Sacramento.
Amador is one of a few counties that are lumped together into a region known as the Sierra Foothills.
For those of us living in the Bay Area, it’s simply a region that we see and pass through, usually on a yearly trip to Tahoe when there’s snow, as well as, a 3 day weekend for the kids.
Looking a bit deeper though and you find something interesting. Small towns. Like actually small….not “small” like the city I live in, which has about 25,000 people and 2 BART stops…but like a thousand people.
Names like Jackson, Sutter Creek and Amador City all have around a thousand or so people and despite only being a couple miles away from each other, have historic downtown’s with 15 or 20 buildings that date to 1860 or so.
Many of you probably realize what happened in California during that time period, gold was discovered in them hills as it’s said. So these little towns sprung up a short distance from significant strikes and mines to provide the 49ers with everything they seemed to need: a general store, a bank (evidently as they were then, it’s always Wells Fargo) a couple of spots to find a drink and of course a spot for a different indiscretion or two.
What happens to these towns though as time continues and gold can’t be grabbed quite as quickly, or at all?
As I saw by abandoned buildings and boarded up shops, nothing good.
That’s changing though, the region as it turns out, can grow itself some pretty good grapes. There’s plenty of land to try some stuff of course and that’s important in a landscape that involves soaring prices throughout much of the rest of the state of California.
Downtown Plymouth might be the best example of what’s happening. Other than the post office (yup, despite closures happening all over the place, each town still has one, but the city of Berkeley is losing their main one right downtown, where there is constantly a line….but, I digress) there wasn’t much left. Then a couple of wineries opened tasting rooms. The wine industry does bring in tourist dollars and what has followed are a couple of hotels, restaurants and a town coming back from the brink.
The wine industry isn’t without issue either though.
So the focus out in the foothills and Amador specifically has always been Zinfandel. Zinfandel has long had a running feud with Primitivo about which is the parent and which is the child.
UC Davis has researched the two variants quite a bit. Despite vintners in both regions saying that theirs is the oldest, they have common DNA and originated in Croatia. I’ll write more on this ground breaking research in the coming days.
In the Foothills though, there’s an issue afoot. Zinfandel is completely, utterly dominated by what is referred to as old vine Zinfandel. There’s no legal definition, but the term arises largely because Zinfandel vines don’t ever stop producing fruit. The average grape vine is tapped out after 30-35 years, but Zin can go at least 5 times that long. The oldest Zinfandel vines on record are in Amador County.
That’s all great right and interesting. Everyone who enjoys wine, enjoys interesting stories and interesting wines.
But, what if you’re a winery without an old vine Zinfandel vineyard? Or without access to fruit produced at one of the old vine sites?
Can we really expect someone to buy a piece of land in Amador County, plant Zinfandel and then take a back seat to others for literally a lifetime while they wait for the vines to reach old vine status?
So the region started looking for something that everyone could be a part of. Unlike another region with a pretty similar climate though, Temecula which sits within a 1 hour drive from about 25 million people in Southern California there wasn’t going to be an easy answer for Amador at least in terms of easy to grab sales.
When I started researching Amador County I came across Joe Shebi who makes the wine at a few places, not the least of which is Renwood the regions largest producer, as well as Fiddlesticks, perhaps the most critically acclaimed. He said that he went to college at Sacramento State and when he heard about the wine industry in Plymouth, about 40 miles away, he had never heard of the town.
What vintners seem to have come to agreement on, either purposefully or not, is that Barbera is their ticket.
From a marketing perspective, it’s brilliant. First and foremost, you can plant and grow the grape like all others. Barbera grows perfectly in their climate, warm days and cold night’s do the trick perfectly.
Plus, you don’t have to compete with anyone else in California. Want to sell a few cases in San Francisco? It’s a hike, but you won’t find the Napa and Sonoma guys competing with you for sales, unless they’re sourcing fruit from out your way.
But, can you sell Barbera to enough people to get “butts in the seats” as was mentioned to me at least a half dozen times?
That’s the real question. I know the wider economy has been much discussed. One thing that struck me living in a small town in San Francisco’s East Bay (basically next to Berkeley) which is listed consistently among the nation’s 10 most liberal cities in the country, were all the Trump signs. Honestly, I haven’t seen one locally yet. There are still more Bernie Sanders signs up in my neighborhood than there are Hillary signs. But, Trump’s hitting a nerve with many without a doubt, especially when I can see how people would have thought that the new economy was passing them by.
Quite clearly, there are people out in the foothills that have had the economy pass them by.