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Previously published in Drink-Up Magazine's on-line site.
The Sierra Foothills, a broad-brush grape growing appellation stretching over 250 miles of ruggedly gorgeorus land from Yosemite north to Grass Valley, is not an easy region to classify. In the past, it was know as the source of rough-hewn Zinfandel wines but today you are more likely to find elegant and even exotic wines made from grapes whose ancestral homes include France's Rhone Valley or Bordeaux region or Spain's Priorat.
In fact, the elephant in the room of the California wine industry is that the Sierra Foothills wins a wildly disproportionate amount of gold medal awards for a wide variety of red wines at most every major wine competition. Case in point is the 2011 California State Fair. Sierra Foothill producers garnered 51 gold or double gold medals, while the nearest competitor, Napa, took a mere 26. The other wine producing regions were far down the list. These award results are not an anomaly, but a recognized trend.
Critics, consumers and members of the wine trade are starting to wonder what exactly is going on up in them thar hills... And with good reason. Wine tourism is booming in the Sierra Foothills, as consumers make the connection to that the intimate tastings in the region are "like Napa 20 years ago" and offer "great value for money without the crowds".
It is true that your Grandpa will remember Foothill Zinfandel as the iconic red wine from the Foothill region. The amount of producers in the entire region could be counted on two hands. The wines produced tended to match the quaint and rustics aspect of the region. Personalities trumped process when it came to production methods. Yet a niche was carved out that somehow stuck in the minds of the consumer related to Zinfandel. That is the singular but limiting aspect of the past that the Sierra Foothills carries forth today.
Due credit must be given to the Foothills for helping to save the Zinfandel grape, when many of the old vines were being ripped out to plant Merlot - of all things. And it is true that the popularity of White Zin created demand for, and thus saved, Zinfandel grapes from all being eradicated. But that, folks, is your Grandpa's story.
Flash to the Present where there are over 200 wineries producing wines in the Foothills from over 50 grape varieties. Yes, large amounts of Zinfandel grapes are still cultivated in the Foothills and the resulting Zinfandel wines are created in almost as many styles as there are stars in the sky. But that is the legacy of the past - it is not the story of the present, nor is it the promise of the future.
Today's producers have the amazing good fortune to not be bound by any rules. There IS no single Foothill wine style that has been developed or is uniquely expressive of the region. Instead, we are in the midst of a furious burst of creativity quite like the 1849 Gold Rush. Each producer seems to be bound and determined to develop their iconic wine style as the benchmark for the area. This petri dish of unbridled artistic and commercial competition is the driving force for the boom in wine quality and explosion of diversity in wine styles that is underway.
The concept of terrior always needs to be addressed for a proper discussion of wines from a specific region. With apologies to the French, terrior translates to "everything associated with the creation of the wine but the wine". In the Foothills, terrior means anything from the soil to the clonal selection for the vines to the slobbery winery dog to the fact that the winemaker is a Giants fan. To get a true sense of Foothill terrior, an interested wine taster must get out and make footprints in a lot of (sometimes remote) tasting rooms. But that is part, no most, of the fun! You will never regret a decision to travel, sip and swirl with the goal of finding your favorite Foothill region and your favorite Foothill producer.
Like sweet wines? Check out the wide range of Port styles in the Foothills! Like oaky Chard? Go find an oak-bomb with big buttery fruit! Like sweet pink stuff? Twist open a cold White Zin! Like amazing and well-priced red wines? Can't miss!
Start with a trip to Murphys in Calaveras County. Stroll the main street, taste some great wines and select some rich reds and crisp whites to take home to show off. For a measured dose of great wine and good humor, stop at Twisted Oak and ask about the rubber chicken. Have a meal at one of the amazing Murphys eateries featuring local produce and local wines. Schedule your next trip for Amador's Shenandoah Valley and plan to enjoy Big Zins and Barberas. Stay in Sutter Creek and visit the tasting room of a Foothills Wine Pioneer, Scott Harvey. After that, plan to taste in southern El Dorado County's Fairplay region. Enjoy the large cluster of high-quality wineries and don't miss Windwalker Vineyards, where Jim Taft just won half a gazillion gold medals at the State Fair. Then hit the Carson Road Wineries along Highway 50 east of Placerville and be sure to stop at Crystal Basin Cellars to barrel taste the next vintage of powerful reds. Lastly, don't neglect the Highway 80 corridor, where little winery gems are crafting great wines like at Mount Vernon, where you can enjoy a wine dinner in their cave.
Two things about the future of Foothill wines are certain. They are getting better all the time and they not going away. It is interesting to speculate if the region will ultimately become specialized and center on the production of a certain family of grapes, say the Rhones. Or if the current trend of planting almost anything that will produce wine will continue. One thing for certain is that the Foothills will never become the 'new' Napa and trade on an Adult Disneyland theme. The Foothills has its unique and vibrant culture and the wine producers aim to keep it that way. You are Now on Notice that the Foothills is actively auditioning to be your favorite wine region!