Looking for an alternative to Napa and Sonoma wine country? Look no further than the Sierra Nevada foothills, which have an equally impressive history that dates back to the Gold Rush, when countless treasure seekers came to California from Europe. When mining gold proved elusive, many struck it rich, or at least forgot their misery, by making and selling wine produced from Old World vines.
The tradition continues throughout the hundreds of wineries, large and small, tucked in the Sierra Nevada foothills today. Although it is one of the lesser-known Californian appellations, enthusiasts who have discovered it rave over the passionate innovation tasted in the varietals and blends. In addition, meeting the winemaker during a tasting is a frequent bonus.
Millions of diverse microclimates found at the higher elevations affect the grapes’ tastes. So does summer’s intense daytime heat followed by a nightly cooling, not from a moist fog, but instead, from breezes swept down from mountains.
With its Mediterranean-like environs, it is no surprise that the wines of the Sierra Nevada often reflect their Italian and French heritage. The Super Tuscan wines, sangiovese and barbera, and those from the Rhone Valley region, such as viognier, are among the most popular.
Sierra Nevada wineries are easily accessible from Sacramento, San Francisco—even Lake Tahoe (see “How to Get There,” below). The majority offer a laid-back atmosphere, and low-cost or free tastings, making them non-threatening to wine novices and agreeable to all. Call prior to your visit to assure that the winery is open.
Oenophiles start licking their lips at the county line, as Amador’s fame primarily comes from its big-flavored zinfandels and barberas.
Mention barbera wine, and Cooper Wine and Vineyards’ name is sure to follow. Every June, the acclaimed Barbera Festival occurs here, and it is always a sell-out. Accompanying the hardy red are other wines like roussanne.
Sobon Estate deliciously sets taste buds dancing with their zesty zins. View three centuries of wine-making artifacts, starting with those of the original 1850s winemaker, at the free museum. The family’s other winery, Shenandoah Vineyards, is located nearby.
Bring a picnic to enjoy with a glass of wine aside Deaver Vineyards’ bucolic lake. The oldest of their wines is an old-vine zin grown from vines planted by Deaver ancestors in 1855.
If you are short on time, head up Highway 4 from Angels Camp to Murphys, where at least 10 wineries provide tastings.
For fun, take Twisted Oak’s first entrance at their Vallecito winery and travel up through the Rubber Chicken Forest. The sense of wackiness ends with a sip of their wines, many Spanish-influenced.
Enter Lavender Ridge Vineyards’ tasting room in downtown Murphys for wines with a French flair like a roussane. Join a cheese-pairing class led by respected national cheese monger Judy Creighton.
“Pog Mo Thoin,” the flavor-depth red wine made at Irish Vineyards is the Gaelic saying that involves lips and buttocks as a response to anyone snobby about wine.
Gold was discovered here in 1849, and continues to be found—only now in liquid form.
Nearby in Fair Play, at Perry Creek Winery their dancing Zinman sets the good mood in motion for tasting their zins, barberas, and other wines including chardonnay.
Madroña Vineyards, in the Apple Hill region, believes in being stewards of the land, and offers malbec, nebbiolo, and dry riesling to tempt all wine lovers.
Frenchman Claude Chana was a lucky miner who struck gold and then began producing wine. The tradition continues.
The Spanish heritage of Viña Castellano’s owners is appreciated with samplings of full-bodied tempranillo, mourvedre/monastell, and “Abuelita,” named for their grandmother.
Lone Buffalo Winery’s winemaker’s passion for western heritage, particularly bison, is honored with a cabernet sauvignon called “Noble Beast” and a syrah cleverly named “Where the Buffalo Roams.”
How to Get There:
Visiting Sierra Nevada foothill wineries is easy from Sacramento and San Francisco as most wineries are easily accessible from Highways 4, 49, 50, and I-80.
Visit Sierra Nevada foothill wineries while heading up to Lake Tahoe from the Bay Area or Central Valley. Most wineries are easily accessible from Highways 4, 50, and I-80.
—By LJ Bottjer
LJ Bottjer is a cultural chameleon whose work has appeared with CBS News, the New York Times Regional Newspaper Group, and Travel & Leisure.