The vineyards of the Sierra Foothills date back to the Gold Rush in the 1850s. STEPHEN BROOK finds out if the wines live up to the region's glittering past.
Visitors flock to Napa and Sonoma mainly to visit wineries, those who make the journey east from San Francisco into the Sierra Foothills are as likely to be in pursuit of California’s history as a case of Zinfandel. The Foothills is the mother lode country. In the 1850s prospectors came here in their thousands to seek a share of the spoils during the Gold Rush. The rowdy boom towns of the Foothills soon attracted support services: whores, saloon operators – and grape growers who knew a burgeoning market when they saw one. By the 1860s the 4,000ha (hectares) planted with vines far surpassed Napa and Sonoma combined (today the area under vine is about 1,420ha). By 1895, long after the Gold Rush had ended, there were still about 100 wineries. Then phylloxera and Prohibition almost killed off the wine industry, and ever since the Foothills have been in a time warp which, of course, is part of the attraction for visitors.
The hills are alive
The scattered vineyards of the Foothills line the slopes from Calaveras County in the south, continuing north through Amador County, up to the lofty ridges of Eldorado County around Placerville. The vineyards can boast one resource that is irreplaceable: old vines. Pockets of Zinfandel from the 1870s and 1880s still cling on and centenarian vineyards are not uncommon. They survived largely because the Trinchero family, based in Napa Valley, bought old Zinfandel for its Sutter Home label, which later acquired fame as a mega-producer of white Zinfandel. At the same time, small family-owned vineyards and wineries kept going by selling grapes to home winemakers in San Francisco and by catering to tourists who stopped by on their way to Lake Tahoe or Reno.The Foothills wines have not become chic or attained cult status because much of the winemaking remains
rustic and old-fashioned. Indeed, there are still dreadful wines to be found up here. The thin granitic and volcanic soils, as well as the prolonged light exposure and cool nights that are a consequence of the vineyards’ elevation, encourage high tannin levels which need to be tamed by skilful farming and winemaking. Not everyone succeeds.The Foothills also lose out in the fashion stakes because of the scarcity of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Grapes ripen two weeks later than along the North Coast and their naturally high acidity is not always balanced by full ripeness in the case of varieties such as Cabernet. On the other hand, Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel, Syrah and some Italian varieties do very well, but commercial demand for them can be uneven.But the Foothills wine scene has grown in sophistication in the past 10 years. The three leading wineries in Eldorado County are Madrona, Boeger and Sierra Vista. Madrona’s owner, Dick Bush, has been growing grapes at an elevation of 3,000 feet for nearly 30 years, and he has been making wine for 20. He produces one of the area’s few outstanding Chardonnays, delicious reds from Zinfandel, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, and even superb late-harvest Riesling when the climate is favourable. Boeger is based in an 1872 winery, and Greg Boeger has a vast array of grape varieties that includes Tempranillo and Refosco as well as Zinfandel, Merlot, and Barbera. The Sierra Vista estate is deservedly well known for its delicious Syrah, as well as Rhône-style blends.
The Foothills’ best-known region lies further south in Amador County, where most of the old Zinfandel vineyards are located. Within Amador there are two sub-appellations, Shenandoah and Fiddletown, both renowned for Zinfandel. It’s a warm region, but cool night-time breezes wafting down from the mountains keep acidity levels high. Nonetheless Amador Zinfandel can have a raisiny character – taken to excess, and combined with high acidity, this can result in a fairly astringent glass of wine. Some of the
old-time growers with access to potentially tremendous fruit have stumbled when they turned their hands to winemaking, and quality in Amador is desperately uneven.Two wineries lead the way. The first is Renwood, owned by a flamboyant Boston businessman called Robert Smerling. He has invested hugely in the vineyards, and planted 121ha of ‘heritage’ Zinfandel. The ancient Zinfandel vines were planted on their own roots, making them susceptible to phylloxera. Smerling’s team have taken cuttings from the old vines, then planted them on resistant rootstocks. Renwood now produces seven Zinfandels, most of them from single vineyards. The Barberas are terrific too, sweet and oaky, and a world apart from the Barbera-based jug wines of California’s murky past. Even the Nebbiolo is more than a mere curiosity, and Smerling is justifiably proud of his port-style wines, which are made from Portuguese varieties and aged for four years in American oak.Domaine de la Terre Rouge in Fiddletown, founded by William Easton in 1987, focuses on Rhône varieties and blends. Easton succeeds far better than most with white Rhône varietals, both separately and in the blend he calls Enigma. There are three Syrahs, of which the middle-of-the-range Sierra Foothills bottling is the best balanced. Easton has a label bearing his own name which is reserved for Zinfandel, Cabernet, and excellent Barbera. The priciest wines are the Estate range, but I find them rather too extracted and usually prefer more modest bottlings.Leon Sobon also owns two wineries; one bears his name, the other is called Shenandoah Vineyards. A former Lockheed scientist, Sobon retired to the Hills with his family in the late 1970s. The wineries produce almost everything: Rhône-variety whites and reds, Sangiovese and Barbera, a fine range of Zinfandels, and some rather dull Sauvignon and Sémillon. Small lots of exceptional wines are now released under a ‘Signature Select’ label. Quality can be uneven, and the Sobon label wines usually offer more concentration than the cheaper Shenandoah range.It’s baffling that the one consistently disappointing producer is Montevina, which was the first winery to be established in the Foothills after Prohibition. Founded in 1970, it was bought by the Trinchero family of Sutter Home in 1988. It produces Zinfandel of course, but its true speciality is a wide range of Italian varieties. You can find Barbera, Aleatico, Refosco, Pinot Grigio, and any number of blends. But apart from the premium Terra d’Oro range, the wines are dilute and simple. There’s no shortage of investment at Montevina, in the vineyards as well as the winery, but it doesn’t show in the wines. One winery that has a good track record for an Italian variety is Noceto, which somehow survives by producing nothing but Sangiovese from a variety of clones.Down in Calaveras County the leading winery used to be Stevenot, but it has for some time been overshadowed by Kautz Ironstone. The Kautzes are grape farmers on an epic scale, with about 2,025 ha in the Central Valley and a trifling 28ha in the Foothills. All the Ironstone wines are sold under the California appellation, giving winemaker Steve Millier maximum flexibility when it comes to blending. So in a sense the wines aren’t all that authentic as examples of the Foothills style. But they are fruity, very well made and, by California standards, sensibly priced.Nonetheless the nerve centre of the Foothills remains Amador County, with its hit-and-miss Zinfandels, its diverse grape varieties, and its quirky growers and winemakers. If wine styles from the better known regions such as Napa and Sonoma have become all too predictable over recent years, the Foothills remains a region where you can still find the unexpected.
Stephen Brook is a contributing editor to Decanter
Written by STEPHEN BROOK