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Amador Wine Country

Gold country has always been audacious and rip-roaring. No surprise—its wines are too.

The Story Winery near Plymouth offers vintages, views, and picnicking.
Photo caption
The Story Winery near Plymouth offers vintages, views, and picnicking.

Most wines need time to rest, relax, and mature. And really, don't we all?

For everything but the maturing part, I recently embarked on a tasting getaway an hour southeast of Sacramento in the foothills of Amador County, where some vines date to the late 1800s and all the wines seem amplified with a flavorful dose of the American West. The most common adjective for the area's potent reds is big—zinfandels that you drink with a knife and fork, syrahs that howl at the moon. Roughly 30 wineries offer free sips, sometimes accompanied by equally bold snacks such as spicy sausage, gingersnaps, or sourdough soaked in jalapeno olive oil.

"Amador's old vines and scorching hot days produce intensely flavorful wines," says Mark Oldman, author of Oldman's Guide to Outsmarting Wine. "And the soil isn't nutrient rich, which makes for fewer but richly flavored grapes. These wines are full-throttle, kneepads-needed monstrosities. I'm a big fan."

The wines also complement the rough-and-ready local sights along Highway 49 in hamlets like Plymouth and Amador City with their old mines, creaky saloons, and resident ghosts. An especially appealing base just 15 minutes south of the wineries is the town of Sutter Creek, its main street lined with inviting shops, restaurants, and bed-and-breakfasts.

One small confession: Sophisticated wine chitchat is not my forte. For this, I brought along the family.

"Mmmm, sweet," said Mom, as we sipped a lightly nectarous sangiovese at Vino Noceto, a family-owned winery sitting next to a walnut grove off Shenandoah Road, the grapevine-edged main drag.

"Berry," added Sis.

"The name of the wine is Marmellata, which means ‘jam' in Italian," explained owner Jim Gullett. We were standing in a barn beside a table covered in green-and-white checked plastic, while outside loomed a 10-foot-tall fiberglass dachshund head salvaged from a Doggie Diner restaurant. Gullett's spread may be goofy, but his wines sell internationally.

Three miles up Shenandoah Road we met Milan Matulich, a transplanted Croatian who pre-sides over a cavernous tasting room built into a hillside at Dobra Zemlja Winery. The place was filled with music, food, and people who had come for the unveiling of his Milan Ruz, a sweet-peppery blend of zinfandel, syrah, and sangiovese that sells for $20 in a one-liter jug with a screw cap and a cork. A cari-cature of Milan, with his handlebar mustache and Einstein cloud of hair, graces the label. "Next year," said Victoria—the label's artist, Milan's wife, and co-owner of the winery—"I will paint him in a pink tutu."

Who needs worldly discussion about ripe tannins and aromas of cauliflower when these people are all so wacky?

We concluded our trip at Incahoots BBQ, a screaming-yellow eatery on Main Street in Plymouth that served up a barbecue sampler platter (tri-tip, chicken, beef rib, pork rib, and a fiery hot link) with a side of garlicky pizza bread. As we sampled a 2001 Karly Pokerville Zinfandel that went along perfectly with the zesty feast, I said simply but with complete confidence, "That's a good wine."

Photography by Sean Arbabi

This article was first published in July 2005. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.