Before I moved to Northern California, I did not know much about wine and I did not drink much wine. All that has changed since moving to an area that is surrounded by wineries. Sure, the famous Napa and Sonoma wine regions are nearby and I have visited plenty of times, but I have also been turned off by high tasting fees, traffic gridlocks on weekends, and too many people trying to find a spot in the tasting rooms. I might have never become an oenophile or visited a winery at least once a month had I not come across the much more relaxed and less pretentious Amador County wine region where plenty of wineries still do not ask for a tasting fee (there are exceptions and I avoid them on principle) and where you can still be served by the actual wine maker and not just a person who gets paid to pour wine.
The Amador Vintners include 39 wineries (but more are added every season it seems), and I have visited 33 out of these and many of them more than once. So I feel that I am familiar enough with the region and its wine to create a best-of list. If you have not been to this region before, I highly recommend you visit and hopefully this list provides a good starting point.
Best Red Wine: Jeff Runquist Wines hands down; I have never come across a red wine that I do not like at this winery, and even though it may sound like I drink pretty much anything based on the many winery visits, this is not the case; there are plenty of wines at other wineries that I do not like. Runquist has also won its share of medals and awards to show that I am not the only one who likes its reds.
Best White Wine: Bella Grace Winery – Often white wine in the States and especially in hot regions is too sweet for me, but these whites are on the dry side. I even like the Chardonnay although I usually avoid American Chardonnay by all means, but this one is not “buttery” and that is a good trait in my book.
Best Sparking Wine: This is a tie since once again the region is not perfect for sparkling wine and the sparkling wine produced is often too sweet. I like the sparkling wine at Bella Grace Winery and at Andis Wines (even though I avoid Andis because of the tasting fee – why pay for what you can have free at a place that is just as good if not better).
But wine tasting trips are about more than just the wine itself:
Best Picnic Spot and Bocce Court at a Winery: Il Gioiello Winery is a little off the beaten path but has the nicest outdoor areas and bocce courts. We often spend the whole afternoon here; bring a picnic, buy a bottle of wine, hang out in the hammock and/or start a bocce match. This is a relaxing spot with a fantastic view that reminds me of Tuscany.
Best Supposedly Haunted Winery: Bella Grace Winery has two locations: a wine cave in the hills by Plymouth and a tasting room about 20 minutes away in an 1860-era house on main street in Sutter Creek. Supposedly, the house is haunted and some say they see the ghost in the bathroom, but I have never seen it/him. The tasting room is open seven days a week though and offers summer concerts with food in the backyard on Friday nights and those are reasons enough to visit even if you do not meet the ghost.
Best Coffee and Snacks: Andrea’s Bakery in Amador City offers amazing bread, cookies, and cakes. At some point, I have to take a break from wine tasting, and this bakery provides everything I need for an afternoon tea/coffee break and snack. The bakery provides the bread that is offered for free at the tastings at Jeff Runquist Wines, which earns the winery the spot for best bread and cheese with your wine tasting.
Best Lunch or Dinner Spot: Hotel Sutter in Plymouth offers a full bar with a hamburger menu as well as a sit-down restaurant for lunch and dinner. The large sliding glass doors to the main street are wide open during summer, and this is a great place to eat, drink, and watch people walking past in this little town that calls itself the jewel of the Mother Lode, Sutter Creek.
Best Ice Cream: Ice Cream Emporium in Sutter Creek is open till 8 pm even on a Sunday night and thus a great place to pick up a sweet treat for the summer concerts at Bella Grace on Friday nights. Personal favorite ice cream flavors are chocolate and peanut butter cup.
Best Photo Opportunity with a Dog: Vino Noceto has a great Sangiovese but is even more memorable for its large bust of a dachshund. The statue was once outside a Doggie Diner but is now in the parking lot of this winery. If you are curious about how the winery ended up with the large head of a dog, read the story here.
Most Attractive Wine Label Design: Drytown Cellars sports the winery’s century-old barn on one of my favorite labels; it is not too corny or too modern, but just right to celebrate Amador’s scenic views.
Best Brewery: Amador Brewing Company in Plymouth offers a change from wine tasting.
Amador County is definitely my favorite Northern-Californian wine country, but I still have only scratched the surface of other nearby wine regions such as Fairplay, Placer County, Clarksburg, and Lodi – so many wineries still to go before I feel I am qualified to create a best-of list for these regions (oh well, someone has to make this sacrifice I guess).