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Monday, March 21, 2016

The Motherlode Revisited - Amador County, California - Part 2

There’s a smell when you enter a winery. You don’t find it in the tasting room but wander around back to the shed where they actually juice the grapes, ferment it into wine, and more than a few gallons have splashed on the ground over the years.

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Even new wineries have this sweet and slightly vinegary aroma to them. Add age and then an element of must creeps in. The older the winery, the mustier the smell that combines with the bouquet of winemaking.

Perhaps the pinnacle of this smell is surrounding us in this room, carved into the hillside underneath the pretty but unassuming house above.  Grape juice has been aging in this dusty room for over a hundred and fifty years…longer than any other winery in California.

History will note that Adam Uhlinger carved this room out in 1856 and planted some of the first vines of what we now call Zinfandel in the yard outside. Some of those vines are still producing today.

The Sobon Winery, at the eastern edge of Amador County’s Shenandoah Valley, is the current custodian of this historic land. 

Outside, the cool fall winter has played havoc on the colors of the fields where the chill air is warmed up by the yellows, oranges, and reds of the grape leaves, punctuated by the walnut trees.  The warm tasting room welcomes us with the wall of ribbons garnered by the awards the wine here has received.

Shirley Sobon mans the tasting counter as the three of us are the only customers here. Tasting is free, as it is at most of the area’s wineries, and the mood relaxed.  The wines are good and we’re offered tastes of the more expensive library wines. Although there is a fee, Mrs. Sobon must be feeling generous because she waves it for us.

I want to buy some wine and notice the discount schedule…10% for 6, 15% for a case…when I hear Mrs. Sobon say, “we can get you a better discount than what’s listed.”

Uh, oh…I know where this is going. Most, if not all, California wineries now have “wine clubs” where you sign up for regular deliveries and you can get an extra discount on the wine.

“I already belong to a wine club and I’m not interested in joining another,” I tell here.

She explains that this wine club collects your e-mail address and nothing more. No wine to buy, no deliveries, just an occasional missive on sales and other winery news. Give an e-mail address and your case discount is now 20%.

I can live with those terms and Mrs. Sobon proceeds to help me craft a delicious case of Old Vine Zinfandel, Sangiovese, and Syrah priced at about $9 per bottle.

Welcome to wine tasting, touring, and buying Amador style.

Over the hill on highway 49, you can sometimes find winemaker Allen Kreutzer manning the tiny tasting bar at Drytown Cellars. You can always find their friendly dogs welcoming you inside.

When we say we’re from the Los Angeles area, they note that it’s near Temecula. “Can you believe they charge for tasting down there?” I’m asked.

Just a week before, we were in the Temecula area and had the distinct displeasure of finding $12 tasting fees that could not be applied to your purchase.  The wine was muddy and not that good either.  Yeah, it’s pretty unbelievable.

While the friendly folks at Drytown are not in quite the dealing mood that Sobon was, we still walk away with a half case of Barbera, Zinfandel, and Tempranillo which I was able to get a 5% discount on.

Back up in Shenandoah Valley, just east of the historic town of Plymouth, we order a pizza to be cooked while we taste in the adjacent tasting room of Villa Toscano Winery.  The sign at the parking lot says beware of rattlesnake and lawyers.

Maybe the warning is appropriate because I’m trying to buy a case of old vine zin priced for wine club members at $99. It takes some serious negotiating as I try to convince the fellow behind the bar that I’m a friend of a club member (see our last visit here to see how that happened) and he’s not buying what I’m selling.

No dice, only for members. Can I sign up and immediately cancel? After much hemming and hawing, I learn that technically I can but now that I’ve let him know my devious plan, he won’t do it.

Finally, we reach an agreement that I’ll take at least three deliveries as a wine club member, show up anytime I want for the free Friday pasta buffet, before I decide to cancel and he’ll sell me that bargain priced case…oh, and I can take my first club delivery with me, saving me the price of shipping.

Not quite what I came looking for but it’ll do and if I can time my return visits properly (because I know I’ll be back up here again soon), maybe I can pick them up instead of paying for shipping.

It’s just like court…we’re fighting for our positions, state our cases, come to a settlement, shake on it, and we’re friends again.  No wonder they warn you about the lawyers along with the rattlesnakes.

Wheeling and dealing over with, my case and two bottles are loaded into our car while we pick up our pizza and head to the last stop of the day.

My favorite winery in the world requires that you turn off of highway 49 in Plymouth, find your way to Shenandoah Valley, turn left at Old Schoolhouse road, watch the small signs carefully, turn up a poorly signed rutted road, go to the end, turn left at the old farm machinery workhouse, carefully watch for the right driveway, and…finally…turn into the large parking lot next to the woodpecker-hole filled Gold Rush era miner’s shack on the edge of the Consumnes River Canyon.

Beyond another sign warning us of rattlers (it’s true too…I saw one), that old perforated miner’s shack serves as the tasting room of the great Story Winery.

We taste, looking for a good wine to go with our pizza, and decide on a nice Hilltop Old Vine Zinfandel to drink outside in the world’s prettiest picnic area with our pizza.  I ask if there are any deals that we can partake of.

The girl at the counter says that we can come back Friday for their Black Friday special (it’s a couple of days before Thanksgiving) where, for two hours in the morning, the very strong and delicious Hilltop Zin we’ll be drinking will be on sale for $70 a case. 

I can’t come back Friday; I tell her…can you give me the deal today?  We’re the last customers of the day, here all by ourselves; why not close out the day with a big case sale?

No, she can’t do that, she tells us. I thank her and tell her we’ll be sitting outside with our picnic if she changes her mind…

We’re enjoying a fantastic meal, with great wine, overlooking one of the prettiest views you’ll ever see.  Our girl, Wendy (the tasting room server), comes out to join us.

“I was just talking to the owner and I’ve got a proposal for you,” she says. “If you give me your credit card information and address now, we’ll process a sale Friday morning and ship you a case of wine at the sale price.”

Why do you think this is my favorite winery in the world?

Our total haul for this day is 4 cases…2 full cases at Sobon and Villa Toscano, several bottles from Drytown, Renwood, and our first 2 bottle for the Toscano wine club, and a case that arrived after we got home from Story…at an average price of about $9 per bottle of the best reds in the world.

The trip’s not over yet…we still have some sightseeing to do. That will be in part 3, coming very soon.

Copyright 2012 – Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved

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