Monday, June 23, 2014

CLASSIC TRIP - Amador County and Gold Country, California 1998 - Part 2

For those of you who are tired of all the "Napa Valley" theatrics of the wineries...i.e. overcharging for tasting, castles, gondolas, etc...California offers many other wine countries.  From the almost completely unknown Cucamonga Valley by L.A., Temecula even farther south, Monterey, Mendocino, Lodi and more.  My favorite of them all is little Amador County, about halfway between Lake Tahoe and Sacramento.  Still mainly undiscovered, this is California's oldest continuing wine producing area.  It's unpretentious, has great wine (especially reds like Zinfandel), and you can still find free and cheap tastes there.  We go there as often as we can...we were there last in June of '09.

Here's part 2 of our Amador Country trip from 1998 where we go from possibly the most historic site in California (part 1) and delve deeper into the wineries and tasting rooms of the region...

After a few hours in Coloma, we start to head south on highway 49 towards our lodging in Ione. Along the way, we decide to have lunch in Plymouth-one of the many Gold Rush era towns dotting the hills here. Driving down Plymouth’s small main street we do not see a single restaurant though we do see many saloons. Back out on the edge of town is Marlene & Greg’s Diner which serves a very nice and reasonable lunch.

Still with a couple of hours to kill before check-in time at the Heirloom, we head over to our main weekend destination, the Shanandoah Valley just outside of Plymouth. This is California’s oldest wine region. There are still vines growing-and producing-in this area that date back over 125 years.
Picture courtesy of Wikimedia and Steve Howe at
Under CC-BY license
There are over a dozen wineries here so we just hit a few today with plans to return tomorrow. First is the Montevina Winery, recommended by our local wine merchant. In the modern mission-style tasting room we try several good wines. Our favorites are the superb refosco (which is my number one pick of the entire weekend) and the sangiovese.

Next, we head over the Shanandoah Vineyards. Shanandoah is owned by the oldest winery in the state, the nearby Sobon Estate. The wines here are okay, but I guess being the oldest is not necessarily the best. Nothing to knock your socks off here.

We finish off this afternoon’s tasting at Renwood Winery. Several wines here really, really blew us away. The barbera was like drinking velvet, but at $35 was a bit out of reach today. Their old-growth zinfandel was superb and a drink of living history made from vines that were alive with the 49'ers. The sangiovese bested even Atlas Peak’s stunning entry. We take a couple of bottles of the sangiovese and some delicious muscat for later and head over to Ione to check-in to our room.
Driving into Ione is much like any of the other Gold Rush era towns here except Ione is not a gold’s a brick town. Ione, while contemporary with the other mining towns here such as Sutter Creek, Jackson, and Amador City, was not a gold-harboring site. Rather, it made it’s living making bricks from its abundant clay that the other more famous nearby towns were built out of.

Coming in the first thing you notice is an imposing, castle-like building on the north end of town that dominates the landscape. It turns out that the “castle” is the main administration building of the local juvenile hall.

Today, Ione’s main industries are inmates (the facility has since been closed-ed) and fireworks. The local pyrotechnics factory supplies Disney with it’s spectacular shells that light up the magic kingdom. Due to this, Ione proudly puts on the Sierra’s biggest and brightest fireworks show...for free! Only, the skip the fourth (the company’s biggest business day) and celebrate on the fifth when more of the employees can put on and enjoy the show.

The Heirloom is located at the end of a 1/4 mile drive just off of the main highway through town. Separated from a nearby strip mall and the rest of the town by a barrier of big old trees, it retains a seclusion and tranquility that really help recharge your batteries.

The owners, Millicent and Pat, go out of their way to make you comfortable at the 6 room inn. 4 rooms, including ours, are located on the second floor of the circa 1863 main building and 2 more are located in an adobe walled cottage nearby.

Our room included a fireplace, private bathroom, queen size bed and balcony. After a day of touring & wine tasting we quickly settle for a nap after checking in.

Dinner that evening was at the Palace Hotel and Saloon in nearby Sutter Creek. While looking a little tacky from the outside, we were pleasantly surprised by the quality and value of the food. The service and atmosphere were also top notch. The owners of the inn and other guests were surprised at this because the Palace is kind of considered the “low rent” dining establishment of the area.

Breakfast the next morning, July 4th, was served out in the garden with a quiche, fruit, and a special patriotic shortcake with an America flag sticking out of it. Despite Millicent and Pat’s efforts to include at least two parties at each table, most guests stuck to themselves on this first day, which is too bad because a big part of the B & B experience is to meet new people. The next day would be different though.

Now we had a full day to tour the local wine country. First stop: California’s oldest continuously operating winery...the Sobon Estate.

If you’re a wine lover, you know that California is one of the top wine producers in the world. What most don’t know is that Napa Valley is not where the state’s wine industry started. That honor goes to Amador County and the Sierra Foothill area known as the Shanandoah Valley.

To see where it all started, I recommend that all wine lovers make the pilgrimage to the humble little back to before the Civil at the Sobon Estate. The estate has a historical museum...admission free...with artifacts of 19th century life and wine making. The museums goes through 5 areas, each one a little older, until you end up in the original wine cellar dug into the hill those many years ago.

It’s a small room actually, no larger that many living rooms, that is still used by the winery to age the wine in oak barrels. Nothing has changed, except the addition of electric light, in all those years. It’s an awesome sight.

For all that, however, the wines produced by Sobon are rather pedestrian but it is worth it to buy a bottle as a souvenir of California wine history.

Next, we head over to the Deaver Vineyards. The Deavers not only run a winery, but also run the Amador Harvest Bed & Breakfast (on the grounds of the winery) and the Amador Flower Nursery nearby, which is world-renowned for its day lillies.

Being July 4th, there are numerous red, white and blue banners and baloons. Tables and a big barbecue are set up on the grounds. A 2 man band is preparing to play. Is it a private party? We don’t know but a sign out front says the tasting room is open so we head on in.

Mike Deaver, his family, and employees are busy manning the tasting counter. We quickly line up for some samples and taste some fine wine. The Deavers best, however, are their port wines which just tickles the palate and goes down ever so smoothly. Mike then asks us “are you staying for the barbecue?”.

We don’t know, we reply. “It’s free”, he says. Well, in that case...
We feasted on barbecued bratwurst and burgers. Washed down with free sodas and water. To ease our guilty conscience, we buy a bottle of Deaver’s sauvignon blanc to drink with our meal. This was all while we sat on the beautiful green lawn on the banks of their little lake and listening to the surprisingly good music put out by the band...easily the biggest bargain of the weekend.

After lunch, we took a walk around the lake, watching the local birds and getting a close-up look at the vineyards.
After the great lunch break at the Deaver place, we continued over to Story Winery with its tasting room in the ancient miner’s cabin. The wine at Story is good, very good, especially the whites. What really sets them apart from the rest is the view over the Consumnes River canyon from their tasting area. We saw several eagles while relaxing here. Story also has an old growth zinfandel (like many here do) on ancient vines...but with a difference. These vines recieve only rain water, no irrigation. The result is an intensely flavored fruit that passes that excellent quality on to the wine.

That was it for the wine tasting, although there are many other wineries in the area we’ll have to get to next time. For now, it was back to the inn with our trunk load of wine to wind down, relax, and get ready for dinner.

After a nap and a very pleasant stroll along the banks of Sutter creek, we head over for dinner at the nearby, historic Ione Hotel.

Here you can have some very good food served by candle light right off of the old western-style saloon. Service is also excellent here and prices, while not cheap, were still reasonable. We walked around the small downtown area of Ione and then headed back to the inn.

Another restful night, another great breakfast (this time with some other guests to share our table) and then it was time to head back home. That evening they tell us Ione had a great fireworks show, oh well, maybe next time we’ll get to see it.



  1. I love Amador as well. Great wines, relaxing atmosphere, and beautiful scenery. You certainly visited some of the best wineries.

    I'd recommend you stop at Young's Vineyard on your next visit. Their red wines are outstanding and it's a beautiful setting with a small lake and lots of flowering gardens.

    Taste is a first class place for dinner. It's a small restaurant in downtown Plymouth. Reservations are recommended.

  2. I will have to try that. Last time we were there (in June), we just dropped down from Lake Tahoe for a half-day side trip and we wanted to make sure we had a meal at the Kirkwood Inn on the way back so we didn't have any meals in Amador. Now that the Heirloom is no longer in the B&B business, do you have any recommendations for hotels in the area?

    1. We like Foxes Inn in Sutter Creek. The Days Inn in Sutter Creek is also surprisingly nice and they have excellent prices.

  3. Try the Imperial Hotel in Amador City for lodging. Amador city is but a golden speck along the highway to Sutter Creek and Jackson.

    I would know - I'm a lifelong Amador County resident.

  4. Thanks for the recommendation, unfortunately it doesn't seem to be wheelchair accessible. It seems that Jackson and Placerville are the closest places that offer decent accessible accommodations, with one hotel in Sutter Creek also offering accessible rooms.

  5. I LOVE Amador wine country! I grew up near there and one of our friends even owned a winery, so we spent a bit of time in the area. They make great Barberras in that area too.

  6. This is a really special area to me. This isn't far from where I live in Sacramento. I've definitely explored this area a bit. If you want to see an out of the way small town, Volcano is interesting.

    However, Sutter Creek is a special area for me - it's where I got married. I am not sure if you saw it on the side of the road but there is a beautiful place for weddings and receptions just as you get into town. There is a park area with a lot of green and towards the back there is the fountain. We have a friend that is in a wheelchair and she went to our wedding so the area is wheelchair accessible. Very special memories there!

    Here's a photo of it from my site (I have a lot of better pictures but none posted anywhere right now)

  7. As a wine enthusiast, my travels have taken me to a wide variety of vineyards and wine areas of France and Italy, and of course to the wonderful gardens of the wineries and surrounding places. Such spectacular fountains, planters and statuary! Citrus and olive trees in beautiful planters, stone statuary in the midst of bubbling fountains, elaborate terra cotta creations…. Imagine my pleasure, then, when I walked into Authentic Provence in West Palm Beach, Florida. In a beautiful environment of running water and good smells, the owners have sourced one of the finest collections of European garden antiques that I have seen in the USA: statues, fountains, planters (note especially the classic Caisse de Versailles, and Anduze pottery), terra cotta shields, stone animals, copper pots, garden spouts, etc. They also have beautiful stone fireplaces, re-purposed tiles, and many other specialty items. They are available online at, and can arrange shipping anywhere in the US. Well worth a visit!