No, this isn't the Shenandoah Valley of song and legend. There's no rolling river through this valley. However, it is a beautiful valley of rolling oak-dotted hills, interspersed with green vineyards, well worth a Sunday drive. But there’s more to see here than just pretty trees.
If you’re coming south from Fair Play, the first winery that you’ll encounter is Sobon Estate, right on the edge of the Shenandoah Valley. The wines here vary widely in quality, though they make an excellent reserve zin (no really, I’m serious, this one is more than a booze bomb). I’ve also been impressed by their 2004 Reserve Carignane, which has a surprising complexity.
After Sobon Estate, there are several ways to go through the valley. You can stay on the main drag (Plymouth-Shenandoah Road), take a loop on Steiner Road, or turn off onto Shenandoah Schoolhouse Road. My recommendation is to take the Steiner Road loop and then continue down Shenandoah Schoolhouse Road.
The Steiner Road loop is home to several wineries, some more worthy of note than others. One of the biggest wineries in the area is Renwood Winery – you sometimes see their wines in grocery stores and at Cost Plus. Overall, I’m not too impressed with their offerings, other than a 1999 Amador County syrah I had once. Still, they have one of the largest and nicest tasting rooms in the valley.
One place well worth visiting on the Steiner loop is Amador Foothill Winery. Winemakers Katie Quinn and Ben Zeitman do an impressive job on just about all of their wines. My special favorite is their 2004 Katie’s Cote, a Rhone-style blend of syrah and grenache. This wine has earthly aromas, dense dark fruit flavors, with a touch of dark mocha on the finish. Excellent.
I was also impressed with their 2004 Sauvignon Blanc. This wine has just a touch of citrus on the nose, but much stronger notes of peach and apricot. Very nice and much fuller than your typical sauvignon blanc. Good acidity makes it very crisp and tart, with good notes of citrus and lemon rind. A very balanced and refreshing wine.
Once you emerge from the Steiner Road loop, cross the main highway and continue south on Shenandoah Schoolhouse Road. Give Karmere Winery a pass. We found their wines to be way too sweet and alcoholic for our tastes. They even had almond- and raspberry-flavored sparkling wines that were pretty nasty.
However, a little farther down the road and around a corner is Cooper Vineyards, where you can wash the raspberry flavor out of your mouth. A tiny tasting room packed with barrels greets you. But the wines here are consistently drinkable. Notables include their syrah, viognier and petite sirah.
Continuing south, you’ll pass Montevina Winery. Easily the largest winery in the Shenandoah Valley, Montevina wines can be found in grocery stores everywhere. Which is why I’ve never stopped in for a tasting. Maybe their wines are OK. I honestly don’t know.
On your way back to the main road, you’ll see the imposing Bella Piazza Winery on your left. Ah, Napa comes to the Sierra foothills. This large tourist trap is filled to the rafters with hideous knickknacks. Tuscan-style paintings, rugs, huge terra cotta jars – everything is for sale at Napa prices. Oh yeah, they also have a tasting room, but don’t expect to talk to the owner or winemaker. The girl who served us was nice, but knew virtually nothing about the wines. Do I even need to comment on the quality of the wines?
Once you get back to the main road, there is one more place to stop – the best winery on the whole trip. So turn right, back up the valley, to Domaine de la Terre Rouge. I can’t say enough about this place. They make – hands down – the best Rhone-style wines of any winery in Amador or Eldorado counties.
My personal favorite is the 2000 Sierra Foothills Syrah. Strong, fruit-driven aroma. Waves of dense dark fruit, pencil lead, blueberry, black pepper and spice. Very intense and complex. On the palate, again dark, huge fruit flavors, but balanced by notes of vanilla, pepper and spice. Mild tannins. Amazingly balanced and complex.
However, any of their syrahs are excellent, including their Sentinel Oak and Les Cotes de l’Quest syrahs. Their Ascent syrah has even gotten national recognition, though I’ve never been able to afford a bottle. They also make a truly excellent mourvèdre.
Yeah, I know, you just got back from Fair Play, and now I’m sending you right back down to the Shenandoah Valley. Tough.
Directions: The best way to go is to head to Sacramento and then out Highway 16 to Plymouth.
Worth a Hit: Domaine de la Terre Rouge, Amador Foothill, Sobon Estate, Cooper Vineyards
Worth a Miss: Karmere, Stonehouse, Story, Bella Piazza
Dinner: Without a doubt, the best restaurant within 10 miles of the Shenandoah Valley is Taste (http://www.restauranttaste.com/) in Plymouth. Superior food, excellent, knowledgeable service, and a good selection of local wines. A must.