Wine

Why Many of California’s Best-Known Winemakers Flock to Amador County

Amador County is a whirlwind of soil types and back roads, but within it lies a treasure trove of vinous gold with exceptional value

Andis Wines
Andis Wines is just one of Amador County’s many producers. Photo courtesy of Andis Wines.

The idea of getting off the beaten path of California wine trails isn’t new, with buyers and consumers alike branching out into lesser-known regions like Paso Robles, Temecula Valley, and Livermore Valley with increasing interest. Yet few ever bother to venture into the maze of dirt roads that is Amador County, a region that is as difficult to traverse on wine shelves as it is via Google Maps.

I know firsthand: I moved to Amador County from New York City eight years ago and am still trying to figure out these back roads. My fiancé, Chris Walsh, owns and operates The End of Nowhere, a small, Amador-based wine label that affectionately nods to our remote location. This isn’t an exaggeration—Amador is a region where food delivery doesn’t exist, cell phones rarely work, and sommelier is a foreign word for most. 

Yet for all the times I’ve landed at a dead end, I’ve found as many hidden vineyards and secret sites for world-class wines. Usually, it’s taken getting lost to find them, which could explain why the area—despite having a 170-year-old viticultural history—isn’t just off the collective wine radar, but practically unknown to most professionals outside of the Golden State. 

For those who know it, Amador County is a slice of California teeming with opportunityand not only for the well-funded. Rather, Amador and its wines offer an uncommon degree of value to everyone from farmers and winemakers to distributors and casual connoisseurs. This is a region worth knowing, and many of California’s best winemakers are already zeroing in on its terroir.

A Geological Mosaic

Technically, the region lies within the broad Sierra Foothills AVA, which covers some 2.6 million acres. Within that mass of geography are a dozen or so sub-AVAs and eight counties (which also act as their own AVAs). The scale of this labyrinth-like region and its distance from major cities (the closest is Sacramento, located 40 miles from the edge of the county) has left the nuanced terroirs of Amador County in the shadows. 

“When I saw the gorgeous soils out there, I was seriously doing somersaults in my car seat while looking out the window,” says Napa-based winemaker Helen Keplinger, who has been producing wine from Amador County since 2006 under her Keplinger Wines label. “The soils out there are incredible.” 

Amador gets its versatility from the geological chaos that formed the Sierra Nevada, creating a series of unique meso- and microclimates. These foothills and steep mountainsides create a range of aspects, so vineyards face all directions, allowing them to absorb sunlight at various times of day to yield complex wines. The dirt here forms a patchwork of granite, limestone, loam, sand, and iron-rich volcanic flows with fanciful names like Josephine Mariposa. Elevations are similarly varied, ranging from 600 to over 3,000 feet, creating climatic pockets that are alternately Mediterranean and alpine.

Unlike coastal regions, where marine fog often makes warming and cooling patterns more gradual, Amador experiences wild diurnal temperature shiftsoften up to 50 degreeswhich take place rapidly, slowing ripening at an incredible rate. 

“I think that Amador is really seen as being hot, but with the massive diurnal shift, there’s this potential to preserve acidity but still get beautiful ripening conditions,” explains winemaker Jessica Tarpy, who makes Amador County AVA wine for Napa-based labels Favia and Gather and local estate vineyard project Casino Mine Ranch

Shake Ridge Vineyards
Shake Ridge Vineyards. Photo courtesy of Shake Ridge Vineyards.

Varietal Treasures

Historically, Amador has been known for its old, head-trained vines, particularly those of Zinfandel, many of which were planted in the wake of California’s Gold Rush, when settlers developed vineyards to quench the thirst of early miners. Incredible fruit from these old vines remains at historic Amador sites such as the Original Grand Père, Rinaldi, Cooper, and Deaver vineyards.

Like the ’49ers who flocked to these hillsides to pan for gold, winemakers looking for something different have been flocking to the Foothills for decades. It was a hunt for Grenache on highly mineral soils that sent Keplinger to Amador County. Untouched, dry-farmed Zinfandel led Larry Turley of Turley Wine Cellars to the heartland of the region. Finding these local treasures has inspired many winemakers to dive even further into the recesses of Amador, investigating old family properties and even setting up wineries within the county—like Bill Easton, a founding member of the Rhône Rangers, who created his Terre Rouge and Easton labels here in the 1980s.

“What got us excited was going into the Foothills and finding these old-vine vineyards and old-school farmers who have been working this place for a long, long time,” says Mayaan Koschitzky, the Napa-based director of winemaking for Atelier Melka, which has consulted for several wineries in Amador since 2016, including Andis and Renwood. “I think what people don’t really understand about the Foothills is the amount of variation you have, combined with the history and heritage of the sites here.” 

“The value is huge in Amador. We are able to practice precision viticulture at a lower cost than in other regions.” —Jessica Tarpy, Favia, Gather, and Casino Mine Ranch

In fact, Jackson, Californiathe county seat of Amadorwas home to one of the first viticultural research stations in the state, planted in 1889. Later, it was the site of early collaborations with UC Davis viticulturists, particularly Dr. Austin Goheen, who identified 132 ancient cultivars on the site. In the end, 29 of those varieties were propagated by Foundation Plant Services and now form the backbone of grapevine material in vineyards across California. 

“For us, winemaking is all about a sense of place and the story, and Amador has that and quality,” says Koschitzky. “The combination of soils, slopes, altitude, vine age, and varieties create a perfect storm for making unique wines.” 

Dozens of modern vintners from outside the area—including Keplinger and Tarpy—discovered Amador via Shake Ridge Vineyards, one of Amador’s most sought-after sites. This 46-acre ranch in the heart of Amador County was founded in 2003 and is farmed by viticulturist Ann Kraemer.

“I came up here thinking we could grow grapes with great quality,” says Kraemer, who came to Amador County after a career developing vineyards in Napa, Sonoma, and Chile. “We have pretty amazing, variable terroir, and I thought there were huge opportunities for other grape varieties.”

The sitewhich is planted to 13 varieties like Greco di Tufo, Tempranillo, and Syrah on a range of slopesis a microcosm for Amador County at large, showcasing the potential of traditional and avant-garde grape varieties in this region. Shake Ridge and its house label Yorba have largely proven that grapes considered obscure in California can thrive in Amador. While Zinfandel has long been the calling card of Amador, Mediterranean varieties like Grenache, Sangiovese, Vermentino, and beyond have developed a foothold.

Shake Ridge Vineyards
Photo courtesy of Shake Ridge Vineyards.

Hitting Pay Dirt

The historical value of Amador’s vines is unquestionable, but equally exciting is the financial value Amador continues to offer today. The combination of lower land prices and divergent terroirs allows growers and winemakers to experiment on a scale that’s financially viable and delicious for the rest of us. 

“The value is huge in Amador. We are able to practice precision viticulture at a lower cost than in other regions,” says Tarpy. Not only does that equate to a lower barrier of entry for vintners, but it means a low barrier for consumers as well; Casino Mine Ranch’s top-tier wines, for example, retail for around $40.

Historically, sharing that value with professionals and consumers in major markets has been challenging. Previous generations sold most of their wines directly from tasting rooms, while large portions of the local grape yield were sold in bulk. The handful of wineries focused on quality often weren’t producing at volumes to justify widespread distribution.

“I think Amador is still fighting a stigma from the ’80s or ’90s,” says Koschitsky, referencing an era when White Zinfandel and high-alcohol reds dominated local production. “Even though the wines are at a lower price point, the new producers are presenting a very high quality, and making wines anyone can really appreciate.” 

Today, the new generation of winemakers—both locals and transplants—has increased the distribution of these wines and is helping Amador make headway with consumers and professionals at all levels. “The biggest problem is that people [outside of California] have no idea where it is,” says Desmond Echavarrie, MS, the owner and CEO of Scale Wine Group, which distributes several wines from Sierra Foothills AVAs, including those from Keplinger Wines. “People are really interested to discover some of the lesser-known regions in California. They have no frame of reference, so [Amador] is a great opportunity to be able to talk about the incredible diversity of soils found in some of these areas.” 

As consumers become more interested in exploring unfamiliar grape varieties—and as many wines from established regions climb in price—many are betting that Amador County will become a go-to for buyers and producers alike.

“You’re going to have more young winemakers looking to the frontiers of quality wine production and viticulture … to great pieces of dirt where they can make a wine of real character,” says Echavarrie. “You just have to get the wine into people’s mouths.” 

Laura Burgess is a writer based in California’s Sierra Foothills. Her work has been featured in Real Simple, Christie’s Luxury Real Estate Magazine, Vinepair, The Kitchn, and more. She writes about wine, spirits, and the intersection of luxury and the great outdoors. Find her @laurauncorked.

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