In the Sierra Nevada foothills lies the county of Amador. Its rolling hills are dotted with oaks and vineyards. In the Autumn, shades of yellow, orange, and red smear together across the Shenandoah Valley like oils on a palette. Tiny, historic towns with storefronts reminiscent of gold diggin’ days offer a step back in time to a slower, simpler time to those who want to take it.
Sutter Creek is one of those Jewel of the Mother Lode type of towns. While there’s plenty of mining tours, nature, and history to explore in this region, what we’ve come to treasure are the intimate b&bs, the burgeoning wineries, the fabulous food, and the all around laid back pace with friends and family in this early-to-rise and down-with-the-sun little space.
It’s that town where everybody knows each other’s names. At a winery tasting, you refer to the delicious truffle potato chip you ate (known as crack chips by the locals) available down at the Amador Vintage Market in Plymouth www.amadorvintagemarket.com, and the pourer launches into a story about Beth (the owner) and her backstory. This goes on all weekend. The place is one big family with cousins living in outlying towns.
That’s what I noticed most during this past weekend: the theme of family and connection. We traveled with some friends. I read somewhere that friends are the family you choose. I’d have to place these friends under that umbrella. Secondly, we stayed at the Sutter Creek Inn, a delightful bed and breakfast owned and run by The Way Family and said to be the first b&b west of the Mississippi. Finally, we made an attempt to visit smaller, family-owned wineries, one of which had three family members present that we got to meet in the tasting room.
Let’s start with The Sutter Creek Inn (www.suttercreekinn.com). This was our first stay here and the Way Family was hospitable from the start. I had admired their gardens in the past and really wanted to feel the space in a way that you can only do by staying on a property. I’m so happy we did. This Inn has 17 rooms–on the large size for a b&b–but you’d never know it. The space feels intimate and nurturing. A group can stay close together, but still have their very private spaces in a rich, lush environment.
The Inn is located on the Main Street of Sutter Creek (walking distance from shops, bakeries, eateries, and darling boutique shops. (Favorite shop: cheese shop which belongs to The Miller Family and they have now moved their tasting room in so you can taste wine and cheese simultaneously. Brilliant! They remembered us because we’re on their website from last year! We had no idea. Check us out. http://www.millerwineworks.com/Tasting-Room) The lush foliage surrounding the Inn creates a secret garden feel with just the right amount of canopy and light filtering into the sitting spaces. Care has been taken to stick side-by-side hammocks under a deep green canopy of mature trees and bushes. Our patio was nicely bordered to give privacy, while allowing for an open feel for morning coffee for our party of five.
The cozy, farmhouse feel of this eclectic space can be found in such unique details as the hanging beds. (Don’t worry. If you put down a few too many Pinots during the day, you can stabilize your bed.) We loved them, though. We snuggled under the five layers of cozy blankets and my husband sang “Rock a Bye Baby” as we gently swayed to sleep. It did feel like a tree top. We also had a wood burning fireplace with the added benefit of housekeeping setting up the fire for us each day, quite a thoughtful touch. We were in The Toolshed which also offered an inside gathering spot for our fr-amily so we could hang out, drink wine, and chat at the day’s end. Coffee on this patio in the morning worked to gear up for the 9:00 breakfast bell.
We became Pavlovian by Day 2, jumping when the bell rang and securing our communal table next to this fire. With dishes like Spanish omelets, zucchini and walnut pancakes, grape juice pressed from fresh grapes, sausage, cornbread, ham, eggs, and the option for extra strong coffee through herbal tea, our breakfast was a great launch to the day.
On the second day after breakfast I caught wind of ghost hunters in the library that had been down from San Francisco with their equipment poking around town. Though we heard they’d visited before and were usually disappointed, I decided to check out the vibe for myself.
Turns out the matriarch of the house, Jane Way, who passed five years ago was a bit of an intuitive spiritualist. As a spiritual practitioner in training, this added something for me. You could feel that energy behind decisions that were made in placement and protocol and this gave some attachment that made the Inn even more interesting. When we went into the livingroom, I took this shot looking out the window. I wanted to capture the beauty of the fall color in the trees. I may have also picked up Jane at the piano. What do you think? Can you see it? The Inn is a special place, packed with history, beauty and charm. (It’s also for sale at $2,300,000 according to the local real estate office if you want to buy it!)
Now to the wineries…
The first winery we visited was Amador Cellars (www.amadorcellars.com). Amador Cellars was the 15th winery to open its doors (November, 2004). There are now around 50 wineries in Amador County. Larry and Linda Long, home winemakers from Truckee, moved to Amador 15 years ago to undertake this venture with their family. Michael, their son and winemaker, hails from Fresno State’s winemaking program. He’s an easygoing, delightful young man and greeted us upon arrival. He was the only winery person I’d called in advance for this trip and I was hoping he could teach two of our friends (beginning tasters) Winemaking 101, as well as highlight his favorite wine children. My husband and I love these boutique family operations for our inventory because they’re often up to something clever.
The unique part about the Long Family and Amador Cellars is they don’t skip any steps. They grow much of their own fruit and all processes take place on the property. That is becoming less common as wineries choose to farm out one of the steps to other wineries or businesses along the way. When they don’t skip steps, it shows up in the wine and in the atmosphere of the space. That was the case here.
Michael’s sister, Ashley, poured the wine and Linda, his mother, poured for other visitors. The barrells live in the tasting room giving it more of that boutique feel. Michael crawls up these barrels to tend to the wine throughout its life.
We loved the wines, the education, and Michael and Ashley’s warmth. The family flavor shows up in all aspects of Amador Cellars. If you’re confused about what that means, order these standout wines: 2012 Family Reserve Zin, 2012 Barbera. Thank you, Long family, for your hospitality.
Another winery we hit was Deaver because they were having a “Ports on Parades” event that looked interesting. We’d been to Deaver before and remembered the lake and lovely grounds. We signed up for this food/wine fun unsure of what one pairs with ports besides chocolate. They had six stations with various ports and a savory/sweet option at each. That was a first. Turns out port goes really well with cheddar wasabi mashed potatoes and meatballs! If ports are your thing, this is a place to check out, specifically this annual event. Bring cheese from the Miller’s cheese store in Sutter Creek, pop open some wine, and enjoy the moment in front of the lake while you recharge.
Wineries start to blend together when you hit more than three (which we did). One standout, that couldn’t blend in if it tried–and it won’t–is Andis Winery in Plymouth (www.andiswines.com).
The name is a combo of owner/spouses Andy Friedlander and Janis Akuna. Having opened the day after Thanksgiving, 2010, this ultra modern facility sits up high on a hill overlooking the Shenandoah Valley. The open, lanai feeling may trickle down from both owners who have been in Hawaii for half a century before moving to Amador County. That aloha, which we knew nothing about before we walked up the hill to attend “The Redneck Barbecue” (I mean, who doesn’t want to do that, right?), was felt nearly 5 minutes after we arrived. Winemaker Mark McKenna walked up and started chatting us up anonymously around the fire.
When he came over to say hi I actually thought he was my cousin’s son, Trevor, because he looked just like him. (Today, not as much, but remember–we did just come from Ports on Parade and a few other stops.) I asked what his name was and he told me Trevor. That’s Mark.
A Cal Geography funny guy turned winemaker, Mark McKenna showed aloha we’ll never forget. We talked story about the beginning hours of the winery. We met Lorenzo, a fifth generation winemaker descendant, who moved to Amador in the last 18 months from Italy. He pulled out the thief to share some amazing Barbera from the barrels. We met Andy who was donning a pony tail hat he later took off while comparing pony tails with another guest who had a real one. And we tasted some amazing wines, ate some succulent ribs and other barbecue, and danced to a band called the Knuckleheads, all in our brightly colored and individually expressed bandanas.
I went into this winery not expecting to take notes (my mistake), but there were a few standout wines I couldn’t forget. Mark is doing some very creative things and his passion shows in his quick walk and bright eyes when he talks about his wines. One of these creative endeavors is the 2013 Semillon, a white which won Best of Class (SF Chronicle.) The other was the 2012 Mourvedre which took the bronze at the NY World Wine & Spirits Competition. In the world of wines, these things count. In my world, I rarely drink white unless it’s Cakebread or Hanzell, and I hardly ever like anything with the M grapes besides Merlot. I loved both of these. Chew on that bone. (And I should mention that this was the only winery that all of us joined the wine club. Even our brand newbies.)
Further on Andis, Mark is using very interesting containers in their very large facility (with AWESOME bathrooms–understand I have Janis to thank for that). Check this out, guys.
That egg pod to the left is something to do with the clay and process…it was late and remember–no notebook?
And then there’s this other clay pot. See? You don’t even need to know exactly what’s happening here and you can tell it’s awesome.
By the way, sign me up for the next Redneck Barbecue, because that was a hoot!
Thank you, Mark and Andy, for a heck of a good time. You sure know how to throw a party.
Finally, no trip to Amador is ever complete without experiencing Taste. (www.restauranttaste.com) We experienced them both at the restaurant and at a pairing with Bella Grace as one of our wine club benefits with that winery. (www.bellagracevineyards.com) Taste makes things like this. The scallop dish is pretty much all I can think about–still. Oh–and the mushroom cigars. And the way they magically pair the wines and food with Bella Grace enhancing both so much.
As I review the weekend in mind, I’m back to family. The food, the wine, the entertainment, the views, the education, the music, the Autumn color–all of it made our visit outstanding. But the feeling of family, of community and story… connecting with old friends and making new ones. That’s what really made this Amador weekend magical.