The Sierra Foothills
Rugged, high in elevation and extreme, the Sierra Foothills runs north to south roughly from Lake Tahoe to Yosemite National Park. A long, spread-out expanse near the city of Sacramento, the area encompasses several sub-regions known in their own right that include Amador County, the Shenandoah Valley, El Dorado, Placer and, further south, Calaveras, a spot made famous by Mark Twain and a jumping frog.
Grapes were first planted here in the early 1800s; many century-old vines still flourish in the Foothills today. While the region’s wines are gaining both in reputation and sophistication, a pioneering spirit remains among growers and winemakers. Not for the faint of heart or the easily lonely, it is a place where vintners have been given time and space to experiment, soulfully searching for magic like the Gold Rushers before them.—Virginie Boone
For fans of Rhône varieties and old-vine Zinfandel, the Sierra Foothills is a true treasure trove.
At 250 miles long and 40–50 miles wide, the Sierra Foothills appellation covers 2.6 million acres over eight counties: Amador, Calaveras, El Dorado, Mariposa, Nevada, Placer, Tuolumne and Yuba, with the Sierra Crest to the east. It’s one of California’s largest and most diverse appellations.
Rhône varieties—most notably Syrah—as well as Sangiovese, Barbera, Nebbiolo and Sauvignon Blanc have helped to define the area. Old-vine Zinfandel also has a long history here in the heart of Gold Rush country. —Virginie Boone
Rhônes on the Range
William Easton founded Domaine de la Terre Rouge in Amador’s Shenandoah Valley in the mid 1980s, specializing in Rhône varieties. Easton says he’s learned that the Foothills can grow practically any grape variety well, if it’s planted in the right site.
An intellectual foodie who fell in love with the Rhône as a wine retailer, Easton moved to Fiddletown from Berkeley in the early 1980s. He was fascinated by the town’s microclimate and rich, old-vine Zins.
At the time, the lone Rhône wine hailing from the foothills was Sierra Vista’s Syrah, which Easton had been selling at his shop.
Today, Easton produces up to six different Syrahs, many of them vineyard-designated. He calls Syrah the perfect varietal for the Sierra Foothills because of its quality and ability to develop with age.
His case is made convincingly via Terre Rouge Ascent, coaxed from grapes grown at an average of 3,000 feet. The highest-regarded wine ever made in the region, it’s a Syrah of intense complexity, fine tannins and craftsman-like structure.
Keeping Things Cool
In addition to Syrah, Terre Rouge produces a Vin Gris, Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Viognier and Mourvèdre. It also makes Rhône-style blends: the white Enigma (Marsanne-Roussanne-Viognier) and two reds, Tête-à-Tête (Syrah-based) and Noir “Grande Année” (Grenache-based).
Occasionally, the company releases apéritif and dessert wines.
Easton has led the charge among regional winemakers to hone in on cooler, higher-elevation sites based ideally in volcanic, decomposed red-granite soils.
In addition to higher elevations, growers are seeking out canyons where cold air sinks, as the nights are colder and soils warm up late. Temperatures can vary by 40–50 degrees between day and night. Such locations allow winemakers to tame wines from jammy, overripe monsters to sublimely aromatic and intricate descendants of their best Italian and French forebears.
Fair Play Fares Well
Secluded in historic Fair Play, the husband-and-wife team of Jonathan Lachs and Susan Marks tend Cedarville Vineyard. They also are inspired by and invested in Rhône varieties, particularly Viognier, Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre.
The Fair Play AVA measures 36 square miles and averages 2,500 feet in elevation. It sits atop layers of intensely decomposed granite, akin to the granite-based soils of Condrieu and Côte-Rôtie.
The sloping hills throughout Cedarville’s vineyard lend the wines a cool-climate signature. They’re still plenty structured, like most of the Sierra Foothills, but tantalizingly full of spicy, meaty and smoky characteristics, too.
Wines reveal more of damp forest floor, wood smoke and minerality than big black fruit.
Hank Beckmeyer came to the Sierra Foothills after working for a record label in Europe. He now quietly makes a name for himself as a leader in natural winemaking and experimentation through his small-production label, La Clarine Farm.
On his tiny 2-acre home vineyard that sits at 2,600 feet, Beckmeyer grows Tannat and Grenache, which he often blends together. He likes the density and firm tannins of the Tannat in combination with Grenache’s aromatics.
He has also made Viognier-Semillon-Marsanne blends as well as rosé from Syrah and Mourvèdre, foot-crushing the grapes before pressing. He doesn’t de-stem, hoping to balance out what he sees as the Foothills’ “exuberant” fruit.
Shaking Things Up
Many winemakers are exuberant about the fruit they get from Ann Kraemer of Shake Ridge Vineyards, one of the most respected names in the Sierra Foothills.
Kraemer grew up as one of eight siblings on a Southern Californian orange grove. Eventually, she moved onto farming wine grapes, serving as viticulturalist at a handful of top Napa names, including Beaulieu, Silverado, Domaine Chandon and Swanson, before getting the itch to have a vineyard of her own.
She searched throughout Northern California for the right spot. In 2001, she settled on a cleared, yet undeveloped expanse along a 1,650- to 1,810-foot ridge above the town of Sutter Creek.
At first, Kraemer worried that the region would be too hot. She soon found out that nighttime temperatures during growing season are plenty cool, as low as 50 degrees even after a 100-degree day.
Shake Ridge Vineyard has become one of the most famous sites here, 46 premium acres planted in all, its name adorned on many fine Zinfandels. Its Rhône grapes are coveted by cult Napa-based producers like Favia and Keplinger Wines.
Approximately half of her vineyard remains Zinfandel, but the next serious chunk is all Rhône—Syrah, Grenache, Viognier and Mourvèdre. She uses bits of it all for her own brand, Yorba Wines.
She’s placed Grenache and Mourvèdre in the warmer swells of her vineyard, while the Syrah and Viognier sit in cooler spots to better preserve their pretty aromatics.
Working with several different clones of Syrah, she’s able to offer winemakers a slew attractive characteristics like meaty versus spicy, and bright fruit versus very dark berry.
The Stars of Shake Ridge
Shake Ridge Vineyards has become a sought-after source for many up-and-coming-winemakers based in Napa Valley who can’t wait to get their hands on its fruit.
Among those doing great things with Shake Ridge grapes are Andy Erickson and his wife, viticulturalist Annie Favia, considered young Napa royalty. In addition to making wine under their small label, Favia, they consult to Dalla Valle, Arietta, Ovid, Harlan, Screaming Eagle and David Abreu Vineyard Management.
Favia Quarzo is the couple’s Syrah, named for the quartz crystals found in Shake Ridge’s soils.
The Favia Rompecabezas (Spanish for jigsaw puzzle) blends Grenache, Mourvèdre and Syrah. Favia’s Suize Viognier is named for a female Gold Rush prospector whose tireless spirit and dogged determination makes Erickson and Favia think of Shake Ridge’s Ann Kraemer.
Helen Keplinger makes Lithic, a blend of Grenache, Mourvèdre and Syrah from Shake Ridge. Fruit is sourced from blocks on rock-filled slopes with great exposure, wind circulation and drainage.
Vines love the ancient volcanic-red soils and rocky terrain, a mix of quartz, basalt, soapstone and shale.
Keplinger and Kraemer started working together for Keplinger’s 2007 Sumo, a Petite Sirah made in a Côte-Rôtie style, cofermented with Viognier and Syrah, that Keplinger has nicknamed the “velvet sledgehammer.”
Sierra Foothills’ Top Varieties
Marked by concentrated black fruit, tar, licorice and cedar flavors and silky, balanced tannins, these well-structured Zins are the top-billed stars of the region.
Fruity, soft and high in acidity, usually drunk young, Barbera is a fresh, food-friendly wine that many in the Foothills think could be the area’s next big thing.
Often made in a Chianti Classico style, Foothills Sangiovese is forward in rich cranberry and cherry flavor with a touch of spice; versatile with food.
Crisp, floral and creamy, this grape shows flavors of pear and melon in much of the Foothills. Its balanced minerality makes it an outstanding match with food.
A wine of great body, richness and mouthfeel, with lime, Meyer lemon, apricot and peach flavors, honey on the nose, and a slight taste of stone.
The Restaurant: Mineral
Warm Heirloom Marble Potatoes
1 pound marble potatoes, preferably a multicolored heirloom variety
3 cups mushroom stock
1 tablespoon crushed garlic
1 tablespoon black pepper
2 lime leaves
3 tablespoons olive oil, plus more to toss
Salt and black pepper, to taste
¼ cup Vegenaise or mayonnaise infused with crushed garlic and chopped rosemary to taste
½ cup smoked pitted Rainier cherries
2 tablespoons oven-dried Kalamata olives
Pea shoots or micro greens, to garnis
Combine the potatoes, mushroom stock, crushed garlic, black pepper and lime leaves in a medium stockpot and cook together until tender. Remove from heat and let cool in the cooking liquid.
Once cooled, strain the potatoes and pat dry. Toss with olive oil, salt and pepper, to taste.
In a medium-sized sauté pan, heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat until smoking. Add the potatoes and sear until cooked through.
Let cool to touch, then toss with Vegenaise/mayonnaise, cherries and olives while still slightly warm.
Garnish with pea shoots or micro greens and serve warm. Serves 6.
Chatom Vineyards Gitano Sangiovese (Calaveras County)
The Chef: Steve Rinauro, Mineral
Part of the charm of the Sierra Foothills lies in the sense of remoteness punctuated by a lack of glitz. Until recently, that also translated into a dearth of fine food. The glitz is still largely at bay, but thankfully, where there is wine there will eventually be food.
In the Amador County town of Plymouth, Mark and Tracey Berkner of Taste Restaurant are proving that if you build a wonderful restaurant with ambience and culinary gumption, the winemakers and all their guests and friends will come. Lunch, brunch and dinner are served, as well as small plates at the bar, with Monday Night Suppers the best way to bump into locals.
Taste also hosts wine dinners and free-corkage nights. The couple’s sister Volcano Union Pub and Inn in nearby Volcano is more casual, but equally good.
Most of all, the food scene has exploded in Calaveras County, centered in and around the town of Murphys. The main drag is populated almost entirely with inspired food and wine tasting options.
Many come to dine at Mineral Restaurant, a pristine, highly conceptualized vegetarian restaurant run by Steve and Maya Rinauro on Main Street. This intimate eatery puts its focus on California fusion cuisine with a constantly changing and evolving menu tied to what’s in season.
The best option at Mineral is to order A Chef’s Tour, an innovative array of Steve Rinauro’s favorite dishes. These might range from green papaya salad with a house-smoked achiote tofu, cilantro and citrus-Sriracha marinade, to the Mineral burger, housemade with organic cheddar, caramelized onions, Napa slaw, garlic aioli and cider barbecue sauce. The truffle burger is all that, with Cypress Grove Truffle Tremor goat cheese melted on top.
For Mineral’s warm heirloom potato salad, the Rinauros like to pair Calaveras County producer Chatom Vineyards’s Sangiovese. Rustic bright cherry notes in the wine seamlessly accent the Rainier cherries in the salad’s dressing. The little bite-size Marble potatoes called for are grown widely in the nearby Sacramento Valley.
Favorite Farm-to-Table Finds
Bread: Andrae’s Bakery in Amador City supplies all of Taste’s daily bread and makes pastries and desserts from scratch using locally grown products whenever possible.
Charcuterie: Smokey Ridge Charcuterie in Placerville makes artisan sausages, English-style bangers, duck confit, pâtés from Mary’s free-range chicken livers and slab bacon as well as condiments for those meaty dishes.
Mandarins: The state’s first mandarin trees were planted in Placer County around the turn of the century and dozens of mandarin growers remain in the area.
Olive Oil: Like so many California wine regions, the Sierra Foothills can grow olives and Amador Olive Oil is the best, made from a mix of ancient, never-sprayed trees and new Italian varieties.—Virginie Boone
California’s Gold Rush swept throughout the Sierra Foothills, as evidenced in the colorful names that remain, from Angels Camp to Copperopolis. Today, Highway 49 meanders past historical sites as well as winery tasting rooms.
Start at Marshall Gold Discovery Park in Coloma, where in 1848, James Marshall first noticed shiny flakes in a sawmill tailrace. Soon, nearly 100,000 would-be gold diggers descended on the area to seek their fortune—many didn’t make a cent.
Today, visitors can try gold panning at Sutter’s Mill and other locales. Columbia State Park near Sonora preserves a Gold Rush-era town with shops and restaurants.
Delve beneath the surface at underground mines and caves. A national natural landmark, Black Chasm Cavern near Volcano was used for scenes in the movie The Matrix Reloaded. In addition to viewing stalactites and stalagmites, visitors can try geode cracking and gemstone mining.
The Statue of Liberty could fit inside Moaning Cavern Adventure Park near Murphys. Three-hour caving adventures offer options of hard-hat rope rappels and zip lines. California Cavern State Historic Landmark in Mountain Ranch holds rare beaded helictites. Spelunkers can test their inner-world mettle by trekking through the knee-deep, sticky clay.—Virginie Boone
Recipe courtesy Oasis Bar, Amador City, CA
This drink, a rendezvous of French and American spirits, mirrors Golden State vintners’ mastery of French grape varieties, as well as the duality of the cocktail’s creator, bartender Pete Hertog, who’s also a minister.
1 ounce Wild Turkey Bourbon
½ ounce Domaine De Canton Ginger Liqueur
Dash of ginger ale
Fill a highball glass with ice. Combine Wild Turkey and Domaine De Canton in a shaker. Pour mixture into glass, top with ginger ale and serve. —Brandon Hernandez
And Don't Miss…
Upper Amador County hooks into Highway 50 toward Lake Tahoe. In winter, snow sports fans schuss the slopes of top resorts, including Heavenly, Kirkwood, and Sierra-at-Tahoe. In Calaveras County, 1,680-acre Bear Valley Mountain and Lodge provides family-friendly skiing and snowboarding.
Come summer, Get On Your Mark Cycling in Murphys features bicycling excursions with vineyard tours. For rugged terrain, mountain bikers and hikers head to Carson-Iceberg within the Stanislaus National Forest near Markleeville, or follow the Mokelumne Coast to Crest Trail.
The American River, site of Marshall’s original gold find, roils with whitewater rafting thrills from April to September. O.A.R.S. runs the Class III rapids on the American’s South Fork, including gourmet adventures with regional wines.—Virginie Boone
Take It Outside
Scott and Melly Klann’s playbook for the ultimate alfresco dinner party.
Scott Klann is the winemaker behind Zinfandel-focused Newsome-Harlow; his wife Melanie—whom he refers to affectionately as Melly—is a chef. Based in the Calaveras County town of Murphys, together they know their wine and food, honing in on great vineyard sites throughout the Foothills and offering companionable bites from their tasting room kitchen. Great entertainers, they prefer to keep things casual, gathering around the bocce court in their backyard or meeting friends in Murphys Park for an all-day hang out. Even in spring and fall their style of entertaining leans more towards the outdoors.
Recreate the Region
Starts off with some charcuterie and cheeses and then mostly involves grilling munchables such as one of Melanie’s grilled pizzettas. Lately Melly has been making her own krauts as well. The last batch was krauts of beet ginger, cabbage and fresh fennel stalk.
Spring/summer/fall is outdoors and airy. Winter meals usually start and end in the kitchen with the middle portion spent around a dinner table decorated with Melanie’s hand-crafted décor, usually sticks, branches and leaves put together in a fashionable display.
Evening entertaining generally moves back and forth between trip-hop, groove and electronica and also a mix of ‘80s music like Joy Division, The Smiths and The Cure peppered with smart stuff like Yo La Tengo. Some nights it’s old-school punk. Daytime entertaining focuses on guitar-oriented southern rock from bands like Lucero and some JJ Grey & Mofro.
Daytime and evening parties generally start with high-acidity whites and rosé wines with very low alcohol like Vinho Verdes and Txakolis. For dinner, selections typically move on to light- to medium-bodied reds like Pinots and Grenaches, or beyond to cool-climate Syrahs such as Hermitage and Côtes du Rhône. Often they’ll do cocktails; Scott’s a brown American whiskey fan and leans towards Bourbon and rye.
7½ tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4½ tablespoons white balsamic vinegar
3 tablespoons sliced fresh mint leaves
1½ tablespoons pomegranate molasses
1 tablespoon ground cumin
6 tablespoons minced shallot
1 pound fresh pizza dough
5 tablespoons pomegranate-cumin dressing,
1 cup coarsely grated Fontina cheese
2 sausages, grilled and sliced into 1⁄3 inch thick rounds
6 fresh figs, quartered
2 thin red onion slices, rings separated
1 cup goat cheese
Preheat a grill to medium-high heat. Prepare the pomegranate sauce by combining the olive oil, balsamic vinegar, mint, pomegranate molasses, cumin and shallot.
Split the dough in half, and roll out into two 10-inch rounds. Brush the rounds with some of the pomegranate sauce.
Grill the pizzettas, seasoned side down, until golden on bottom, about 4 minutes. Turn the pizzettas over, and top with Fontina, arugula, sausages, figs and onions. Drizzle with more pomegranate sauce.
Cover and grill until the Fontina melts and the pizzettas are cooked through, about 4 minutes.
Top with goat cheese, and grill until cheese softens, about 1 minute. Top with fresh arugula. Serves 6.
Pair with a Newsome-Harlow Big John Zinfandel (Calaveras County).
- 2Liquid Gold
- 3Sierra Foothills: Food
- 4Sierra Foothills: Travel
- 5Sierra Foothills: Entertaining