Strike it rich in the Sierra Foothills- Where wine and nature meet


California's Sierra foothills appellation spans across some of the least heralded great wine producing regions of the state. Unlike Napa and Sonoma, Cabernet Sauvignon did not serve as a historic touchstone here, though the history of wine production is almost as long. In contrast to the hype and glitter of “newer” regions propelled to fame by faddish whims, the Sierra Foothills continue to stake their claim to fame on old vine Zinfandel, as they did during the gold rush, as well as newer plantings of grapes from across Europe that adapt well to the favorable climate of the region.
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photo courtesy of: El Dorado Winery Association

The fact that these counties, eight in total, three in particular, from north to south El Dorado, Amador and Calaveras counties, are leading the way in planting exciting, new to the state, varieties, captures the pioneer spirit that continues to infuse not only the people of these beautiful hills but also the wine they produce.

For example, as opposed to competing with the so much of the state, not to mention the world, by planting Cabernet Sauvignon (not that Cabernet doesn't have it's spots in this ranging AVA) one finds Rhone style blends based on Grenache and Syrah, Vermentino, Sangiovese, and even Tempranillo!  This “prospecting for riches” carries over a long tradition, going back to Sutter's mill and the original 49er's, that's 1849, who braved the variable climate of this rugged region in search of gold.

Today's gold comes more frequently in a bottle, and some is even of the golden persuasion. All the wines of the region share a certain character that expresses the unique terroir of this interesting AVA that admittedly crosses many county borders as it travels from meso-climate to meso-climate.  One reason for such an extensive AVA is that the rolling foothills here are the key to providing welcome relief from the heat of California's central valley.

This slice of the foothills, where vines thrive in the moderate climate between 1400 and 3000 feet of elevation, is double blessed. Not only do the warm days and cool night preserve the acidity in the grapes but these conditions also extend the growing season by slowing down the ripening during the final days of the growing season. This is especially beneficial with Zinfandel since the grape clusters on many Zinfandel vines tend to have berries of varying ripeness as harvest approaches.

These hillsides are also blessed with a variety of soil types that give the wines produced here a distinctive character.  Around the 2000-foot level many patches of decomposed granite are to be found. These poor soils offer great drainage forcing the vines to struggle a bit for their survival, yielding fruit that, when mature, gives rich, rugged flavors and balanced structure to the wines they produce. At higher elevations several regions have soils of volcanic origin that can add a spicy tone to the wines and a crispness to the tannins that makes them distinct and unique additions to the pantheon of California wine.

Situated as they are between the heavily populated coastal areas of northern California and the rich beauty of the Sierra Nevada range, the foothill wineries are ideally located to be part of a true California adventure. Escaping from the herd mentality that drive tourists to Napa, Sonoma and San Francisco provides that savvy wine tripper not only a chance to taste great wines at a pace more akin to that of 1950 but serves as a gateway to some of the most impressive natural beauty one is able to find in the vast land of ours.

So next time you're thinking of a California vacation consider adding the Sierra Foothills and visits to Yosemite to your plans.  I know I will.


Amador Foothill Winery -  Leading the way with innovative wines!

With plantings that range from Aglianico to Zinfandel, it should come as no surprise that Amador Foothill Winery is leading the way with innovative wines from the Sierra Foothills. From Rose to Rhone Blend, and never forgetting the Zinfandel, this is a winery that delivers.

Amador Foothill 2008 Rosato of Sangiovese Amador  13.5%

Soil, oil, dusty earth, pollen, wild raspberry, lovely subtle spice ad herb tones,  a tuch of leather, a bit of Swedish fish, wild cherry+,  A touch sweet up front then the wash of acid cuts through the weight leaving very pure wild berry fruit tones, great interplay of acid/fruit on the palte, really zippy style with duge refreshing acids that lead to a brick finish full or wild raspberry tones with hints of earth and spice.  A lighter style in the mouth and a great rose that may lack a touch of complexity but more than makes up for it with it's extremely pretty pure fruit and texture that makes you want to drink more. A great rose 92pts

Amador Foothill  Winery 2006 Katies Cote Shenandoah Valley  14.4%
Lots of cigar box and sweet vanilla laced tones on the nose dominate the blackberry and black plum note though intriguing notes of violet, black pepper and thyme slowly emerge from the glass.  Slinky entry is immediately delicious with crisp herb inflected black fruits that have great intensity yet are not clumsy or thick. The wood adds a bit too much sweetness here yet the ample spice tones with hints of cinnamon, black pepper and juniper add a nice contrast on the back end. This finishes with a touch too much wood induced sweetness again but the tannins are lovely and crisp so this should take another year or two of age well, allowing the wood tones to soften and integrate. Very aromatic and cedary in the mouth at times, this is a rich, gutsy wine with good promise. 51% Syrah/49% Grenache 88pts

Bantam Cellars – A new winery making Shenandoah wine scene.

With only 3 vintages under their belt bantam Cellars are the new kids on the block. Following in the path blazed before them they are offering an array of Mediterranean varieties yet continue the great tradition that Zinfandel has developed in the region.

Bantam cellars 2008 Vermentino  Amador County12.5%
Quite intense mineral, almond, pear and light spiced white peach fruit on the nose. This is lovely and balanced on the nose. Good acids, a touch grapey fruit, quite grapey fruity in fact but with lemon shaded juicy Asian pear notes that are rich and satisfying.  Finishes with a touch of raspy mineral, a hint of gooseberry and surprising length. A delicious wine perfect for casual sipping and light fair. 88pts

C. G. di Arie – From the creator of Cap'n Crunch, no kidding!

Set to celebrate their first decade in business C.G di Arie makes the most of their estate fruit. With the major red varieties planted here at 1700 feet the focus here is on getting a consistent expression from these vines while relying on partner grower sto provide top-quality fruit for their non-estate wines.

G D di Arie 2008 Sauvignon Banc Shenandoah valley 13.8%

Starts out with sweetish notes of powdered sugar a sage that are joined by tropical fruit notes.  Soft and broad in the mouth with a velvety texture and juicy orchard fruit tones. A simple wine in an easy to drink style 85pts

G D Di Arie 2008 Rose Di Arie  Sierra Foothills 13.7%

Earthy sweet raspberries and fleshy black grape tones right off the bat are joined by a touch of herbs, black pepper and peach fruit.  A rich, soft style with tones of sweet red currant and plum fruit tones that are a touch spicy and hold a nice earthy center. Rich and fruity with a touch of RS yet also a nice hint of tannin to add some contrast to the texture. A touch sticky on the finish but with lingering jammy
blackberry tones. If you love a fruity rose this is for you.  50% Syrah/40% Tempranillo/10% Zinfandel 86pts

Cooper Vineyards – Offering a complete array of wines

Cooper Vineyards produces and impressive line-up of wines encompassing 17 varieties. From Pinot Grigio and Roussanne to Cabernet and Zinfandel, naturally, there is a wine for every palate. And in that inclusive spirit one can also find a pair of dessert wines, one white, and one red to tempt your taste buds.

Cooper vineyards 2008 Pinot Grigio Amador 14.9%
Rather intense citrus zest and ripe herb notes with lovely floral top notes some alcohol shows but surprising well-balanced nose.  Lots of sweet fruit up front, green berries and green plum combine with a rich, plush mouthfeel to produce a rather unusual wine. One that feels over-ripe yet maintains surprisingly good freshness of flavor; inner mouth perfume is very sweet with notes of green tea and jasmine. The wine lacks some freshening acidity but is bursting with apricot and almost guava tones. The alcohol is more apparent in the mouth but this still manages to pull it off. The finish is a touch short but this is quite an interesting wine, though certainly not for everyone. 88pts

Deaver Vineyards -  Four generations and 150 years later still going strong!

If any name should be associated with the wines of the Sierra Foothills it should be Deaver. With a proud lineage extending back to the first years of wine production in the region it's no surprise that Deaver continues to be at the forefront with great new Italian and Rhone varietals as well as the classics.

Deaver Vineyards 2008 Sauvignon Blanc Amador 13.3%
Light kiwi and grassy notes on the nose, fresh almost earthy clumps of sod tones that are less herbal than manner SB. Bright zesty and fresh on entry with a very lively and refreshing mouthfeel. Classic medium bodied Sauvignon Blanc feel with modestly fruity flavors and a nice hint of lemon pith and sweet grapefruit that leads to a medium length finish. Actually has good persistence to the modest flavors but the appeal here is drinkability. 86pts

Deaver Vineyards 2007 Sierra Foothills Chardonnay with an ATTITUDE 14.5%

Smells lemony and floral like some Muscat or Viognier made it into the blend.  The fruit is citrussy and the nose quite high pitched with salty undertones and a touch of honey, toasted spices and green anise seed.  Rich yet lively in the mouth with an impression of sweetness accentuating the deep fruit yellow fruit tones. A mouthfilling wine but well balanced with interesting layers of citrus and peach fruit.. Very clean and crisp on the finish with a touch of lingering almost coffee like toasted spice 88pts

Deaver Viognier 2007 Amador County 14%
Smells sweet with a leather fruit tone that recalls dried apricot, a hint of lanolin and a touch of water chestnut add some complexity. This gains a nice pale honey note with hints of pollen and light tobacco. Very light with an attractive airy quality even though the wine is noticeably viscous with obvious RS., but it is well balanced by the integrated acidity. Lovely honied flavors of quince, candied lime and peach round out thee mouth. The finish is a bit gentle but with nice feathery complexity and a very friendly disposition. The sweetness is a bit much for a table wine but this finishes fairly read more…dryly so it can work but is better suited as a very light dessert wine particularly well structured for a cheese course. 90pts

Deaver Vineyards NV Orange Muscat Amador 12.5%

Gorgeously fragrant nose full of black tea, orange blossom, light passion fruit and pink grapefruit tones. Really intense and fresh and gently frizzante with a honied tone to the warm citrus fruit tones and  an easy appeal. Some tea notes add a bit of depth but this is a rather sweet and slightly rich style of Moscato with long honied flavors yet not much detail. 85pts

Ironestone Vineyards – A pioneer growing premium grapes in the Foothills.

Ironstone Vineyards is one of the Sierra Foothill's premium producers of Bordeaux blends. By intelligently adding small amounts of blending grapes and allowing the wines time to age in barrel in the deep, cool caverns under the winery, Ironstone has created nuanced wines in a satisfyingly smooth style.

Ironstone 2006 Cabernet Franc Reserve Sierra Foothills 14.5%

Dark, toasty, grilled fruit notes with spicy herbs lurking, and something very meaty about this wine, Nicely gamy smells like grilling lamb over eucalyptus. Lush in the mouth with lots of rich fruit, plums, cassis, black cherry with hints of dried tomato, herb, mint, and oak,. Very nicely balanced both texturally and favor wise with there is a touch of barbq sauciness on the backend but the bright cherry tones and light vanilla note power through and dominate the long finish. A big velvety richly fruited yet fresh wine with a touch of earth at its core, and just a hint of mint chocolate shavings helping read more…to frame the fruit. Certainly is ripe Cab France 89pts

Ironstone 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Sierra Foothills 14.5%

Reticent and minty with an interesting mineral edge to the nose, smells granitic.  A touch leaner and more transparent than the CF with a redder fruit profile. Bright acids and nicely measured tannin yield a firmly medium plus bodied wine with a touch of cola/root beer spice helping to frame the astringent red fruits. The wood is really well integrated here and while this is neither super complex or super rich (a good thing) it is very well behaved in the mouth. Not particularly varietal either but rich, polished and fruity. A well-made and enjoyably drinkable wine that finishes a touch short with a Mexican cocoa note.87pts.

Morse Wines -  A leader in Rhone varieties from the Sierra Foothills

Morse Wines is a new label being utilized by the Il Gioiello Winery to differential their Rhone Varietals from their Italian bottlings. Determined to make a name for both schools in the Foothills, Morse offer carefully crafted small lots of wines that offer a new interpretation of French Classics.

Morse 2007 Ensemble Blanc 55% Viognier/45% Roussanne Sierra Foothills 15.1%

A bit slow to open with soft floral tones married to deep, almost honied, quite smoky baked banana peel, and preserved lemon tones, Gains a big acacia tone with air. Rich with good acidity and a nice mineral edge to the deep orchard fruit tones. Real snap to the flavors and fine balance with rather restrained kwi and goosebbery notes that gain the upper hand on the back end with an interesting candied floral top note and lingering sweet/mineral tension on the moderate finish. Excellent complexity and balance in this very solid wine. 90pts

Shenandoah Vineyards- A pioneering winery in California's Shenandoah Valley

With a broad array of small lot reserve wines, Shenandoah Vineyards offers a complimentary line-up to the Sobon family's eponymous winery. Actually the first of the 2 brands Shenandoah Vineyards continues as a leading producer of wines that represent a classic style that can only be associated with California's Shenandoah Valley.

Shenandoah Vineyards 2007 Special Reserve Zinfandel Amador 14.4%

Subtle and soft blackberries, peach and black plum skins contrast with a hint of baking spice and coconutty oak tones on the nose.   Very sweetly fruited entry, nice balance with good acidity and very soft tannins give the moderately spicy but very fruity style with a soft, friendly feel.  Full of sweet, vanilla toned black plum and blackberry fruit, on the short finish. Classic Amador Zin though. 86 pts

Sobon – a family affair dedicated to sustainable farming, and great wine!

The Sierra Foothill's forte has always been their deep, flavorful old vine Zinfandel. Many of these hillside vineyards were originally planted to supply the 49ers and now are gloriously mature. Sobon has consistently captured the wonderful fruit of these vines, allowing them to express themselves in classic style.

Sobon Estate 2008 Roussanne Amador 14.1%
Great nose, lots of boiled chestnuts and toasted chestnut shells, intense with a noticeable yet integrated oak backdrop. Lilacs, white pepper and very light mangosteen fruit.  Decidedly soft in the mouth with a rich, viscous feel and initial honied fruit note that yields to an almost strawberry tinged mid-palate with rich orange tones and a touch of butter cream.  The finish returns to a more citrussy vein with a nicely floral inner mouth perfume of almost tropical orange blossoms. Big rich balanced and different this is a winner 90pts

Sobon Estate ReZerve 2008 Rose Amador 13.6%
Mineral, strawberry, herb and roast pork with a hint of rosemary and a hint of flowers on the nose give this a succulent and savory appeal.  Dry and crisp with good focus in the mouth. This is a touch tight even with a subtle richness and lovely, slightly tannic red berry and sweet pomegranate tones with a touch of papaya and papaya seed spice. Wonderful fruit and subtle spice tones linger on the moderately long finish. Great balance and freshness here make this really lovely. Grenache/Syrah/Carignan 90pts

Sobon Estate 2007 Old Vines Zinfandel Amador 14.9%

A touch of fudge and moist earth with lovely brambly notes of sapwood, herb and wild black raspberry fruit edged with a touch of pipe tobacco. Pure black raspberry fruit on entry, very good acids, lots of sweet fruit here, nice top notes of briar and bramble. Nice purity of well-expressed yet uncomplicated fruit. A wine for drinking, not for thinking about. Finishes with a slightly jammier tone and more wood spice but still nicely balanced and fresh 87pts

Story Winery – A lovely white surprise from a great Zin producer.

Story Winery has made a name for themselves producing small lots of old-vine Zinfandel from great vineyard sites in Amador county.  In true pioneer spirit they have also explored several white wines enjoying the fruit from these unusual head-pruned and dry farmed vineyards.

Story Winery 2007 Chenin Blanc Shenandoah  15%
A touch funky right out of the bottle with notes of caramel, butterscotch and quince paste over a funky chalky earth, seashell and herb base. Deceptively light bodied with gentle flavors of apple, apple butter and pressed flowers slowly building in the glass. Holds its 15% amazing well. The subtle flavors power through on the medium length finish adding notes or biter orange marmalade and a light cashew brittle tone. Before gaining a nice mouth grabbing chalky tone again. A very subtle wine that will rise to the occasion pairing well with a wide variety of foods. 87pts

Story Winery 2006 Picnic Hill Old Vines Zinfandel Shenandoah  Valley 16%
Light vanilla tones are backed by lots of astringent red fruits, red currant and pomegranate, with a hint of herb and roast meatiness.  Enters with sweet red fruits, slightly exotic berries fruits, fruit di bosco, nice freshness and good balance that help to hide it's 16% Very candied but in a fresh way, sugared raspberries with a peppery cinnamon edge for balance, Nice crisp tannins and a lovely stemmy tone add length to the finish.  88pts

Story Winery 2006 Creekside Vineyard Old Vines Zinfandel 16%
Really briary aromas in the glass are joined by smoky earth tones and reduced wild raspberry notes with hints of lightly spiced cranberry and orange rind.  Rich and velvety, this has power and depth with a slightly sweet character that accentuates the rich wild cherry and astringent, spicy red fruit tones. A mouthfilling wine that is a touch minty and medicinal on the finish with a nice tannic bite that helps balance the RS. This is a monster wine; serve it with cheese or instead of dessert. Really spicy notes gain prominence on the midpalate.  Finishes with a really intense red hots tone. A divisive wine for sure but it's pretty cool. 90pts

Story Winery 2006 Alitia Vineyard Zinfandel Shenandoah Valley 16%
Smells like leather and ass and not in a bad way. Slow to open, with slightly buttery licorice tinged tight black fruit. Tight concentrated and velvety with a deep savory core folded up with black currant and dry, not terrible sweet mulberry fruit. This is reticent yet with excellent balance that gives it an elegance that their other wines lack. Shares a touch of that peppery cinnamon with lovely dried herb notes and lots of potential but this needs another year to express itself. 88pts

Vino Noceto – This Tuscan styled estate is a relative newcomer to the region.

Recognizing that the climate of Amador County's Shenandoah Valley was Mediterranean in nature, family owned Vino Noceto took a brave and unique path, choosing to focus on premium Sangiovese based wine as opposed to sticking to the Zinfandel roots of the region.

Noceto 2008 Pinot Grigio Clarksburg/Amador 13%

Light rainwater, clay and floral tones on the nose give this an airy note before they are joined by fragrant pear fruit with a hint of dried pineapple.  Round and soft but not flabby, in fact nicely balanced on a rich if medium bodied frame that supports soft, juicy fruit flavors with grace notes of mint and almond and herb that lead to a slightly sweet finish that hints at baked apple with a nice almond tone. 86

Noceto 2006 Sangiovese Shenandoah Valley 14%
Very intense sweet cherry, vanilla and soft toast notes greet the nose.  There is a slight medicinal note that combines with the black cherry fruit to give this a slight cough lozenge note. A nice hint of herb adds complexity.  Big, rich sweet cherry fruit with just a hint of oak is well supported by tannins are a touch astringent, as they should be, and good acidity giving this a refreshing feel. Very medium bodied and with lightness that keeps this centered in the mouth despite the intensity of the rather simple yet pure cherry fruit. On the backend it turns a bit spice with a nice flourish of strawberry and herb adding to the long finish.  Very solid wine and great for the bar-b-q this summer. 90pts

Noceto 2008 Frivolo Moscato Bianco California 7.1%
Delicious smelling with note of lemon, lime leaf, powder sugar and hints of angelica root and white tea, with a gently biscuit note. Just ever so softly frizzante with good acidity balancing the rather light, fresh citrus driven flavors. Plenty sweet but with a touch of lightness on the palate, really attractive flavors of subtle ginger inflected candied citrus fruits, with good length, lovely and freaking delicious 88pts

Gregory Dal Piaz

Community Manager


Mentioned in this article


  • Snooth User: dmcker
    Hand of Snooth
    125836 4,986

    Was wondering where you were off to, but it looks like a plumber's holiday on your way to Sonoma. ;-) Good call on the Sierra Foothills, and nice coverage of recent offerings. Though I won't be holding my breath over here in Tokyo, I'll still be keeping a lookout for the Amador Rosato di Sangiovese and the Sobon Roussane and Rose.

    Keep those reports coming, but also enjoy your trip!

    Jul 31, 2009 at 4:40 AM

  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 238,748

    The wines are certainly lovely and even though this is quite a limited selection I think one can see that the quality, and value these wines offer compete with any in the state. Some lovely wines and I really think Sangiovese has found it California home.

    Jul 31, 2009 at 5:15 AM

  • Snooth User: Derek67
    Hand of Snooth
    32027 694

    Noceto is a heaven for sangio. Did you get a chance to try their barbera or zin?


    Aug 03, 2009 at 3:49 AM

  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 238,748

    No and I am particularly enamored with barbera in California so now you have my attention.

    The Sangio was a particularly good example!

    Aug 03, 2009 at 4:42 AM

  • Snooth User: Derek67
    Hand of Snooth
    32027 694

    Too bad. We do make a handful of good ones, but they tend to be very different from the Italian Barberas. If you get a chance try Unti or Sunce Barbera. They may change your mind. The Noceto barbera is very good when the grapes have a good year.

    Aug 03, 2009 at 6:33 AM

  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 238,748

    Derek, that was i AM particularly enamored!

    From the old Sebastiani's and Montevina's of the 70's through the Eberle and Renwoods of the 90's, the 1994 Linstandt Reserve is my all time favorite, I have always found something to love in California Brbera!

    Aug 03, 2009 at 8:17 AM

  • Jon Sole

    Where can I find a good OAKEY Chardonnay? Have all the oak trees in France died or has the steel tank industry bought them all? Will appreciate your help.

    Aug 04, 2009 at 3:09 AM

  • Snooth User: Derek67
    Hand of Snooth
    32027 694

    Got ya…I read too fast;-)

    Also, try some Seghesio. The 2004 was one of the best wines I have had recently. I remember being out with friends in the mid-80s and having a 1977 Mondavi barbera and a 1975 Martini. Both were killer.

    Have fun in Sonoma!

    Aug 04, 2009 at 11:52 AM

  • Snooth User: Philip James
    Founding Member Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    1 12,575

    Jon - whats your price range? much of the chardonnay from napa is very oakey (and i love it). If you give me a price range, i can point you towards a few of my favorites

    Aug 05, 2009 at 2:40 AM

  • Jonna Cobb

    Thank you for giving the Sierra Nevada Foothills the terrific exposure! Well written and amazing descriptions. Some of us working in this industry and region are third generation Zin heads who are trying to move with the times and offer exceptional wines at value oriented prices. Thanks again for the article and attention. Live, laugh, love and visit Amador!

    Aug 05, 2009 at 3:12 AM

  • Snooth User: karin7771
    264903 1

    Drinking a wine from the Sierra Nevada Foothills years ago was my first introduction to red wine. We used to stay at a place along the Tule River. We called it the rocks as there are big granite water holes to swim in. this article brought back lots of memories!

    Sep 27, 2009 at 12:37 AM

  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 238,748

    Thanks to all for the kind words. I look forward to a visit to Amador, and trying to find those swimming holes!

    Oct 05, 2009 at 12:39 PM

  • Snooth User: napagirl68
    Hand of Snooth
    87843 2,860

    OK... this is one of my stomping grounds... Love shenandoah valley(amador). Where are the Viognier reviews? I think Amador has the best Viognier. Also, Domaine de la Terre Rouge is an awesome visit... GREAT Barbera!

    Jan 16, 2010 at 1:25 AM

  • Snooth User: napagirl68
    Hand of Snooth
    87843 2,860

    Oops! I see you did one Viognier review... this is a Viognier region, as well as Barbera, and sangio..

    Jan 16, 2010 at 1:28 AM

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