Rediscovering Gold Country

Once beautiful but sleepy, the little towns of the Sierra foothills are growing more sophisticated. Autumn is the perfect time to explore them.

Photo: Brown Cannon III

The Berkners had worked in hotels and restaurants in Colorado and the Bay Area, and they could have landed anywhere. But they chose Plymouth. "This little Main Street needed us," Mark says. "We're going to give it a shot in the arm."

One measures the changes in the Gold Country in many ways: in the menu at Taste, in the cost of real estate, in the signs advertising yoga classes and family therapists on the 19th-century main streets. ("Tarnation!" you think to yourself. "The forty-niners didn't need no yoga or family therapists! They just whittled!") But maybe the best way is to drive the wine country: El Dorado, Amador, and Calaveras Counties.

Wine has a long history here. Boeger Winery, near Placerville, has roots that go back to the 1850s. Still, it's just in the last few years that Gold Country winemaking has taken off.

The launch is ironically tied to those winemaking roots. Nowhere else in California is a wine region as multifaceted as the Sierra foothills identified with just one wine: Zinfandel. Many of these hills were planted in Zin during the post-Gold Rush years by would-be-rich miners forced to return to more traditional ways of making a living from the earth.

The demand for Zinfandel survived because of an enormous audience who knew very little about true red Zin but who bought copious amounts of the grape in the form of sweet white Zinfandel. Sierra foothills vines supplied this taste and were saved from extinction.

In the last decade or so, though, red Zin has regained a passionate following. And Amador and El Dorado Counties are producing some of the state's most intense versions. Gold Country Zins are not for the timid. Their fruit is almost pruny ripe and earthy, their high alcohol levels often pushing up past 15 percent. But the best are in balance, with acid and tannins to match. They're spectacular wines. And they've been joined by Rhône grapes (Syrah, Mourvèdre, Viognier), Italian grapes (Barbera, Sangiovese), and most recently, a Spanish grape (Tempranillo) ― all worth watching.

Family vintages

A common denominator of most Gold Country wineries is that they're family-owned, not corporate, operations. Take a twisting road from Placerville, for example, and you come to Holly's Hill Vineyards. Carrie Bendick had lived in Washington and Utah before returning to California, where her father, Tom Cooper, planted vineyards on the family property - and made her winemaker. Now Bendick and her husband, Josh, earn gold medals for their Rhône-style wines.

A few miles away live Chaim Gur-Arieh, a former Bay Area-based food scientist (among other things, he helped create Cap'n Crunch cereal), and his wife, Elisheva, an artist. They had long wanted to make wine and spent years scouring Napa and Sonoma. Then they were invited to the bat mitzvah for the daughter of a Gold Country winemaker. "The moment we drove into the Shenandoah Valley," Chaim says, "my heart started pounding. Elisheva said,  'This is it. We've found it.' "



  • Holly's Hill Vineyards

    Gold Country autumn

    Escape into the Sierra foothills for new inns, fine dining, and family-owned wineries

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