Monday, March 23, 2009

Wine-Tasting, From the Perspective of a Decidedly Non-Snobby Wine Drinker

My wife Katie and I are very proud of California's viticultural heritage. As people who enjoy and appreciate a good glass of wine (or several), we consider ourselves quite fortunate to live close to so many American Viticultural Areas, or AVAs. Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley, certainly the two best-known wine-producing regions in California, are at most a two-hour drive from our home, and invariably make a fun wine-tasting getaway whether we are alone or with a group of friends.

Last weekend, however, we spent our Saturday visiting the California Shenandoah Valley AVA, which can be found in Northern California's Amador and El Dorado Counties. There are sixteen wineries in this region, itself a part of the larger Sierra Foothills AVA. The region is known for its Zinfandels, which tend to be more sumptuous and robust than those from other regions.

We took our first visit to the wineries of Amador County one Saturday last September. We found a list of the wineries in the region, looked at their websites, and culled reviews of each from the internet before assembling a list of the ones we wanted to taste at. One of these was Renwood, which was highly recommended by regular readers of this blog MrManuel and Miss Sassy Pants. It was a beautiful early-autumn afternoon as we drove along scenic rural backroads, basking in warm sunshine and optimistic about discovering an exciting new wine to bring home. As we turned onto Shenandoah School Road in the town of Plymouth, however, we came upon Wilderotter Vineyard and, tired of being in the car, decided to make an unscheduled stop for good wine, complimentary snacks, and engaging conversation in the tasting room.

After two more unscheduled stops at Bella Piazza and CG di Arie Wineries, we came to the first winery that was actually on our list, Montevina. This winery featured the most extensive selection of wines we saw that day, all available for tasting. Unfortunately, before we were halfway through their list it was clear that we were approaching our limit, in spite of a generous selection of snacks. We didn't last much longer, and we certainly didn't make it to Renwood.

Our second visit to Amador County this past Saturday was decidedly less sunny; the sky was a lifeless gray all day, and when it wasn't raining it was hailing. Although we made no list this time, we were determined to stop at Renwood, and used its address on Steiner Street in Plymouth as a destination for our GPS to guide us to. With no set itinerary, we stopped first at Bray Vineyards, touted as "Home of the Brayzin Hussy Red" on signage throughout the grounds. A placard along the main driveway depicts the aforementioned hussy reclining in a bathtub while enjoying a glass of wine.

One of Bray's logos, depicted on a yellow traffic sign, features a farmer popping a wheelie on a tractor while drinking wine directly from the bottle. In the tasting room, Bray sells apparel with this logo, accompanied by the slogan "Farm Responsibly".

Among the wines we tasted were Bray's 2007 Viognier and Barbera Rosato, their 2006 Barbera and the aforementioned Brayzin Hussy red, their 2005 Sangiovese, and their 2004 Syrah. Although I found the Brayzin Hussy quite good for what is essentially table wine, our only purchase from Bray was a bottle of their extra virgin olive oil, which we sampled with bread after we'd finished tasting. It was delicious, and will certainly be put out the next time we have dinner guests.

We made no other unscheduled stops and continued on to Renwood.

Though we hadn't made it there on our previous trip, we had tried their wine late last year, and we were looking forward to trying more. Renwood's tasting room was larger than many we've been to, but other than the two of us, it was empty. This was surprising, especially in light of the fact that Bray's much smaller room was crowded. We spent a few minutes browsing Renwood's selection of merchandise, including cookbooks, clothing and art. I considered getting a black baseball cap with their logo to add to my extensive collection, but ultimately left without it.

Among the selections that we tried were Renwood's 2005 Old Vine and Jack Rabbit Flat zinfandels, as well as the 2005 Barbera Amador County and Amador Syrah. We finished our tasting with a trio of dessert wines, including their 2007 Orange Muscat, which I especially enjoyed. Katie is less interested in dessert wines, port especially, but she also found the Orange Muscat pleasant, not particularly heavy or syrupy, with a number of compelling aromas and flavors.

Our third and final stop of the day was Deaver Vineyards, situated beside a small lake. We sampled a number of wines here, though by then I admit that remembering the specifics was the farthest thing from my mind. We did enjoy their Deaver's Blend, which was a mixture of Sangiovese (65%), Zinfandel (25%) and Barbera (10%); and we also tasted their 2004 Sangiovese, 2005 Barbera and Pinot Noir, and 2006 Zinfandel. Wanting sustenance, we also sampled the various cheeses, spreads and condiments Deaver offered for sale, and ended up buying a jar each of their tangerine habanero mustard (which I look forward to eating on a hot link or other sausage on a bun) and their apricot red pepper jelly (which will probably be paired up with cream cheese and crackers during an upcoming party).

In spite of the weather, the winding roads leading into Amador County, and the fact that I was driving, it was a terrific day. On our way out of Plymouth, I even returned to Renwood for that baseball cap.


  1. Glad you had a good time. I found that area very pleasant and free of snobbery which was nice. I remember that sign with the tractor from our trip there. Though it was funny then too!

  2. I'm glad you enjoyed Renwood as much as we did. I think the Amador area is very nice - not only do they have good wineries, but they also have cute little towns like Sutter's Creek.