AMADOR CITY, Calif. — In the heart of Gold Country, dozens of anecdotes pepper the guest book at the Mine House Inn, a nine-room B&B housed in the former Keystone Consolidated Mining Co. Our Vault Room--the inn's most popular--holds the walk-in safe where Keystone kept $24 million in gold bullion.
"We stayed up all night trying to figure out the combination to the vault," one guest wrote. "We heard the ghost of ole Zedediah trying to escape from the vault," noted another, apparently referring to the ghost of a miner.
During two nights in the spacious room, with its high ceilings, Victorian antiques and flickering fireplace-heater, my husband, Paul, and I didn't hear a ghost trying to get out of the vault, nor were we able to break in. But the Gold Rush lore was a bonus to the real reason we came: Just a 20-minute drive northeast from Amador City is the Shenandoah Valley, which produces some of the best Zinfandel grapes in California.
In the Gold Rush days, the Shenandoah Valley was considered the breadbasket of the Sierra foothills; today it is fast becoming a popular wine-touring destination. Jill Murphy, executive director of the Amador Vintners Assn., says the number of tourists has risen 20% in the last two years.
Make no mistake: Amador County's wine country can't match Napa's for beauty or creature comforts. In the fall, the rolling hills are the color of a palomino, and the oak and walnut trees look faded under a veneer of dust from hot, dry winds. Visitors will find no Dean & DeLuca for gourmet picnic supplies, no French Laundry for fine dining and no Meadowood resort for luxury accommodations.
But Paul and I quickly discovered that Amador County's wine country has its own appeal. We found none of the congestion on the roads or the corporate sell in the tasting rooms that we've encountered in Napa.
Amador's 20 or so wineries are within about 10 miles of each other, and several are within walking distance. They are mostly small operations, where owners often pour the wines for tasting.
With prices for meals and lodging in Amador County so reasonable, you could almost call this region the poor man's Napa. But that wouldn't be fair to the wines--especially the Zinfandels--which are impressive.
Paul and I started our trip last fall on a Friday night, flying from Burbank to Sacramento and renting a car for the 70-minute drive east to Amador City. I phoned the Mine House Inn to say we wouldn't arrive until 9:30 p.m. Paula, the manager, advised us to grab dinner on the way. The one restaurant in Amador City, population 150, and the few places in nearby Sutter Creek, she explained, close by 9 p.m.
At Paula's suggestion, we stopped at the Sloughhouse, the only restaurant we saw on California 16, midway between Sacramento and Amador City. The clapboard building dates to 1850 and retains some of its rough-and-tumble roadhouse charm. In the bar, men wearing Stetsons and cowboy boots were tossing back long-neck beers. In the dining room, the fare tended toward decent bourbon-sauced steaks and greasy french fries.
Indeed, few lights were on in Amador City by the time we turned south onto California 49 (Main Street) and pulled into the parking lot of the Mine House Inn.
After checking in, Paul and I each had a go at cracking the safe in our room, then gave up and crawled under the covers of the calico-quilted bed. We heard no ghosts, only the occasional grinding of gears as semis chugged down the hill on the highway under our window.
Saturday morning, after a breakfast of homemade quiche, blueberry muffins, fresh fruit and yogurt (included in the nightly rate), Paul and I set off for the Shenandoah Valley.
Our first stop was Sobon Estate in Plymouth, one of the oldest wineries in the valley. Sobon has, in addition to a tasting room, a quaint museum with winery and farm tools dating to the Gold Rush, when crops were raised here for the miners. I liked the lush, ruby-colored Zinfandel with hints of blackberry and the refreshing, grassy, organically grown Viognier.
From there we drove down winding country lanes to Shenandoah Vineyards, also owned by the Sobon family. Perched on a hill in Plymouth, the vineyard offers a sweeping view of the valley and has an art gallery in addition to a tasting room.
Across the road are more family-owned wineries. At Deaver Vineyards, a tiny winery on the edge of a pond, we talked to Vicki Delpart, the tasting room manager. She explained that for years before the Deavers began bottling their own wine, they sold their Zinfandel grapes to wineries such as Sutter Home in Napa. Many Napa bottlers, in fact, get their Zinfandel grapes from the Shenandoah Valley because Zinfandel grapes thrive in the hot, dry climate and the iron-rich red soil.
We visited six wineries in all. We sipped and spit like sensible tasters and bought six bottles of our favorites (averaging $12 each).